Saturday 24 March 2018

Rise and fall of last Mancunian to play in derby for Sky Blues

Michael Johnson tells Mark Ogden how mental health problems ended his promising playing career and left him facing a bleak future

Michael Johnson in action against Carlos Tevez during the Manchester derby in August 2007. Photo: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Michael Johnson in action against Carlos Tevez during the Manchester derby in August 2007. Photo: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Mark Ogden

Michael Johnson does not look back in anger or with regret at his missed opportunity with Manchester City, but being the subject of a Mancunian quiz question brings a rueful smile and recognition of at least one achievement at the club.

Not since the then 19-year-old started City's 1-0 victory against Manchester United in August 2007 has a Manchester-born player represented blue against red and there appears little prospect of Johnson being written out of the record books any time soon.

"It's hard to believe, but I suppose that's the way football has gone," Johnson said. "The last I heard, there are a few Spanish kids in the pipeline at City who are promising, but I'm not aware of any Manchester lads."

Had fate been kinder to Johnson, the 27-year-old could have been the central figure in Manuel Pellegrini's City team in tomorrow's 169th Manchester derby at Old Trafford.

Handed his debut at 18 by Stuart Pearce and billed as "England's next big star" by Sven-Goran Eriksson before being the subject of a £12 m bid from Liverpool in the summer of 2008, Johnson was regarded as the jewel in the crown of City's pre-Abu Dhabi youth set-up.

But a succession of injuries - hamstring, double hernia and knee - halted the midfielder's progress and coincided with a battle against depression, which resulted in him having huge problems with his weight, before his contract was cancelled by City in late 2012, with Johnson just 24.

His is a story of a wasted talent, which includes treatment at the Priory and a three-year drink-driving ban, but speaking for the first time since leaving City, Johnson insists he has learnt to live again after escaping the 'toxic' environment of professional football.

"It is a long road," Johnson said. "There has been a lot of reflection, a lot of hard work mentally to get myself in a good place. It is about being positive.

"Being out of that environment has been a big thing too because it became quite toxic for me. In terms of feeling good about myself, I had to get out of it."

Having been described as both the new Colin Bell and next Steven Gerrard, Johnson admits he buckled under the pressure of living up to the hype.

"It would affect anybody," he said. "Pressure affects everybody, but people deal with it in different ways. We all have different skill sets, whether it is football or any job, and I don't think I had the best skill sets to deal with it.

"That was part of the reason why I wasn't able to make the most of my ability, along with the injuries.

"I am not being in any way critical of City, but the general view within the game is that you are a footballer, you are paid well, so there must be a roadblock somewhere.

"People in the game sometimes forget that footballers are humans, but, unfortunately, it is a macho industry, so it was difficult.

"Football is a hard environment and people deal with it in different ways. Some love the structure and thrive on the pressure. But other people, introverted people, maybe don't like it or embrace it in the same way.

"It affected me in a negative way and it is one of the reasons why I opted to get out of it, to help myself."

With Clarke Carlisle and Stan Collymore both speaking candidly about their own battles against depression during and after their playing careers, Johnson believes his career could have blossomed had the support networks of today been in place when he was at City.

"City looked after me and Brian Marwood and physio Robin Sadler were very supportive," Johnson said. "But it was a difficult situation and a lot has moved on since my problems began in 2008. Mental health was a real taboo subject in football then, the game didn't know how to deal with it, but people are more aware now.

"If I was going through my problems at a football club now, it maybe would have been different because other things are in place now."

When he left City, Johnson issued a brief statement asking to be "left alone so I can get on with my life", following the publication of a photograph which portrayed him as overweight and out of condition in a fast food outlet.

Today, he is healthy and positive, admitting he bears no grudge over the publication of the photograph.

"I don't blame anyone really," he said.

"That was just the way it was. I wasn't dealing with things very well, I was getting into bad habits, but by then I had finished with City for a number of months; it just hadn't been made public.

"If things had gone differently for me, I do believe that I could have been part of this current City team, but the way you have to look at it is not to have regrets.

"You make decisions because you felt they were right at the time, so I don't have any regrets.

"I have got into property and have a bar opening in Didsbury within the next six weeks.

"It's exciting and there are a lot of stresses involved with it, but as not as much as football in my opinion." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Manchester United v Manchester City, live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow 4.00pm

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