The Withering of Adam Johnson
Lyrics and music by Scott Oliver
To say that it came as a surprise to hear, recently, that Adam Johnson had signed a contract extension with Manchester City keeping him at the club until 2016 would be something of an understatement. After all, those City-watchers (of which there are more and more each month) not privy to conversations between Johnson and the management could reasonably have surmised that he had hit the buffers at Eastlands, a ‘luxury player’ with whom Roberto Mancini had lost patience, if not actual faith.
There was, it seemed, an illuminating moment in the Manchester City second string’s 5-2 Carling Cup evisceration of Wolves at Molineux at the end of October, a moment reprised when the two clubs met three days later at the Etihad. I’m talking, of course, about Johnson’s expressionless, bunraku face in response to rifling home crucially important 20-odd-yard drives, both whipped to precision past helpless ’keepers, the latter after 10-man City had just conceded a penalty to have their two-goal lead halved, the former at the start of a four-minute blitzkreig in which he also set up two more goals, one for Nasri, one for Džeko. “He’s just scored a worldy”, opined Merse on Sky Soccer Saturday between the two games, “and then he does that? Nah. That ain’t on”.
At the time, I wondered what to make of such behaviour. Was this just temporary dissatisfaction, or symptomatic of a player whose tether-end had been reached? Just how deep did the young Wearsider’s exasperation at his current situation run? Well, taking the contract extension at face value, not very, it would appear. At a stroke, my fevered rumination on the implications – for both the player’s career and the England team’s prospects – of this putative unhappiness (of which I am still to be entirely disabused) were seemingly made redundant. (If he were to leave, I thought, then he probably wouldn’t displace Nani or Young across town, nor Bale or Lennon at Spurs, while Arsenal and Chelsea’s systems don’t really suit – then where better than Liverpool…)
Regardless of what the contract extension tells us vis-à-vis Johnson’s present state of mind, it was an open secret that he has been more than a little disgruntled at his recent treatment by Roberto Mancini, a man who seemed to have run out of carrots where his young winger was concerned and who had this season publically rebuked Johnson’s efforts on more than one occasion, his ululated “…but I feenk ‘e cann-a do better” becoming something of a refrain in his post-match platitudes. Indeed, seven days prior to the Carling Cup clash with Wolves – and before the (perhaps epochal) 6-1 romp across town (in which he played no part) – Johnson was unceremoniously withdrawn from the home Champions League tie with Villareal in the fortieth minute, shaking his head in apoplexy – though stopping short of the outright dissent that Tévez and Džeko had displayed in Munich – as Barry was introduced to play alongside De Jong, and Yaya Touré was pushed forward. Despite the restraint, it was abundantly clear that the winger was seething, for the mouth-agape head-shaking continued on the bench right up to half-time; and it was also clear that, more generally, Johnson was not in total agreement with his stick-wielding manager’s somewhat blunt verdicts on his performance-level. Thus it was with a shrug of acceptance that the footballing fraternity greeted news that Johnson, ostensibly sick of Mancini’s mild yet persistent barbs, had refused to board the coach back from Wolverhampton. Tiff or schism, their relationship had deteriorated remarkably quickly.
It would appear that Mancini’s major bone of contention was with his winger’s tracking-back. Johnson, meanwhile, must feel that his attacking output and cutting edge merits considerably more game time than he’s been afforded. Perhaps the toughness of Mancini’s tough love was, and is, borne of a renewed confidence in his own position in the wake of the Tévez affair, emboldening him to the point of heavy-handedness with an English starlet who, given a run of games, has the raw ability to step up a level and join David Silva and Yaya Touré among the club’s most influential players. In fact, I’ve spoken to a top-level continental footballer who rates him as one of the most dangerous players in Europe. Bar none. (OK, so I made that last bit up. But it was plausible, no? There wasn’t a single one of you who said “Fuck off! That’s bollocks!” Admit it: you either said “Yeah, I can see that” or maybe even “Too fucking right”.)
At any rate, it is arguable that Johnson offers something that no-one else in the City squad, with the possible exception of Balotelli, quite does: natural, raw dribbling. However, in the absence of any need to alter their overall modus operandi significantly, notwithstanding the defeat in Naples, and while the petrodollar-guzzling juggernaut rolls on, this underused facet of the squad (and the possible man-managerial implications for Mancini) may be of only secondary concern to the Blues.The league table serves as Mancini’s vindication.
Despite the new contract and its implicit recognition of that raw talent, the evidence is pretty compelling that Mancini doesn’t yet trust Johnson. He is only the twelfth-busiest outfield player at City (fractionally ahead of a resurgent Balotelli), having made four Premier League starts and come off the bench in a further five games, scoring three goals in the process. Significantly, however, the four games in which he has played no part at all could be considered, on paper, the most difficult: certainly, trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and White Hart Lane fit that bill, while Everton at home has been a difficult fixture of late, City losing 1-2, 0-2, 0-1, and 0-2 over the last four seasons.
Yet what of the implications of all this bench-warming for his inclusion in the England squad for Euro 2012? After all, with Mancini’s compatriot, Fabio Capello, having shown himself time and again to be dogmatic about picking people on the basis of club form, it is understandable that Johnson might feel nervous about his participation in Poland and Ukraine, particularly having missed out on South Africa. One of the brightest emerging talents in English football, he will be 25 this summer and, whatever his public pronouncements, he could be forgiven for feeling that his time sitting on the sidelines has been served, certainly at club level. A first major tournament at 27 would be a scandal for a player of his abilities.
It could be that leaving Eastlands would have given him the best chance of securing the regular first-team football that could propel him to the forefront of Capello’s thoughts, and that City’s contract offer has merely tried to ward this off. If Capello wishes to go for two inverted wingers in a 4-2-3-1, as seems the case, then Johnson is ostensibly competing with former Middlesbrough teammate Stewart Downing and Theo Walcott (Lennon seemingly out of favour) to play on the opposite flank to Ashley Young. A little over a year ago, he was flying toward the front of that queue, having scored the third in a four-goal romp past Bulgaria at Wembley on competitive debut. Four days later he slid home an excellent goal in England’s 3-1 win against the Swiss in Basel, a shallow run off the right flank being found by a Gerrard pass that was taken slickly round the advancing keeper and dispatched with aplomb. He was rewarded for these substitute performances with a full 90 minutes in the next match – the 0-0 draw with Montenegro – but played only 20 minutes in the remaining five qualifiers.
While the fact that Johnson had still been having an impact when he came on for City speaks volumes for his raw ability, he nevertheless looked rusty and out of rhythm (vital for the winger’s art) for England against Spain. It is surely the case that he now needs more regular game time. He is a mercurial talent, a player who – all joking aside – would doubtless be more highly valued on the continent, yet one who, despite his rare gifts, seems curiously underappreciated here. Then again, we do have a certain amount of previous as far as maverick talents…
The 1970s was the golden era of wasted talent – a World Cup won with bulldog discipline (and home advantage) saw Sir Alf Ramsay and then Don Revie (tri-)lionize the prosaic at the expensive of the outré, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington, Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh, Peter Osgood, Charlie George, Tony Currie et al doubtless pulling their not insignificant hair out at the injustice of it all as they amassed a mere 46 caps between them. Or, to put it another way, four more than David Batty.
Unlike space-hoppers, flares and police fit-ups for suspected terrorists, however, this creativity-aversion at the FA was not just a phenomenon of the 1970s. English football seems to have possessed a couple of players in each decade who were, if not outcasts exactly, then woefully undervalued. The 1980s ought to have been bestridden by Glenn Hoddle, yet he won a comparatively paltry 53 caps, while the likes of winger Peter Barnes (22) and playmaker Micky Hazard (0) were left unpolished or untouched. The 1990s was the decade of the great enigma of English football, Matt Le Tissier, a man with the most natural, languid strike of the ball, good enough to have an entire Goal of the Season devoted to him and a player admired by the young Xavi, no less, but who won only a paltry 7 caps. The noughties’ great underachievers are harder to pinpoint, if only because the continual exposure to Champions League football and the influx of enlightened continental methods has brought a torrent of modernity flushing through the shit-filled Augean Stable of the Charles Hughes/Don Howe ‘philosophy’, but someone like Joe Cole, despite his 56 caps, remains a player who, a scapegoat all too often, has withered where he might have bloomed. Is this the tradition of neglect that Adam Johnson will prolong?
Irrespective of the fact that it is two Italians presently holding him back, there is hardly a tub-thumping, tabloidal outcry for him to be more frequently utilized by In-ger-land; and it is not as though we – or football – are blessed with natural dribblers (the sort who can beat men from a standing start and not just through raw speed in stretched games: Ginola, Di Canio, and their ilk). When all is said and done, there’s a simple truism with football: some people have got it, some haven’t. And either we just don’t realize it with Johnson yet or we are being woefully negligent. Along with Jack Wilshere, Phil Jones and the still-just-about young Wayne Rooney, he should comprise the world-class vanguard of England’s medium-term efforts, not an underappreciated luxury – a Ferrari in the garage – at rich old Eastlands.