17 January 2013

The sad tale of Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson in his happier days.

Michael Johnson was a footballer who had a fantastic career ahead of him.

Sadly, a combination of injuries, personal problems and plain bad luck have curtailed a promising career as a Manchester City midfielder. There are now even doubts over whether he will be able to continue his playing days.

Five years ago, when everybody was talking of him being an England star in the making, he looked as fit as a fiddle. But as recently as Monday night, he was pictured looking unshaven, unfit, and more like an Oasis roadie than a professional athlete. The national papers were all over this story and were quick to lampoon the 24-year-old. This was the culmination of several years of hurt for Johnson.

Let's start right at the beginning. The Mancunian started his playing days in Everton's youth team but signed for Manchester City in 2004. He was part of the Citizens team that reached the FA Youth Cup Final two seasons later.

Johnson made his professional debut in October 2006 against Wigan Athletic, and his development was rewarded later on in the season with a lengthy run in the City starting XI. That run was halted by a hamstring injury - sadly, that was a sign of things to come.

The following season, 2007/2008, was both exciting and frustrating for the still teenage Johnson. He scored his first City goal at home to Derby County in the first midweek game of the season, but midway through the campaign spent some time out with an abdominal problem.

However, he would bounce back to end the season with three league goals. At the time, the then City manager Sven Goran Eriksson said that Johnson would be the future England captain. This Michael Johnson was well on his way to becoming as big a household name in the UK as the other Michael Johnson was globally.

Liverpool were so keen on signing Johnson that they prepared a £12million bid for the newly-capped England Under-21s international. At this time, Liverpool were still very much part of the 'Big Four', and in contrast, the Sky Blues were merely a top-half side whose funding came from a very rich Thai rather than an exceedingly wealthy Emirati.

Johnson's head was turned. He was said to be keen on the switch to Anfield, and stated his determination to play in the UEFA Champions League. The transfer didn't come to fruition, though, and he instead signed a lucrative five-year contract in September 2008. A week after that, his abdominal injury returned in a shock League Cup defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion, and his career from that point onwards went into freefall.

An increasingly-depressed Johnson began to take drugs and drink heavily. His attitude changed almost overnight, and rather than becoming a bigger footballing star season after season, he just became, well, bigger.

Johnson's first-team appearances for the Citizens would be very limited for the next two seasons, thanks to a succession of injuries, and when Roberto Mancini took the managerial reins, time began to run out for the Englishman. Eriksson tried to revive his struggling career in the summer of 2011 when he signed him on a season-long loan for Leicester City, but his time at the Championship club was ended after just nine appearances by, of course, an injury.

Last June came his nadir. He was arrested on suspicion of drink-driving for the second time in three months after crashing his Mercedes into another car, and would end up with a three-year driving ban.

Manchester City now wanted nothing more to do with Johnson. The 'forgotten man of City' became so forgotten that when he was finally released from the last few months of his contract in December, they didn't make an announcement about his departure at the time. It was only after the Daily Mail pictured him looking like Johnny Vegas that they confirmed the news.

After the news came out, Johnson reluctantly spoke to the press and confessed that he had been visiting the Priory Clinic "for a number of years" over a mental health problem.

While his Manchester City team-mates have gone on to win the Premier League and compete in the UEFA Champions League, Johnson's career has gone downhill quicker than Portsmouth. In his teenage years, he had been compared to Colin Bell, but the comparisons now are with Paul Lake - another City cult icon whose career was cut short by a cruciate ligament injury.

Yes, a change of attitude contributed to Michael Johnson's downfall, but ultimately, it was a string of horribly-timed long-term injuries that stopped him from realising his potential. If he somehow manages to find another club after what's happened recently, good luck to him, but it's far more important now that he sorts out his personal problems and is allowed to get on with the rest of his life.

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