Manchester City's Michael Johnson: Where Did It All Go Wrong?
It seems another age since Michael Johnson was known within Manchester City as ‘FEC’, short for ‘Future England Captain’.
So long in fact that his quiet release from the club last month didn’t come to light until an unflattering photograph of the former prodigy looking unrecognisably bulky and glassy-eyed in the early-hours - awaiting his order at a fast food outlet - was made public this week and the tutting and clucking could begin on an extraordinary talent utterly wasted.
The general consensus – at least initially – was that Johnson had a gift a great many of us would sacrifice a great deal for yet chose to mindlessly p*ss it up the wall. As so often is the case however the general consensus appears to be a hotchpotch of half-truths and innuendo that is acquainted with factuality but doesn’t actually know its name. What follows is yet more speculation in part but it is impossible to uncover anything truly definitive when the truth resides in another man’s head and a city’s nightlife.
The narrative for those unfamiliar with Johnson’s story is a dispiriting yet all-too-common one in an era when young men blessed with footballing talent are lavished with riches and indulgence but burdened by unrealistic expectation.
Breaking through in the dark days under Stuart Pearce he was a teen packed with poise, drive and a touch of elegance far beyond his years. It was qualities that swiftly brought comparisons to City royalty in Colin Bell and with a touted big-money move to Liverpool and a succession of inferior midfielders trailing in his wake an international career beckoned as did household fame.
That was until a recurring abdominal injury shelved the scripted destiny first for several months then an entire year.
City seem cursed with having their finest, stylish centre mids struck down in their prime. The aforementioned Bell eventually returned from his serious setback but was never quite the same player whilst the sublime prospect Paul Lake suffered a cruel twist of fate and knee that denied the England team of one of their greatest ever players before he even had chance to represent them.
Both of these players could be found day in, day out in the gym toiling and sweating in their lonely pursuit of recapturing their rightful glory. Johnson reportedly could be found in the pub, or club, indeed anywhere where there was booze, girls, real mates and hangers-on. If this were not disheartening enough rumours began circulating in a city whose nightlife is more like a village that Johnson was giving it the big I-am. He was gaining the reputation for being arrogant and obnoxious though I should state here this is solely based on the accounts of others.
Blues sing about being just like the fan of the invisible man and as Johnson’s absence from action continued – bar the odd brief cameo – our fading star was cast in the titular role. It was despairing to see the collective hope of witnessing a miraculous return change to a forlorn pipedream yet our belief never wavered even when the abdominal problems became strains that left the club’s medical team scratching their heads and a bizarre story broke that the player was ordered home to clean himself up after a pre-season photo left him dishevelled and ‘looking like an Oasis roadie’.
It took a pair of drink-driving convictions to finally break us, stretching our capacity for empathy to the limit, yet even then a recent loan spell at Leicester brought fresh deluded hope that our local talent might yet find a way into a team now studded with gold standard superstars.
The news that City had paid up the remaining 18 months of Johnson’s contract by mutual consent popped a balloon that had all-but-deflated but no matter how unexpected it was still accompanied by genuine sadness. For me, as with a great many others, it also brought forth anger and exasperation as we put ourselves in the imaginary possession of Johnson’s winning lottery ticket.
The injuries were undeniably horrid and the expectation heaped upon such young shoulders must have been hard to bear, but how many other players have overcome similar adversity? It was difficult not to feel personally affronted at having your own dream wasted vicariously in KFC and the Bijou Club. Then there was the 25 grand a week wages that in no universe could be construed as being earned.
As a journalist for the Manchester Evening News was putting together a piece on Johnson’s career, presumably to facilitate such a mindset, he received a surprise phone call from the player himself.
In a brief exchange Johnson divulged that he had attended the Priory for a number of years ‘with regard to my mental health’. It would be crass to speculate exactly what his demons are but it is safe to surmise they involve addiction and the accompanying spectre of depression.
How sadly apt that a story built through the seasons on half-truths and rumour amounted to us getting it so ar*e-over-t*t. While City fans willed him back to matchday fitness Johnson was incalculably further down the tracks than we thought, willing himself back to the faint possibility of normality.
His closing remark in the disclosure was a Garbo-esque heartbreaker – “(I’d) be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life.”
You can now lad – you’re just 24 and with a whole other unexplored world ahead of you - and it can be embarked upon with the very best wishes of hundreds of thousands of your kith and kin. Because although on the surface the story of Michael Johnson carries but one truth – the waste of a promising career – there is another that is far more pertinent than any tutting and clucking you may encounter as you go: once a blue always a blue.