Johnson's fall from grace is not a bolt from the blue
SIDELINE CUT:IT may not win any awards but it will be hard for anyone to find a more poignant and directly powerful sports photograph than the close-up image of Michael Johnson, the former Manchester City prodigy, standing in the garish light of a fast food restaurant in those messy hours of the night.
After a week when Lance Armstrong attempted to become the latest to defy F Scott Fitzgerald’s claim that there are no second acts in American life and when a star of Notre Dame football was either duped into believing or complicit in inventing a girlfriend whose death from leukaemia inspired his valorous performances, the story of Michael Johnson’s fall from grace seems terribly simple and dignified in comparison.
Wasted potential is one of the most common stories in sport. It happens in all walks of life . . . every county in Ireland knows of young hurlers or footballers who had an abundance of talent but maybe enjoyed too much success too young or suffered an injury or hadn’t the discipline or just lost interest. It can happen with frightening speed, the transition from bright young thing to could-a-been, particularly in the big money sports where the talent-sorting begins at childhood.
The sudden disappearance of an exceptionally gifted sports person creates a sort of ghost life in which future accomplishments are projected. One of the most enduring and tragic of all unrealised sports careers belongs to Len Bias, a basketball prodigy who died from a drugs overdose on the summer’s night in 1986 when he signed a professional contract for the Boston Celtics, then NBA champions. The timing and senselessness of Bias’s death was horrific for his family.
And it had arguably destabilised the most successful club in NBA history. Had Bias’s life gone along expected lines, he would have formed a partnership with the uncannily brilliant Larry Bird and would have gradually assumed leadership of the team as Bird began to decline. It was an intoxicating proposition. Bias’s death created a void that the Celtics never quite filled: it would take them until 2008 to win another NBA title.
Wealth and fame
But the bottom-line tragedy of Len Bias was that he had worked so hard and diligently to make it to the dream time and never got to enjoy the wealth and fame that basketball promised him.
The peculiar aspect of Michael Johnson’s football career was that although he never established himself as a regular first team player with Manchester City, he had the pay packet anyway. Johnson’s potential was so electrifying and rare – at least in English-born youngsters – that City, whose decision makers were still dizzy at the sudden infusion of the limitless cash reserves made available after Sheikh Mansour’s purchase of the club, were happy to offer him a contract that has guaranteed him £40,000 a week.
On his bank statement, at least, Johnson had it made. They kept him on that salary through three years defined by three serious injuries which limited his first team appearances. The last of those was as a substitute in a Carling Cup win against Scunthorpe in autumn 2009.
Just this week, it was confirmed by City that they decided to release Johnson last December. By then, he bore little resemblance to the elegant, powerful midfielder whose marauding attacks drew comparison with Steven Gerrard. The handful of goals which Johnson scored have been preserved on YouTube and make it easy to see why coaches raved about him. He had all the stuff that coaches in any sport look for: the stuff that can’t be coached.
Whether the successive injury setbacks pre-empted the journey into drink-driving convictions and a conspicuous lack of fitness or whether he was temperamentally unsuited to the demands of elite football is something only Johnson knows.
There are two ways of looking at his downfall. In a way, football has been absurdly good to him, with City lodging £160,000 per month into his account for three years after he last appeared in the stadium. It is a far cry from previous decades when a long-term injury would have resulted in a swift return to mining.
When Neil Webb, the former Nottingham Forest, Manchester United and England player snapped his Achilles tendon in 1990, he gradually drifted to the margins of the game and descended to normal life and worked for a period as a postman. Johnson’s earnings are light years ahead of what he delivered as a player: he just happened to come into the game when gifted youngsters can name their price.
But it would be daft to assume he has lost nothing. Had Johnson stayed fit, his timing would have been even more serendipitous: he should have been emerging as a dynamic presence in the very season that City won their first league title since 1968.
In an alternative universe, Michael Johnson is right now being spoken of as the player to form the lynchpin of England teams for the next decade. The price Johnson has to live with is that he will never know how good he could have become. Instead, he finds himself the subject of late-night mobile phone japes in a grim Manchester café. Some unseen guy has an arm around the former star and is pointing an index finger at him as if to say: look what we found. Can you believe this? Guess who’s crashed to earth?
And Johnson is smiling sadly and there is a look of resignation on his face. He looks a bit embarrassed and caught out and uncertain. As the details of Johnson’s story began to emerge, it at least became clear that the staff at City tried their best to help Johnson through his injuries and temperamental frailties.
After the photograph was released, Johnson issued a short, dignified statement acknowledging that he has been receiving treatment for mental health issues. “I am more disappointed than anyone but that’s the way it goes.”
He may never have to worry about the price of a City season ticket but it could well be a long time before he can go and see them play again. He will be seeing himself out there in the sky blue long after everyone else has forgotten. You can but wish him well.