Michael Walker: Adam Johnson affair may sink Sunderland deeper

Sam Allardyce’s side already in trouble but sex scandal may have its own lasting effects

Sam Allardyce was once sacked from a prison cell. It was back in 1996 when Allardyce was in charge of Blackpool at the beginning of his managerial career. Owen Oyston was the owner of the club.

Allardyce takes up the story in his autobiography: “There was a board meeting scheduled to discuss the season, but before that took place Oyston was found guilty of raping and indecently assaulting a teenager and sentenced to six years.

“The judge told him: ‘You were 58, she was 16. You were rich and powerful with a strong personality. She was young and vulnerable.’”

Allardyce writes that on hearing the verdict he “felt numb”, not least because: “He [Oyston] was so confident of getting off that we’d all been brainwashed into believing he would.”


Is this ringing any Wearside bells?

Anyway, Oyston’s wife Vicki took over the day-to-day running of the club, according to Allardyce. But he thought Owen Oyston was still the absentee power.

When Blackpool’s board meeting was rescheduled, Allardyce was informed by Vicki that his efforts – losing in the play-offs – were not good enough.

“I got a £13,000 pay-off,” Allardyce writes – presumably he had to put down his pen to rub his hands.

Then, clearly disbelieving that Vicki would dismiss him without Owen Oyston’s say-so, Allardyce adds: “I told the press I’d been sacked by the chairman from his prison cell.”

It’s an anecdote now, a few pages in a book full of them. But it’s more than that in a week like this.

Allardyce is now managing Sunderland – he's 20 weeks in – and it would have been entirely understandable had thoughts of Blackpool returned. On Wednesday Adam Johnson, whom Allardyce had picked at Anfield three weeks earlier, was found guilty of sexual activity with a child. Johnson will be sentenced shortly. Like Owen Oyston, he's going to prison.

Normally supportive

That, though, is not the end of the matter. Sunderland have questions to answer and their statement on Wednesday was not wholly satisfactory, to the extent that the normally supportive Sunderland Echo have tabled 10 questions to "SAFC bosses".

They might be waiting a while for a reply. Club hierarchies in general do not take kindly to inquisitions from their fanbase and Sunderland’s is no different. Hence Allardyce has been left to be the public face of the club on a matter that pre-dated his arrival.

He did this on Thursday at the club’s academy, a place where the faces of teenagers are pinned on the walls. As with every academy, Sunderland’s understands the meaning of “duty of care”.

It is a phrase Johnson tossed away. It is a phrase many Sunderland fans are considering.

Johnson – rich and powerful – used a teenaged girl – young and vulnerable – and is yet to apologise.

During the trial Johnson was rebuked by the judge for "discourteous behaviour" and those present in Bradford Crown Court over the past fortnight have witnessed one arrogant footballer.

The victim – a child – has been brought into the adult world early by all this and can only be distressed by what she has discovered – cynicism, sex and lies. Her recovery is not guaranteed.

This goes a bit beyond 4-4-2. The girl, hypnotised by celebrity, knows Johnson and professional football from the inside of a Range Rover parked behind a Chinese takeaway.

It's deeply unpleasant and given that the club's chief executive Margaret Byrne was made aware of Johnson's mobile phone exchanges with the underage teenager as far back as May last year, Sunderland's handling of the situation is causing discomfort on Wearside.

The Sunderland Echo's first two questions are: 1. Adam Johnson said in his trial that during a meeting with Margaret Byrne on May 4th, 2015, he admitted grooming and kissing a 15-year-old girl. Do the club accept this happened?

2. If so, knowing the likely outcome of such serious admissions, why did they continue to play Johnson?

Johnson played 28 times after his initial arrest. What do teammates such as John O’Shea make of this, of him?

Sunderland, the club, was formed by a teacher; Byrne, a solicitor, understands the law. Whether she or those around the boardroom table comprehend fully what the club means to Wearside is another matter. There is a duty of care.

Byrne, with owner Ellis Short, came up with the not-so-clever idea of appointing Paolo Di Canio to replace Martin O'Neill three years ago, in spite of Di Canio's right-wing politics in a left-wing area. That begged a question, another one, of their understanding, which was not totally resolved by their dismissal of Di Canio 12 games in.

Byrne is attracting flak, and Allardyce produced an interesting facial expression when her name came up on Thursday.

Ultimate power

And yet when Allardyce looks at Byrne, he may see Vicki Oyston, because above Byrne is the ultimate power at the club, Short. Does Byrne ever operate without Short's say-so? Perhaps that's question 11.

We may never know the answer but what we do know is that Sunderland are stigmatised.

At such times football dips in importance. Yet that’s why we’re all here and the experience of Blackpool 1996 was put to Allardyce.

“Owen Oyston’s a massive character,” Allardyce said. “He went on the pitch and said: ‘I’m not guilty.’

“Was it a distraction to our promotion push? Yes. It was.”

Is it conceivable to hear Allardyce years from now discuss Sunderland’s 2016 relegation battle, Adam Johnson and distraction?

Yes. It is.

It would be wise not to jump gun in overpraising Tottenham and Pochettino's revolution

That football inhabits a culture of cheap and premature praise is a notion addressed before in this space.

Quite possibly it's been in conjunction with Tottenham Hotspur.

Take season 2012/'13, for example, when at this stage – 28 games –Tottenham had the same number of points – 54 – as they do now. Then Andre Villas-Boas was manager and Spurs had just beaten Arsenal 2-1 at White Hart Lane to go third.

AVB was nine months into his time at the club and all the talk was of his impact and the goals of Gareth Bale.

Spurs were the coming team.

Then they won five of their last 10 and finished fifth. Bale was sold and Villas-Boas was sacked before Christmas.

Via Tim Sherwood this has led to Mauricio Pochettino, who in the last month seems to have received as much praise as Bill Nicholson did in his career.

Apparently Pochettino has “transformed” Tottenham, who are four points better off than last season and lost at West Ham United on Tuesday.

If you don’t mind, that praise can be put on hold.

Spurs are three points behind Leicester City.

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer