It is a sad reality of football that players get released from their contracts. This happens on a regular basis and for a variety of reasons. The vast majority of these names pass way under the radar, usually consigned to nothing more than a line or two on the club website, before hopefully finding a new club.
Last week, news broke about a player who had been released by a Premier League side. In fact, he’d been released in December, but the club had kept it quiet. The reason why this player’s release is notable is that could well mean the end of a career that had promised a lot when it began.
It’s hard to imagine now with Manchester City currently being the defending Premier League champions and, thanks to the enormous wealth and largesse of their owners, are able to attract some of the best players on the planet to play for them; but cast your mind back to before City were taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group and Thaksin Shinawatra before them, and Manchester City’s circumstances were very, very different.
During the 2006/7 season City were a team that had struggled badly in the league the previous season, and had spent the majority of the 2006/7 season flirting with relegation, playing some truly dismal football along the way. Their biggest problem was a chronic lack of goals, with City only managing to score a meagre 29 goals in the Premier League that season.
The one bright spot for City that season was the continuing emergence of some great young talent from the team’s academy. The previous season, Manchester City’s academy team had made it to the final of the FA Youth Cup, which is the leading competition for academy teams in England, losing narrowly to Liverpool in the final. There were two particular standouts in that City team; one was Daniel Sturridge and the other was central midfielder Michael Johnson. Both players joined City’s first team squad for 2006/7.
Despite City’s problems in front of goal, it was Johnson rather than Sturridge who made the bigger impact on the first team, appearing ten times in the league including a run of seven consecutive starts that was only ended by injury. That summer, Shinawatra took over at City; manager Stuart Pearce was replaced by Sven-Goran Eriksson who, thanks to Shinawatra’s money, brought in a host of big-money signings, including Elano and Martin Petrov, which brought some much-needed excitement to the team.
With all of the new faces in the team, Johnson would’ve been forgiven for thinking his first-team opportunities would have been limited, but actually, the opposite turned out to be true. Johnson was in the starting lineup straightaway and was not only acquitting himself well, but taking a starring role. People were starting to sit up and take notice; Arsenal and Liverpool reportedly expressed an interest in him and people were talking about him becoming an England regular, with many people in the game calling him the best English centre-midfield prospect since Steven Gerrard.
For once, such statements weren’t just English media hyperbole. Johnson was the real thing. He was a midfielder who was good at all facets of midfield play. Usually, when a young player, even a highly-talented one, comes into the first team, they have all of the requisite skills required by a top-level player, but don’t possess the understanding of the game that more experienced players do. Johnson was different in that he seemed to understand what he had to do immediately and he played like a seasoned veteran rather than the teenager he was. City realised that Johnson was a special player, the kind that doesn’t come around often, and wasted no time in signing him to a long-term contract.
However, that season Johnson picked up an abdominal injury that required surgery. Nobody thought too much of it at the time, especially as he was able to return to playing later that season, but early the following season he had a recurrence of the same injury and missed the rest of the season. The following season, Johnson made his comeback, scoring in a league cup match against Scunthorpe, but suffered a cruciate ligament injury in training and once again had a long spell out injured.
In a bid to get his career back on track, Johnson was loaned out to Championship side Leicester City, who were then managed by his former City manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson. However, that move didn’t work out and what was supposed to be a season-long loan ended up being terminated after only three games.
Being injured can be a pretty lonely experience for a player. Things have improved somewhat since the days where managers treated injured players like they didn’t exist, but even now injured players struggle with feeling excluded from the everyday banter and team-bonding. That was the case for Johnson, while he was out injured, he was left alone with his thoughts and gradually, doubts started to creep in.
Being a Premier League footballer is a career that comes with its own set of pressures. Sure, the money is superb, but there are people watching and judging their every move both on the pitch and off of it, and people like us writing and reading about it online. Some players take those pressures in their stride, for others, there’s an adjustment period and sadly, there are players who just can’t cope. Johnson fell into the last category.
As much as Johnson’s physical condition was a concern to City, just as concerning were the terrible abdominal pains that Johnson started to suffer from. City’s medical staff couldn’t find a physiological reason for this abdominal pain and came to the conclusion that it was psychosomatic. These pains seemed to rear their head most frequently at times when it looked like Johnson was ready for a first-team comeback.
Add to that the fact that Johnson was a young guy with money who had just moved out of his parents’ house. In the periods where he was inactive due to injury, Johnson succumbed to the usual temptations any young man faces. He wasn’t exactly diligent with his diet and as a result, his weight ballooned. He also started drinking too much and was banned from driving after two drink-drive arrests last year.
City tried their best to help him, where many other clubs would have cut him loose. For starters, they honoured his contract, and kept him around the first-team, even giving him a squad number this season. They brought in sports psychologists in a bid to help him cope with the pressures of being a professional footballer. They helped him get other forms of therapy. They even allowed him a fully-paid leave of absence in the hopes that he would be able to overcome his problems and find a way back to football and begin to fulfil his potential.
However, this proved to be to no avail and there came a point where even a club with the resources of Manchester City couldn’t keep around a footballer who didn’t seem to want to play football anymore. Since Johnson had signed the five-year 25k/week contract after his breakthrough season, he’d made only 4 appearances for the club and hadn’t played at all for three years.
It is a measure of how highly Johnson was regarded by Manchester City as a person that they allowed him to slip away quietly without any announcement of his release at all. It is highly likely that had the picture which appeared on Twitter of an overweight Johnson in a takeaway never seen the light of day, it still wouldn’t be public knowledge that Johnson was released.
In theory, Johnson is by no means finished as a footballer. He’s only 24 and if he was able to get his body in better shape, there would be plenty of clubs happy to take a chance on such a talented player.
However, it seems as though that’s not going to happen. It seems as though Johnson has had enough of football and just wants to be left alone to live a life outside of the public eye. The only comment Johnson had after his release became public knowledge was to say "I have been attending the Priory Clinic (a famous UK clinic for people with mental health issues) for a number of years now with regard to my mental health and would be grateful if I could now be left alone to live the rest of my life."
It will be a crying shame if a player as talented as Michael Johnson never plays again. However, the most important thing for Johnson is that he finds a way to battle his inner demons and find some happiness in the future. Hopefully his story will make other Premier League clubs think about ways they can help players, especially young players, adjust to life in the Premier League so that no other hugely talented players like Michael Johnson are not lost to the game.