Sunderland face tough questions about Adam Johnson

The big news in English football this week surrounded the trial of England international Adam Johnson, who was up to a few weeks ago a Sunderland player. Johnson was found guilty of sexual activity with a 15-year-old girl (the legal age of consent in the UK is 16), after having already pled guilty to lesser charge of kissing the same girl and one charge of grooming (I’m not sure if this is the same all over the world but in the UK this means making a connection or relationship with a child for the purposes of sexual abuse) over social media. Johnson was found not guilty on another charge of sexual activity with the same girl.

Johnson is currently out on bail and will be sentenced later this month; with the judge telling him that it is “almost inevitable” he will receive a substantial prison sentence.

Up until his trial began, Johnson had maintained his innocence of all charges, and it was only on the first day of the trial that he changed his plea to guilty for two of the charges. Within 24 hours of his guilty plea, Sunderland terminated his £60,000 per week contract.

The trial of Adam Johnson may be over, but that doesn’t mean that all the questions about his case have all been answered. The biggest remaining questions are for his former club, Sunderland, as well as the player’s union, the PFA.

Johnson was initially arrested almost exactly a year ago on the March 2nd 2015. Following his arrest, he was suspended by Sunderland, only to be reinstated 2 weeks later, on March 18, after meetings with the PFA, and the FA’s safeguarding team, presumably to make sure Johnson wouldn’t be involved in any of Sunderland’s community projects or be put in any sort of position of trust with children.

With Johnson reinstated, he was able to play in 8 of the last 9 matches of Sunderland’s remarkable escape from relegation under Dick Advocaat last season, and although he has been injured for the majority of this season, he scored a goal in a 2-2 draw against Liverpool in what will probably be his last ever game as a professional, just days before his trial started. In total, Johnson played 28 games for Sunderland following his reinstatement after his arrest.

That decision to allow him to play has been criticised by abuse charities, saying that it sent out a dreadful message; but it’s also true that presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of British law, so with Johnson at the time maintaining his innocence, he had to be treated as innocent until a jury said otherwise, so, up until a few days ago the opinion was that Sunderland were within their rights to play him.  

However, as part of Johnsons defence, his barrister, Orlando Pownall Q.C., told the court that on May 4th Sunderland Chief Executive Margaret Byrne had a meeting with Johnson, his father and Pownall, where Johnson admitted to kissing the girl and Byrne say the 834 WhatsApp messages Johnson and the girl exchanged, where it was revealed that Johnson knew the girl in question was underage and pursued her for sex anyway. Byrne also had transcripts of Johnson’s interview with the police, as well as those of his victim.

Margaret Byrne

Margaret Byrne

Sunderland responded to these allegations in a club statement, where they describe the meeting with Johnson and Pownall as “introductory” and say Margaret Byrne was present for “part of the meeting”, but denied having any inkling that Johnson would change his plea to guilty, and that some documents received were sent to Pownall (which is weird because he was there!). The statement fails to mention what, if anything, Byrne knew as a result of that meeting about the Johnson case; or, as she was only present for part of the meeting, if the club were represented by anyone else in the times where she wasn’t there, and if so, who?

Sunderland’s statement also says “Following that meeting, Mr. Johnson again confirmed to the club, presumably on advice from his own legal team, that his intention was to defend the charges in their entirety and he was confident of success once all evidence had been considered. He subsequently entered not guilty pleas to all charges on 6 June 2015” 

Sunderland have denied that they knew Adam Johnson would change his plea to guilty at the beginning of his trial just so that he could continue to play for the club, describing those allegations as “utterly without foundation and refuted in the strongest possible terms”. They added “The club never placed any pressure or demands on Mr. Johnson to play football during this process”.

Not long after that statement, the story took another twist. Detective Inspector Aelfwynn Sampson, who was the lead detective on the investigation, told the BBC that she met with Margaret Byrne on March 2nd, the day of Johnson’s arrest to outline the case. Sampson said: “They were given detail that he had met the girl and sexual activity had taken place."  

Sunderland have not responded to this allegation and have chosen to make no further comment at this time. Margaret Byrne hasn’t answered any of the allegations about how much she knew before Adam Johnson’s trial, and is not believed to be in the UK at present.

The only person from Sunderland AFC who has answered any questions about Adam Johnson is Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce, who denied having seen any police transcripts or anything else relating to the Adam Johnson case. There is nothing to suggest that Allardyce, Advocaat or anyone else except Margaret Byrne knew anything about this case before the trial.  

What was noticeable in Sunderland’s statement, was that the victim only merited a brief sentence, right at the end of the statement, where the club did not apologise, but instead acknowledged that the girl and here family have been through “an unimaginable ordeal over the past 12 months”

There are serious questions to be answered about how much of that imaginable ordeal, can be put down, even if it is true that the club wasn’t privy to Johnson’s legal strategy, to Sunderland’s lack of a duty of care to a 15-year-old season ticket holder who ended up being sexually abused by one of its employees.

The girl in question was put through hell by Johnson’s repeated denials of the charges, which smacks of a legal strategy where they strung things out for as long as possible in the hopes that the girl would break under the pressure and withdraw her allegations as the terrifying prospect of having to testify grew nearer.

The girl’s identity was revealed over social media, where she was abused and ridiculed. She had to stop going to football matches, where she was getting recognised and fans were singing abusive chants about her while unwittingly supporting a sex offender. In her statement, the girl said that “she had to face so much abuse after he claimed his innocence” and that “there are people out there who have made assumptions about me and that alone has been hard to deal with. I have been unable to defend myself publicly”

The PFA also face questions about their conduct in this case. It’s unclear if they knew the specifics about the charges facing Johnson; or even if they asked him, or instead chose to be ignorant to maintain plausible deniability. The PFA too released a statement, which said barely anything relating to the Johnson case, where the only comment they made was “It is extremely disappointing to see the damage caused by the actions of one of our members”  

Last season, Sunderland avoided relegation by three points. Next season, a new TV deal means each Premier League club will receive a minimum of £96m in TV rights money. Adam Johnson’s goals this season may end up being the difference between Sunderland surviving and being relegated.

We cannot say for sure that Sunderland were privy to a legal tactic which allowed one of their star players to continue to play, while ignoring the fact that they were putting a young fan through a living nightmare.

 But, would a Premier League club do such a thing? I wish I could say no.