The first quarter of the season has brought many positives for Manchester City, perhaps none more satisfying than the return of academy product Michael Johnson.
The young midfielder made a substitute appearance in the 3-1 win against West Ham and was then on the bench for the visits to Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic. If he keeps his fitness and continues along his current path, a regular place in the first team squad must beckon. This represents a fantastic achievement for the lad from Urmston.
Flashes of greatness: a new talent emerges
Since breaking into the City first team in 2004, Johnson has already experienced much of what the game has to offer. Initially, these came in the form of unforgettable highs. It was playing in Sven-Goran Erikisson’s free-flowing, high octane, high risk attack of the early 2007/08 season where Johnson really made his mark, scoring the winning goal in a 1-0 win over Derby County.
Picking up the ball at the halfway line, Johnson showed his guile by rounding the opposition midfielder, his strength by brushing away the oncoming challenge, his linkup play by interchanging passes with Elano, his first touch by deftly knocking the Brazilian’s pass into a goal scoring position, and finally his goal scoring instinct, as (in full stride) he struck the ball with the outside of his boot and curled it around the keeper into the back of the net.
Irrespective of the opposition, the strike was immense and indeed was all the more so because it represented so much more than a goal. It represented a player who had the whole package. Later, Johnson went on to score a similar goal against Aston Villa. Surrounded with the new, exciting talent of the Eriksson era, the world was at Michael Johnson’ feet.
Rumour and injury: the nightmare begins
But that world soon shattered. Soon after Johnson scored his wonder goals he was sidelined with a reoccurring abdominal injury. At first the midfielder was out for a short period, but further abdominal problems eventually caused him to miss the majority of last season.
And then rumours began to emerge that all was not well with the young midfielder. For someone who was attempting to get fit, he was supposedly being seen far too much in the wrong places at the wrong hours. With the club struggling to get to bottom of his injury, the lad was losing his way. Hughes’ assistant Mark Bowen could’ve been interpreted to indicate as much when he gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph in December 2008:
“Michael is a young lad who has been unlucky. He has had a nagging injury that has held him back. When Michael in on the training ground and is focused he is a fantastic asset for this club. When young players have been in and out of action as long as he has it can mess your mind up a little bit because they just want to be out there playing. He has just got to be strong, fight through it, train hard and get back in the team. In the early part of the season he was a big player for us and we miss him.”
Seeing Johnson interviewed about his fitness on Sky Sports News, it was easy to believe that he had lost his way. He looked extremely uncomfortable and nervous, and it was clear for all to see that he had gained a lot of weight.
The Bell albatross
Johnson’s build, gait, footballing attributes and surging runs into the box from midfield positions earned him comparisons with Steven Gerard. But the heftier comparison came in the form of Colin Bell, for many fans the greatest player ever to play for the club.
The sidelines of a football pitch are a lonely furrow to plough for any player, but for one such as Johnson, such a young boy with the weight of Bell on his shoulders, I suspect those furrows were immense. To add to this, he has had to sit and watch the unprecedented upheavals that have taken place at the club over the last year. Witnessing the City midfield get stronger with every transfer window – first Kompany, then De Jong, then Barry, whilst excellent additions for the average fan, certainly cannot have been good news for the returning Johnson. With his starting place in midfield long gone, he was in real danger of being overtaken by bigger events.
A welcome romance
However fragile, Johnson’s re-emergence in pre-season, coupled with his return to first team action must be taken as a huge positive. Hughes and his team must also take some credit. In these situations, I believe mental toughness is just as important as physical fitness. Indeed, I think the stronger you are mentally, the less likely you are to get seriously injured. It has been no surprise to see Hughes building up Johnson’s confidence, first talking of the midfielder’s great potential and then speaking of how Johnson started so well in the early days of the Hughes regime before his major injury. Knowing full well that the minds of idle young men can wander, the key for Hughes and his team has been making Johnson still feel wanted, still feel as if he has a major part to play in City’s future. I think they have got it exactly right. Johnson’s pre-season return prompted Hughes into this statement:
"I thought it was a good exercise for us, a lot of players had good periods, but a big positive was Michael Johnson getting through 45 minutes. We are absolutely delighted with that. I was really pleased with what he was able to produce in that time. If we can get him back at anywhere near the level that we know he is capable of then it's like an extra player for us this year.”
I couldn’t agree more. The academy has produced some good graduates in recent years. Micah Richards, blistering when he first emerged, has since hit a sustained patch of inconsistency. If Nedum Onouha keeps on building up his game in the quiet and assured way that he has to date, he is certain to become a formidable international-class defender. Stephen Ireland has become a vital cog in the City engine room, attracting attention even from Old Trafford. Ireland’s dynamism, footballing brain, energy and goals make him a cut above most players. You can see from his performances that he is ready for the Champions League. And then of course we have the raw talent of Daniel Sturridge, spirited away by the clutches of Ancelotti’s Chelsea. All of these players are good. Some are excellent. Others outstanding. But Johnson is better. With the ability to do it all, he has the potential to reach the greatness that City fans would like nothing better to see coming from one of their own.
And this is where the real romance of Johnson’s return emerges. The midfielder is special not only because of his footballing abilities but because he may buck the wider trend of the club in recent times. He is the young, homegrown talent that we as City fans all want to see mix it with the rest of the expensively assembled squad. If he could rise to this challenge, it would be proof that, through the mediocre years since returning to the Premiership, the academy really was capable of producing the kind of class that could compete at the top of the game.
Of course, rising to that challenge is one thing. Overcoming it is something else. The task facing Johnson is bigger than the task facing Richards or Shaun Wright-Phillips for the simple reason that he is coming into probably the most highly competitive area of the team. But if can get fit and stay fit, he stands a great chance of overcoming the barriers of first team selection that stand in his way, just as John Terry and Steven Gerard overcame similar hurdles.
A fit again Michael Johnson will bring another dimension to a squad that it already hugely talented. Questions of fragility remain, but I am sure I would not be alone by saying that I for one would like nothing more than to see him answer those questions that are now surely heading his way.