For football fans of a certain size and persuasion, Manchester City winger Adam Johnson offers a pleasing, anachronistic flashback to a simpler time. His gaunt complexion, anaemic frame and unkempt hair conjure memories of the type of downtrodden young rapscallion with nothing more than a faithful dog called Patches and an ability to open a can of beans with his left foot that delighted adolescent English boys in beloved football comics.
Johnson, suffice to say, hails from an earlier era; a time in which football was played by the beer-swillers, the gamblers and the waif thin alike. In the age of the pure-bred athlete and tactical universality, the Sunderland-born wide-man’s unique talents ought to steal all hearts away.
But Adam Johnson is imprisoned. On substitute benches in Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and London he sits and waits, face forlorn; forever disappointed. An injury to David Silva summons only Samir Nasri. Carlos Tevez tires, only to be replaced by James Milner. Neither possesses Johnson’s close control. Neither has within them the exhilarating burst of pace or the twinkling footwork of the former Middlesbrough man. Yet it is Johnson who remains perennially unused.
For Adam Johnson holds a talent, a gift as unique as it is undervalued – he can dribble. Whether running at pace or sinuously negotiating his way through a forest of hacking legs, he thrills the hearts of those of us who view the game through the sepia-tinted lens of nostalgia. Giants, beasts of men twice his size lumber menacingly ahead. With a swish of the hips and a flick of the feet, he is gone, the ball with him, his opponent dumbfounded. Football, in that instant, is reduced to a thrilling one-on-one, no-holds-barred duel. It is beauty prevailing over the beast, brains triumphing over brawn.
Roberto Mancini does not share this view. As with all Premier League managers, Mancini is a pragmatist. He is a believer in systems, tactical cohesion and unity, innately realising that a football team is a mechanism; a composition of eleven component parts working together as fluidly as possible, compressing the space without the ball and making the pitch as expansive as possible with it. Maverick virtuosos have no place within it.
Such is the fate of Johnson. Upon his arrival at Eastlands, he was viewed as the man with the fantasy and flair to bring the ruckus to opposition full-backs. Alas, it never quite worked out that way, his individualism simultaneously his gift and his curse. For every full-back tied in knots, there stood a striker bemoaning the pass never to arrive.
Fifty years ago, players of Johnson’s ilk would bring a twinkle to the eye and a smile to the face of the flat-capped, steel-toed men who watched the game. They brought joy and hope to scrawny, bedridden young souls, their bellies as empty as their dreams were full. Today, they bring about a potential move to Sunderland. For shame, football. For shame.
Football may have progressed, but in leaving the dribbling soloist behind, it has not always done so for the better. Adam Johnson, eyeing the City of Manchester Stadium exit door, his career taking no discernible direction, is testimony to that.
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