Not many players, if any, can have been linked with a dream move to Real Madrid, the nine-times European Cup winners, and been relegated in the same season, but that is the curious scenario facing Adam Johnson, Middlesbrough's dexterous winger, this afternoon. In December, when Boro's inexorable slide down the Premier League table was gathering momentum, Spanish newspapers reported that the Primera Liga giants had made the England U-21 wide man the most unlikeliest of targets. With his cherubic look and unassuming nature Johnson, 21, does not strike you as an obvious galactico, but his bewitching talent would certainly not look out of place at the Bernabeu.
"I don't know where it came from, I haven't got a clue," said Johnson. "I just picked up the newspaper and read it. I was obviously flattered to be linked to such a great club. Just to be linked was enough for me. I got a lot of stick off the lads, there was plenty of banter flying about. They were calling me a galactico and I was getting shouts of Raul." Boro's plight, however, is no laughing matter for Johnson or anyone else connected with the Teesside outfit. They face a mountainous task to stave off the grim prospect of demotion to the second tier of English football for the first time in 11 years this afternoon, requiring a first away victory since the beginning of November and then hoping results go their way in the games involving Hull and Newcastle .
"We can still get out of it but it's obviously out of our hands now," said Johnson. "I think the Newcastle game and the one against Villa were the big ones. If we had beaten Villa (a 1-1 draw last week) then the Newcastle result (a 3-1 defeat on May 11) would have been almost forgotten about." Boro will draw comfort from their last two matches against the Hammers; they had by far the better of a 1-1 FA Cup third-round tie at Upton Park in February and comprehensively beat Gianfranco Zola's side 2-0 in the replay at the Riverside.
"We played them off the park at Upton Park and we should have been three or four up at half-time," recalled Johnson. It was a during last week's Villa game that winger Stewart Downing broke his right foot, denying Boro of their creative hub this afternoon. It has been the absence of their experienced players that has led to the kind of inconsistency which has seen Boro beat Liverpool yet lose to relegated West Brom.
Johnson added: "We have been performing well lately but haven't got the results, but earlier in the season we weren't performing and didn't deserve anything. We've just been so inconsistent." Attempting to mastermind the act of escapology is Gareth Southgate, the Boro manager. "He's very clam about it," said Johnson. "Hopefully we can do it for him. I'm glad the chairman (Steve Gibson) has said his job isn't on the line. It would have been pointless bringing someone else in with a few games left. He has done as good a job as anyone else would have done."
To his huge credit, Southgate has made minimal fuss of operating within financial constraints that have seen him reduce the club's wage bill by £7 million (Dh40.8m) by selling experienced performers like Mark Schwarzer, Jonathan Woodgate, Mark Viduka and Yakubu. The cost-cutting move will cushion the financial blow of potential relegation, but it has left the team cruelly exposed down the spine of the side.
"That might be one of the reasons why we are struggling," reasoned Johnson. "We have missed Viduka and Yak's goals. It's not just the strikers who have not scored, it's all over the team. I know David Wheater thinks he should have scored more. We just haven't been clinical enough in front of goal." Johnson will surely be hugely disappointed with his return of two goals in 31 appearances this season, both scored in the Carling Cup in the first month of the campaign. A player of his ability is capable of much more. Johnson is left footed and possesses the priceless ability to go past defenders.
Groomed at Boro since the age of 11, he is part of a conveyor belt of talent to emerge from the club's vaunted youth system and was a vital part of the team who won the FA Youth Cup in 2004 after being runners-up the previous season. Jason Steele, the England U-19 keeper, is tipped to be the next one of the production line. Southgate is not afraid to give youth its head. In fact, nine of the 16-man squad last Saturday came through the academy.
Johnson has one year left to run on his contract and, although he has turned down the offer of a new deal, he appears to have no qualms about playing in the Championship next season, a division he illuminated while on loan with Watford in 2007, scoring five goals in 12 games. One thing for sure is that should Boro, as expected, be relegated the mild-mannered Johnson will not be repeating the inappropriate behaviour of Jermain Defoe who slapped in a transfer request almost as soon as the final whistle had sounded on West Ham's relegation fate in 2003.
"If we go down the club will decide who stays and who goes and, if I'm not sold, then I'll stay and play in the Championship, no problem at all," he said. "But we aren't done yet. Stranger things have happened." firstname.lastname@example.org West Ham v Boro, KO 7pm, Show Movies Comedy