x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Michael Johnson a sad reminder of when life supersedes sport

After former Manchester City youngster Michael Johnson hit the headlines this week, Andrew Cole looks at the impact injury can have on a player's mental state.

Michael Johnson, formerly of Manchester City, shown here celebrating with teammates after scoring a goal in 2009, was released by the club in December.
Michael Johnson, formerly of Manchester City, shown here celebrating with teammates after scoring a goal in 2009, was released by the club in December.

One of the coaches at Manchester City pulled me over after training one day. The club's youth team were training and we watched. There were some fine young footballers on show.

"The future of Manchester City," the coach said. He had every reason to feel positive about it. City had an excellent track record of promoting youth and their side reached the 2006 FA Youth Cup final and won the competition in 2008.

Without the money of their rivals, City had to invest in youth and they'd found it very rewarding when players broke into the first team.

They worked very hard to develop some really good footballers like Daniel Sturridge, Dedryck Boyata, Vladimir Weiss, Alex Nimely, Nedum Onuoha and Kieran Trippier.

Had City not been taken over in 2008, I have no doubt many of the players I saw that day would now be in the first team. As it happens, none of them are.

Michael Johnson was one of the best players of the 2006 side and I soon found myself sharing the first-team dressing room with him. I was coming to the end of my career, while his was starting very well.

He was a quiet boy, the baby of the team. Johnson worked well in training and he could play. He could get around the park from midfield and had good ability on the ball. He had enormous potential, he wasn't fazed by reputations and would always get forward into the box.

He did so well that he earned himself a decent contract. There was talk of a long career for City and England and he was compared to past City legends.

I moved on, but Johnson established himself in the City midfield by the age of 19. You have to be very, very good to do that in the Premier League.

Then he got injured, which is unfortunate, but happens. Injuries can be very hard on young players. I know; I've been there. I've seen my son, who is at City, be there.

All you want to do is play football and you're not always emotionally or mentally ready to deal with the situation when you can't do that.

You think you know best, you don't take advice on board and you don't realise that injury is as much a part of football as scoring goals and corner kicks. It's part of the game.

You get down. You doubt yourself at the best of times and you certainly doubt yourself at the worst of times. Comments from clueless outsiders don't help, such as: "I wouldn't mind getting paid to do nothing."

Critics think that because you have money, you should not have problems, but football comes before money for 95 per cent of professional players.

The doubts can seep in and if you are not a strong person, you can find yourself in a dark, lonely place, with only the physio to chat to on a daily basis. You also see everyone else progressing when you are not. If you are not careful you put on weight, you find it harder to get fit.

People might be supportive but they can't really help, while all the time your contract is running down, the sand slipping through the timer. Injured players don't get new contracts, don't get paid. If you have a recurring injury, like Johnson, then you have to go through this repeatedly.

Paul Lake, who had also broken through from City's youth team, saw his career wrecked by injury in the early 1990s. He would have gone on to become a top player. Instead, he needed medication for depression after years of knock-backs, poor medical treatment and false hope. He didn't get a contract and had to sell his house.

Sad as it is, he wasn't the only player to have his career ruined by injury. Serious injuries can understandably make players very bitter and it's to Lake's credit that he's not and is enjoying life again after all the tough times.

It is not even fair to speculate what has happened to Michael Johnson. It is his business. Critics who find it easy to pass opinion do not know what is going on, do not know the issues he has faced.

But it is very sad what has happened. He has left City, he has had problems which have been publicised and he has been getting professional help. He requested privacy and to be left to carry on his life and that should be respected by all.

But while some will remember him for failure, I would prefer to remember the lad who lit up City's team. However brief it may have been, there are still not many people who can say that.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.

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