Winger’s absence likely to cost Black Cats dear in battle to avoid relegation
THERE are moments in a football season where the campaign turns on a dime – or one key moment.
We might have seen one on Sunday when Chelsea, a dominant force anyway, turned on the afterburners for the rest of this term with that League Cup win at Wembley. And there looked to be another on Monday, perhaps even more decisive, at the other end of the Premier League table, when it emerged that Sunderland’s sometime England winger Adam Johnson had been arrested by police investigating underage sex allegations.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case – and Johnson is innocent until a court rules otherwise – the footballing gods are likely to be unforgiving when deciding Sunderland’s fate. Football at the highest level is won and lost by fine margins. If a side is just a few per cent off its A-game then they are unlikely to prevail.
Now Sunderland, who miraculously avoided the trap-door last season with a rush of late-season goals and passion, were already struggling again this time around. And in the blink of an eye they have been robbed of their most potent attacking player for at least several weeks. Perhaps for the season. Maybe for good.
So while other clubs switch managers and others fiddle about with the game’s formulae Sunderland are deprived of their leading scorer after some lurid social media claims are acted upon by the constabulary. Quite rightly so, too. But on such events football fates can dramatically turn.
Just a few weeks ago, Johnson was cock’o’the north. His last-minute goal won the Tyne-Wear showdown at St James’ Park – the third successive derby at Newcastle in which he’d scored. And he’d inspired Sunderland’s fourth derby win on the trot.
He is the kid raised in Billy Elliot country: Easington Colliery, the old mining town that provided the earthy backdrop to the film about the kid with twinkling feet who wanted to be a ballet dancer. Johnson had twinkling feet too but put them to be more orthodox effect, first at Middlesbrough, then Manchester City and subsequently back on Wearside.
He could do no wrong and his mercurial form, on the rise last year when it seemed he may get an England recall, seemed to be heading in the right direction again this winter. Now his entire career is on the line. Depending on the outcome of the police enquiry, it may not have much longer to run.
Sunderland and football must run their own morality checks if Johnson is not swiftly exonerated. If things get worse rather than better for Johnson, what will Sunderland do? Try to sell him? Or fire him? He is a £10m player at the peak of his career yet and Sunderland will be loath to write off such a high-value asset. Yet, as the Ched Evans case highlighted, no-one wants to employ a footballer with a serious stain against his character.
In the short term, Johnson’s removal from Sunderland’s fight for survival is likely to end in his club crashing through the trapdoor on the relegation scaffold this time. And Johnson will then have his own fight for personal survival to win.