On a chilly Saturday afternoon in October 2006, Manchester City put in their worst team performance that many fans had ever seen. And that’s quite a bold statement, because there have been some truly shocking displays down the years, but this one was a real stinker. Pummelled 4-0 away at Wigan and without even fashioning a chance, let alone a shot on target, it became clear that 2006/07 was going to be a very long season.
There was one little glimmering light in that game, though. One little beacon of hope, amidst a bunker of bleak darkness that sunk down like a bottomless abyss. A City academy product was given his debut by the then manager, Stuart Pearce. He played in the number 33 shirt, most recently associated with Vincent Kompany. And, in the limited touches he was able to get when City did keep the ball that afternoon, he showed himself to actually have been the best player for the visitors.
His name was Michael Johnson. A man now often forgotten about at City. A man forgotten about by the Premier League, who once saw him as a future City and England legend. A man forgotten about by football.
For a while it went well for him. Okay, so he was dropped straight after that Wigan game – probably to save him the embarrassment of more team performances like that one – but he worked his way back into the side later in that season.
A turning point came for the Blues over Easter. After a series of dire performances for the first three months of 2007, it looked like City would be in great danger of finding their way out of the Premier League. But a battling display against Chelsea and a run of form of 11 points from five games (beating Middlesbrough, Newcastle and Fulham, and drawing with Charlton and Liverpool) saw City safe.
That coincided with the return to the team of Michael Johnson. It’s a bit brash to suggest that he alone saved City from the drop that season, but he had a big influence on that run of form. Dunne and Distin, with Barton and Mpenza too, were also hugely involved. And by the time City lost to Arsenal at the Emirates near the end of April, they were safe. We can say that for sure because they only went on to pick up one more point that season, drawing with Watford.
But when he was back in the team, Michael Johnson looked the part and fitted into the team like he had been playing Premier League football for a decade. Then, though, City sacked their manager. It didn’t really come as too much of a surprise, since they hadn’t scored a Premier League goal at home in five months. The club changed owners, too. The new manager quickly became a fans’ favourite and he brought with him a wealth of talent from around the world.
Sven’s City began the season well, losing out only to a fine goal at the Emirates after wins against West Ham, Derby and Manchester United. The goal that beat Derby was City’s first at home since Samaras’s eight months earlier and was scored by one Michael Johnson. A beautiful curler from the edge of the box with the outside of his foot. He scored the winner against Aston Villa that season, too, a graceful run from midfield ending with him slotting the ball beyond Scott Carson.
Sven was saying all good things about him. His team-mates likewise. The media more so. The City fans even more so; some were saying he reminded them of a former City hero, held in the highest esteem: Colin Bell. In truth, the praise was very premature. He had only been in the team for half a season, but he was definitely one to watch. In fact, he was a lynchpin in Sven’s successful City team and he was definitely missed when form took a turn for the worse after the New Year.
The injury that caused him to miss many games that season seemed an innocuous abdominal one. But, while he was out, he had a double hernia operation and, when he did return towards the end of the campaign, he never truly seemed fit and like he had recovered. The season ended and a new manager came in and, this time through City’s lack of funds more than anything, he survived the upheaval once again.
Mark Hughes liked him and Johnson started well, linking up with Stephen Ireland and Elano in a distinctly average start to the season. City were taken over. Robinho arrived as a marquee signing. City lost to Chelsea and faced Brighton & Hove Albion in the League Cup. And that trip to the Withdean Stadium was more costly than a simple, embarrassing League Cup exit: There was a recurrence of Johnson’s abdominal injury and he didn’t play another game that season.
The following summer, City had the chance to truly flex their financial muscle – and they did. Once again, Johnson survived the cull, but this time he had spent over seven months injured and this could have been one of the biggest contributing factors. He was ready for pre-season, where he played (and picked up a minor injury) in a friendly with Orlando Pirates. He was ready for the end of September, where he came off the bench for two minutes in City’s 3-1 win over West Ham.
City, though, were in the middle of their infamous run of draws and patchy form, and therefore weren’t in a position to be re-introducing players from long term injuries into the side. But, with the League Cup game at home to Scunthorpe being over at 4-1, Johnson got about 20 minutes at the end of the match. In that time, he showed moments of passing and vision that the City fans remembered him for, and he went on to score the best goal of the night – a long range effort on his weaker foot. It looked like he was back in the business, though he needed some game time and City’s form was still poor as they continued to draw games.
But, on 10 December 2009, it was announced that Johnson had broken down in training and suffered a serious knee injury. He was back to square one, after almost a year of hard work to get back to fitness and coming so close to achieving it. He’s not been named in another City squad, fourteen months on.
This week, though, they travelled to Greece to play Aris Salonika in the Europa League. On the plane and available for selection was Michael Johnson. He didn’t make the squad, in the end, but he’s clearly in the manager’s thinking. He’s on his fourth City manager and each of them has seen something in him that is worth keeping: Roberto Mancini, it has been revealed this week, blocked loan moves to Leeds and Crystal Palace because he is on the fringes of the squad, at least.
After such a long time on the sidelines and such improvements made to City’s squad since he was last playing regularly for City, Johnson fights an uphill battle just to make it back into the team. City have moved on a long way and there’s a very real danger that Johnson has been left behind. Getting his place back won’t be easy; nevermind the fight he has on his hands to fulfil the potential he showed back in 2007. There are so many examples of players who have never been the same after long term injuries. It would be easy to think, in fact, that Johnson’s ship has sailed from the City port – which would be unfortunate given the time he’s had, but football is a cut-throat world.
Providing his injuries haven’t had too much of an effect on him, he can still provide City with an option that they have been lacking recently – some cutting edge through a packed defence. And I don’t think there’s a single City fan that wouldn’t like to see him back in the team, keeping fit and playing like we all used to see.
Welcome back, Michael. We’ve all missed you.
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