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The Mysterious Case of Mr Johnson

When Sunderland signed a league-winning winger for £10m back in August 2012, expectations were high...

Stu Forster

Adam Johnson annoys me. He annoys you. He probably annoys himself.

He is an FA Cup winner. A Premier League winner. An England international. The next big thing. The man who signified that Sunderland meant business; the signing that showed Martin O'Neill was the real deal; the proof that the lean times on Wearside were soon to be swept away.

The reality has often been crushingly different. Johnson has, by and large, disappointed. Where observers expected to see an old-fashioned winger in full flight, terrorising defences and getting in behind with ease, instead they've witnessed a man who often struggles to get into his stride, finds himself blocked off by opposing full-backs and, unmistakably, lacks confidence.

In his year and a half at Sunderland, Johnson's hopes of an England recall have all but disappeared. Mired in relegation battles, his Saturday afternoons are spent at the wrong end of the Premier League table. More worryingly, he has not looked particularly out of place in a poor side, conforming to his teammates' malaise.

Yet, there is something of a paradox about the former Manchester City man. In his debut season at the Stadium of Light, he pitched in with five goals and six assists - not bad in a side that survived relegation by the narrowest of margins, and approaching opposing goalmouths once in a blue moon. He weighed in with crucial game-winning goals, such as his strike against his former side, or the stunning effort that all but sealed last April's Tyne-Wear derby.

In the past week, too, he has shown that there really is quality within the man Ellis Short agreed to spend £10m on. First, in the FA Cup third round, albeit against lower league opposition, Johnson ran the game, playing a part in each of the home side's three goals. Then, on Tuesday evening, he turned the visit of Manchester United on its head. With the visitors having equalised and Sunderland's chances of victory seeming to ebb away, the arrival of a confident, forceful Johnson re-energised both the crowd and the side, and the penalty he won turned out to be the deciding factor in a crucial semi-final.

The question many ask is: why can't he do it more often? Johnson, throughout his spell on Wearside, has shown infrequent glimpses of genuine class, so why does he not do it every week? What is it that stops him?

These are difficult questions to answer. A lack of confidence, certainly, seems to be a contributing factor. Despite having played for a league-winning side, plenty of rumours persist that Johnson struggles with self-belief. When much of his game is reliant upon one-on-one tussles with opposing defenders, a lack of confidence is unlikely to boost his chances.

Infused with this lack of confidence is the sheer weight of expectation on his shoulders. Johnson has long been held up as a shining young star, but with that moniker comes great responsibility. At Sunderland, he was promoted to saviour status, the public face of the Martin O'Neill revolution.

Players can deal with pressure, but there is a special kind of pressure heaped on Johnson - particularly at the Stadium of Light. Since he joined, whenever he receives the ball there is an audible change in the crowd's mood: "do something," they inevitably roar. When he fails to do so - a perfectly acceptable result, given that no footballer can be expected to conjure up magic every time he is involved - the fallout can, at times, be toxic. Johnson has flattered to deceive on plenty of occasions, but the expectations of some are plainly unrealistic.

Tactical choices, too, have done little to aid his chances. O'Neill signed Johnson as an out-and-out winger, then proceeded to deploy him in a team that sat painfully deep. This may well have been out of necessity, but such an excuse was of little benefit to Johnson; the sight of him picking the ball up inside his own half, route to goal blocked by a swathe of defenders and roughly 50 yards of turf, was an all too frequent one last season. Even then, there were glimpses of his prowess: the assist he laid on for Steven Fletcher away at Fulham, for example.

Rather oddly, the winger's best spell in red and white came under the early days of the Paolo Di Canio era. The Italian manager favoured a rather gung-ho attacking approach, and his preference for his players to start high up the field was music to the ears of Johnson, who could now affect games in a far more meaningful way.

Di Canio's reign was, of course, short-lived, but the recent utilisation of Johnson by Gus Poyet may well bear great fruit in the future. Realising his ability to get at defenders when he has the confidence to do so, Poyet has brought the Englishman on as an impact substitute, with Tuesday evening a perfect example. Buoyed by an encouraging crowd, and up against tiring opposition, he had the belief to take players on, driving towards goal with clear intent.

Can he translate this into something more consistent? Will he be happy with being used merely as a substitute, as opposed to a regular starter? Is he simply not as good as we thought?

The former two are impossible to answer right now. The third, however, is simple: no. Johnson does have quality. It is plain to see. Whether he has the confidence, or the work ethic, to exploit that quality to its maximum remains to be seen, but he is undoubtedly a talented footballer.

So, too, is he unfairly maligned. On numerous occasions, Johnson has had me tearing my hair out in frustration, when the actions of a lesser player would merit a sigh at most. Perhaps the reason is that we all wish so badly for him to succeed that, when he doesn't, it is too much to bear. That is more a failing of our own expectations, than a failure by Johnson himself.

Ultimately, Adam Johnson is one of the more talented members of this Sunderland squad. Deployed correctly, he could be a real star. All he needs now is confidence and belief.

And our support.

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