12 May 2014. When the dust settled on Wearside and Sunderland had escaped the 2013/14 BPL season un-relegated, Adam Johnson - the clubs highest goal scorer and assist creator - awaited the announcement of England's 30-man squad for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The winger concluded his season as the fifth-highest scoring English midfielder, the highest non-central midfielder for assists created, and was the only English player that season to grind out a hat-trick going into the World Cup. It was reasonable to assume that, as players with fewer accomplishments were being selected, an in-form Adam Johnson was a good shout, to step out of international darkness and shine on the biggest stage in world football.
Not even in the reserves.
Now, the allegiant Black Cats support, our somewhat ingratiated national Head Coach, and Adam Johnson himself understand why it never happened. The Easington native publicly queried it; to play for a monopolised club infrequently and be in demand, to then play regularly at a poorer club and become surplus to requirements. The player himself hadn't declined in his consistency, so what warranted his international snub?
Sunderland supporters often see the apt talking point being the consistency itself. Martin O'Neill justified Johnson's £10million expenditure in 2012 with guaranteed excitement; response was lively in high spirit, the league winning local boy had come home. Rarely has there been a player that Sunderland fans have genuinely wanted to believe in, to see do good, and be meritorious in glorious red and white.
Yet at the close of his inaugural season on Wearside, opinions on Johnson turned divisive. Under O'Neill and Paolo Di Canio the winger was, in part, perceived to be the antithesis of his promise; visibly lacking in fitness and motivation, frustrating to watch, slow in attack and - as some defended - struggling without the support of higher-calibre team-mates. This unconvincing footballer was not the Adam Johnson once celebrated at Middlesbrough and Manchester City.
Or, it was. Roberto Mancini ostracised Adam Johnson's tenure; publicly vilified his commitment, and consigned him as a bench warmer for nearly half of his appearances for Manchester City. That vast potential his Italian head coach foresaw in January 2010 was at first unmistakable, as then-22 year old Johnson garnered 5 assists from 16 games.
However his celebrated acquisition was undetectable come the wingers' 2011/12 season. In this, his closing season with the Citizens, Johnson accumulated 6 goals from just 1147 minutes of game time afforded to him; less time than his initial half-season in Manchester, and lowest in his senior career. His passing however reached a personal best (87%), he had doubled his chance creation rate, and tallied productive goal and assist figures for a surplus substitute. Johnson admitted publicly that, if only given regular starts, he could do more.
This is where criticism of Adam Johnson at Sunderland has context. He played 2956 minutes in his first year on Wearside; accumulating 6 assists - his career best - and 5 goals. However, compare his 2010/11 campaign at Manchester City, where Johnson played 1540 minutes and tallied one fewer of both. There was no significant improvement. His attributed technical runs were only 35% successful - his career lowest. Being part of Martin O'Neill's defensive paradigm, Johnson was regularly swarmed in midfield, and never being substituted only added more exposure to his limitations. He probably expected different but supporters still expected more.
It took fifteen months and three head coaches to get more. Gus Poyet understood that the ethos under O'Neill was crippling Johnson's natural talent and his influential stamina rarely last 90 minutes. By utilising the Middlesbrough youth product as a conventional winger, rather than a wide midfielder, it freed Johnson's creative clout.
Poyet explained that his winger was dangerous at 18 yards, and it showed. 2 of Adam Johnson's 8 goals in 2013/14 came from finishing parried shots at 6 yards; he created 5 assists, and his successful take-ons upped to 52%. His awesome mid-season form was the lesser-regarded influence in Sunderland's ‘Great Escape'. Arguably, Adam Johnson ended the season as the finished article.
Adam Johnson is now on the other side of his soul-shattering, contentious World Cup snub. Supporters might be relieved he hasn't reverted back to alluring clubs in the upper ascendancy of European competition. Instead, Johnson's recent assumption that "big club bias" denied his international aspiration is insightful to where, psychologically, he now sees his career. He did not submit a transfer request and that is credit to his character.
The dilemma now for Johnson is to convince supporters that he hasn't peaked. In this 2014/15 league campaign, Johnson has 0 Premier League assists and 1 goal in 12 games. Hardly exciting but isn't without merit. Johnson has a 50% shooting accuracy this season, his average take-ons per game is double that of his first season on Wearside and, at 1.8 per game, is his best since the first season at Manchester City.
His average heat map has remained consistent - still being the furthest player forward per game than any other at Sunderland. Importantly, of technical take-ons, his success rate has rocketed to 68%. These figures are rarely praised but crucial now; as supporters look to Johnson for a creative spark when his team struggle with mediocrity. Poyet, too, has advocated his number 11's ability as too valuable to not take advantage of for a club like Sunderland.
A corroding dream of representing his country will test Johnson this season. At 27, our mackem winger is running out of time and potential. He reaches a peak age occasionally seen as the beginning of the end for sufficiently-talented wingers. Though his flair makes him attuned for creative central roles, Johnson must be assertive in rupturing all his wing-play limitations now.
He has refuted suggestions of surrendering to Hodgson's popularity-prejudiced squad selections, yet it's possible that the World Cup snub has frustrated his motivation. And so, this season is perhaps the most obscure of Johnson's career; to either remain focused and rise to new heights, or submit to inconsistencies and never know. This season, Adam Johnson goes into darkness.