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A Foundation for success
ONLY nine years ago, Adam Johnson was on the street corners with friends, thinking of things to do to occupy his mind on his nights off from football training.
Brought up on the tiny Grants Houses housing estate in between the County Durham pit villages of Easington and Horden, when Johnson did not have his football to occupy his mind, there was little else for him to do.
So when he turned up to one of Sunderland's Foundation of Light's three - soon to be four - outreach centres across the region, he could appreciate the benefits of the work such centres have in local communities.
On this particular occasion his appearance was in Chester-le-Street Cestria, where pupils from the nearby Hermitage Academy secondary school had got a nice surprise when they turned up to see Johnson and John O'Shea ready to challenge them to pool, table football and a game of Fifa 13.
On another day it could easily have been at one of the other Centre of Lights in Derwentside, Sedgefield (opening soon) or Easington, just a short walk from where Johnson used to live and hang out when he was a teenager.
More than 1,000 young people have been through the doors during the five years since it opened, with the local police authority revealing statistics that the Centre of Light has helped save more than £350,000 of repairs on damage from vandalism.
In one particular month last year it was suggested by the local police that alcohol-related youth crime had dropped by 70 per cent, mainly due to the service provided by Sunderland's charity work in the area. Johnson, drawing on his own experiences as a schoolboy, can understand why.
"All of the areas in and around Sunderland are similar and it's hard not to get sucked in to that sort of life," said Johnson. "It was always football for me but once you had left school it was about hitting the streets.
"I was lucky, I had a good family, friends and I led myself away from that side of things. It wasn't too long ago that I was one of them. I was getting up to no good and that. In big cities there might be more for kids to do, but not where I was from, in these places.
"When it is the dark nights you can't play football, so you tend to go out on the streets with your mates. I don't blame kids for that, that's what happens. It's part of growing up. The nights I wasn't at training I would still be out with my mates. You go out when you are young, have a kick around on the streets with friends.
"For me boredom was a big issue. There's nothing much to do apart from getting up to mischief for a lot of kids. Everyone will have experienced it and did it themselves. It's not a massive thing, many teenager will go down the wrong route, though, and centres like these will hopefully steer some away."
Before leaving Easington Community Science College after turning 16, Johnson had already made the sort of progress on a football field to suggest he was not destined to be on the street corners for long.
By that time he had already played at Wembley for Peterlee Boys' district team, had become frustrated at his lack of progress at Newcastle United's academy so swapped to Middlesbrough after shining for Cleveland Juniors.
After leaving school his rise to prominence was pretty rapid. He was involved in Boro's FA Youth Cup success in 2004 and shortly after his 18th birthday he was handed his first team professional debut in a 1-0 defeat to Sporting Lisbon in the UEFA Cup.
"You never know what would have happened had I not been a footballer," said Johnson. "To be so fortunate to be a footballer makes you forget about anything you could have been or might have been. I was a lucky one.
"It was the prospect of being a footballer which spurred me on. The thought of not making it spurred me on even more. There was not going to be anything else for me. It was always football."
Johnson has always had huge confidence in his ability. Even when he was behind Stewart Downing in the pecking order at the Riverside he felt as if he should have been involved.
It was the memory of becoming more and more frustrated with life on the sidelines at Middlesbrough which played a significant part in his decision to leave Manchester City last summer. Getting his hands on a Premier League and FA Cup winners' medal before being left out of the England squad for Euro 2012 was his cue to leave.
Sunderland, with £10m at the ready, offered him his escape route and the opportunity to play regularly in the Premier League, something he had not been able to do before in his career.
"Looking back at my time at Middlesbrough I probably deserved to be playing when I wasn't," said Johnson, who was sold by Boro for £8m in January 2010. "It was the same at Manchester City, although not as much because of the rotation and things.
"That was what this move to Sunderland was about, coming and playing most games. I have done that now. Playing football is what you want to do.
"I wasn't happy to just sit there and let my career pass by. I wanted to come and play and I am happy with my decision."
There is an argument that he wanted too much too young. He said: "If you can handle it, you are good enough. The greatest players in the world are the ones that handled it the earliest. Like (Lionel) Messi or whatever, he played at 17 for Barcelona and has four Ballons D'Or. If you are good enough it doesn't really matter."
Johnson's move to Wearside last summer did not get off to the best of starts. His arrival coincided with a horrible slump which threatened to end with Sunderland in the relegation zone.
He also had to battle to overcome a thigh problem which cost him a place in the England squad, but he has been a key mover in Sunderland's return to form.
Johnson said: "When you are losing and things are not going well you are not going to be as happy as when you are winning. Fingers get pointed when you are losing, the club gets down.
"The run we have been on has given everyone a lift. Creating a goal for me is as good as scoring. As long as having an input in the games and we are winning then I'm happy. That's how it is. But when you come as a big signing there is a lot of expectancy. It doesn't always work out like that."
While the 'finger' was pointed by many supporters in Johnson's direction, O'Neill stood by him. "It does help to keep playing and know the manager is sticking with you," said Johnson.
"The manager knows when to do it. He is one of the best man-managers around and he was keen to let us get on with it. He stuck by me, but I think it was more as a team, it was not just about me."
Feeling better about himself and enjoying the freedom and support of his manager after his frustrations under Roberto Mancini has got him excited about the future again. England?
"I just want to keep playing and see where we can go with Sunderland," said Johnson, who has scored four goals in a Sunderland shirt. "There is a whole 18 months before the next World Cup.
"I just have to concentrate on playing for Sunderland and creating goals. I have been reasonably happy with my goals and assists so far. If I can keep doing that then it can be hard to ignore.
"The World Cup is at the back of my mind and I just have to keep playing, concentrate on playing like I have been in the last few weeks. I still think I'm yet to hit my best, but I'm getting there."