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Concrete playgrounds to league titles for magic Johnson
Sunderland fans have waited for a while for Adam Johnson to move to Wearside . Chief football writer Paul Fraser looks back at the winger's journey to the top and finds out about the hunger he holds to stay there.
FOR the last two-and-a-half years he has been showcasing his wing wizardry skills at Manchester City and before that he had been doing it for years with Middlesbrough at first team level and below.
Now Sunderland supporters will be treated on a regular basis to his ability to run with the ball, something which could well turn out to be the best thing for England too.
But Adam Johnson's reputation for an exceptional dribbler started way back. In fact, when he was just five years of age he was leaving professional footballers stunned in amazement with his tricks and technique.
Not content with playing football in the park or in the house with his father, Dave, Johnson would be a regular at summer training camps and school holiday courses set up by Sunderland and former Hartlepool United midfielder Brian Honour.
“I will always remember turning up at 9.15 for a 10am start at Horden for one of my sessions,” said Honour. “I had only just started my courses, I had only just left Pools so I was in good nick still, I looked after myself.
“Here was this kid, five-year-old, warming up on his own 45 minutes before anyone else was due to get there, so I thought I would give him a game of one v one on this bone hard concrete playground. “I have never forgot how he dropped the shoulder against me, even then at five. I went one way, he went the other, and I ended up arse-over-tit as he waltzed past me. The shimmy he does now was there then. I remember thinking this kid has got something.”
Johnson's slight frame did leave Honour to think 'he could have done with a good dinner'. What the youngster did not have in size, he made up for in endeavour and talent, something which soon caught the eye of others.
His family knew they had a schoolboy with a knack for football. He seemed to spend every hour of every day outside – or inside - with a ball, dreaming of emulating his favourite players like Manchester United's Ryan Giggs and Newcastle's David Ginola.
The problem his parents, Dave and Sonia, had, though, was that there was nowhere for their boy to try out team football in the area where he was brought up, in a tiny estate called Grants Houses which sits between Easington and Horden.
So Johnson ended up travelling 25 minutes south every Sunday for home games and at least once during midweek for training, having been told about his first club, Cleveland Juniors.
George Blake, the brother of former Burnley and Darlington striker Robbie, had dropped down to Under-8s after nurturing the talent of former Hartlepool and Quakers full-back Paul Arnison up to Under-16s.
“We could tell straight-away he was special,” said Blake, 49, who has been with Cleveland Juniors for 26 years. “We would play in tournaments and even at the age he would just breeze past four or five players as if they weren't there. Other teams, like Marton, were jealous of us for having such a talent in our team – that's how good he was, even then.
“I didn't have him for more than three years because he left us at under-11 when he went up to Newcastle United to play for their academy. But I look back on that time I had with him and still tell all of the kids with us now that Adam is someone they should look up to.
“He has been back and done our presentations. He is a credit to his family, his parents, I just wish we had had him longer because he was brilliant, the real stand out player.
“The thing with Adam was that he just wanted to be coached, that's what we keep saying to the youngsters even now. He wanted to listen. When we have children, we always say here is a an England player, this is what he was like, he used to listen.”
Blake recommended Newcastle had a look at Johnson, so he spent a couple of years working under John Carver, who was a youth coach on Tyneside . But when Carver, who later took him on loan to Leeds United, was promoted to first team level by Ruud Gullit, things changed.
Suddenly the Johnsons never felt happy with how things were going and his small size had become an issue for the coaching staff at the Magpies. When he was invited down for a trial to Middlesbrough by Peter Kirtley, it was accepted.
From there his rise to prominence really started. There were concerns about his growth and development, with Middlesbrough's academy director Dave Parnaby fearing 'his pelvic issues meant his muscles and bones were not growing at the same rate'.
Despite finding Under-18s football quite tough – even if he helped Boro to FA Youth Cup success in 2004 – because of his size, his body started to grow properly at 16 and Johnson's ability began to hit new levels.
“I have stayed in touch with the family and Adam and I still call him Magic Johnson,” said Honour. “When I had him it was around the time when (Earvin) Magic Johnson was huge in basketball and it's stuck with him. He might have been small but all the way through, what you saw then was what you see now in many ways today, he was a dribbler.”
As a pupil at Easington Community Science College he was not only a key member of the team, but also a regular for the Peterlee District team. Long before he earned his first full England cap on May 24 against Mexico, Johnson had already shone at Wembley.
It was not a victorious appearance. Peterlee lost in the semi-final of a seven-a-side tournament when the team with the most corners went through if the game was tied. Disappointment was eased, though, particularly for his father, when Johnny Haynes told him 'You're a great little player with a lovely left foot'.
There was a time when Johnson could have turned his hand to another, more unusual sport. Between the ages of five and seven he was also in to riding motor bikes and has the medals and trophies to show for it.
But despite enjoying motorcross, he became too fast and it became too dangerous for him so the decision was taken he would concentrate on his football.
Eighteen years later and it's fair to assume Johnson is happy with the outcome. After making his first team debut in the UEFA Cup in Sporting Lisbon in March 2005, it was not until the drop in to the Championship in 2009 that he became a regular at the Riverside after loan spells at Watford and Leeds.
He was sold to Manchester City in the mid-season transfer window in 2010 in a deal eventually worth £8m. In the time that has followed, he has got his hands on a Premier League winner's medal, an FA Cup winner's medal and a Community Shield gong. With those stored away safely in his safe, Johnson has no regrets. But at the age of 25, having missed out on an appearance at the World Cup and European Championships for his country, he has aspirations he wants to fulfil following his move to Sunderland.
Johnson, who has also played in the Champions League, said: “I had the choice to sign for City or Sunderland when I left Boro, but looking back I think anyone in my position would have signed for City at the time. “They were a team moving quickly and were the team to go to. I’d do it again if I had the choice because I won the Premier League and the FA Cup and that was my aim as a kid growing up. At least when I finish playing I can say I’ve done that.
“The medals are great, not many people get to win the FA Cup and the Premier League. Those days were major highs, I had some great days with City, the players are great, most of the staff were brilliant with me. It’s a fantastic club and I hope they win the league again.”
Now he's closer to home. The first game he ever went to was at Roker Park, when Liverpool paid a visit in the mid-90s, and he went along with his family. He can't remember too much about the occasion, but now has every intention of becoming a local hero at Sunderland's latest home, the Stadium of Light.
Despite everything that has gone on he remains grounded and that little schoolboy desperate to play remains strong inside of him. Johnson has already achieved, but is hungry for more.
“I probably played my best football before I left to go to City at Middlesbrough when I was that sort of guy,” he said. “When you go to City you’re playing with world class players across the pitch so I didn’t have that same responsibility. “I don’t mind having that sort of pressure. But I’ve come here to play football and once I’m playing week in, week out, I’m sure I can deliver when I have to.”
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