Adam Johnson knows what it is like to play for a football club starved of glory, but he also understands what it is like to break the spell.
As the son of a family of Sunderland supporters, Johnson is better placed than most to realise what is at stake and on offer when the Black Cats take on his old club Manchester City for the League Cup at Wembley tomorrow.
Ten years ago this weekend, a teenage Johnson felt the transformative effect a first major trophy had on Middlesbrough.
In 2011 he came off the bench as City ended a 35-year drought with the FA Cup.
Twelve months later he was a champion of England, something no City player had been able to say for 44 years.
Sunderland’s barren run currently stands at 41 years. There are parallels, but differences too.
City might have been poor relations at “show us yer medals” time, but not on the balance sheet. Middle Eastern money was already flooding into their coffers.
It dulled the sense of relief at beating Stoke City, if only in the dressing room. Johnson reflects: “Maybe with the players we had, we never felt that. We just knew we had to win that game with all those winners, I just felt there was only one team going to win it.
“It was more a relief for the fans who had waited so long for it, but a lot of the players were quite new.
“It was the fans who had been watching the team for 20 years or more and seen them struggle. As soon as we won that, we just went on and on.”
It might be a window on to the mindsets of the current City squad as they return to Wembley as overwhelming favourites again.
While the Wearsiders in the stands will be desperate for victory, few will expect it.
As Johnson puts it: “With City that year we were expected to win. With Sunderland this year we’re not. The fans of City are wanting that success every year, without doubt. They’re disappointed if they’re not winning two and three trophies.
“At Sunderland it’s been amazing for us to get to the final full stop. The fans are delighted. I’ve seen texts and they’re just delighted to be having a day out at Wembley.
“On the other hand, the City fans are expecting this now, so it’s different. It’s a different sort of pressure. Having been on both sides of it, we’re going there with nothing to lose. We can go and play with freedom and try and win the game. If City don’t win it will be a massive failure for them, won’t it?”
Given Sunderland have won three of their last five games against City (losing one), it is hard to imagine the final being as one-sided as the bookmakers’ odds (the Black Cats were available at 9/1 yesterday) suggest.
Johnson added: “When we beat (Manchester) United in the (2011 FA Cup) semi-final and then met Stoke in the final, everyone was expecting City to turn over Stoke but it was not as simple as that.
“It was only 1-0 with Yaya (Toure) scoring. We were expected to win that game and then there was all that pressure of almost 40 years wihtout a trophy but now they are expected to win trophies every year just like that.
“It was nice to be part of that, a little bit of history for the club.
“Those open-top bus days, they are the ones you have to remember. The two days afterwards are just crazy.
“The fans out on the street and things. I can only imagine what it would be like here if we are able to do that.”
Middlesbrough youth-teamer Johnson did not even go to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium ten years ago, but still felt its effect.
He said: “I was 16. I remember the atmosphere on the training ground building up to the final. It was a great day out for everyone including all the lads who went to watch.
“Afterwards, the win gave everyone a lift around the whole training ground, not just the first team.
“It went down to the young lads as well and fired us to wanting to get there.”
Johnson had relatives at the 1992 FA Cup final and expects some were probably at the 1973 showpiece too as Sunderland beat Leeds United to lift their last major trophy.
Yet anyone who has spent any time as a Sunderland player knows all too well winning at Wembley can equal immortality.
As journalists filed into the Stadium of Light for this week’s pre-match press day they were greeted by a grinning, suited and booted Jimmy Montgomery.
He played more times for Sunderland than anyone, but it is for his stunning saves in the 1973 FA Cup final the goalkeeper will always be remembered.
Johnson added: “I see Jimmy around the stadium and how much of a legend he is.
“It’s not just for that one day, but I think that one day made him who he is today. I know he’s played loads of times but that one save he made has made him a legend forever.
“That could happen to one of us on Sunday, couldn’t it? That’s how one moment in a game can change a lifetime. If you score the winner in the last minute, that’s it isn’t it?”
Adam Johnson: Silverware is invaluable in such a football-mad region
Having been attached to all three major North East clubs in one way or another, there is no danger of Adam Johnson underestimating the importance of football to the region.
Johnson has progressed from Newcastle United ball-boy to £10m Sunderland winger via a spell as Middlesbrough youth product.
“In the North East, football is so massive,” he says. “You are brought up with it living up here. I had a ball wherever I went. That was my life, playing football. Everyone up here just loves it.” Although ultimately unable to sustain it, Middlesbrough’s 2004 League Cup success was the first step in the club’s most successful era. For Johnson’s Sunderland to beat Manchester City in tomorrow’s League Cup final would be a similar breakthrough.
“At Boro, we got to the Uefa Cup final and Europe two years in a row on the back of that cup win,” Johnson points out. “Then there was the players we attracted and how much the club was talked about. That just shows how massive it is.
“If we can get a win on Sunday, who knows where it will take us. We just have to concentrate on trying to win this one first but it did push Boro on.”
Born in Easington, Johnson’s childhood loyalties have been the subject of much conjecture but he grew up in a Sunderland-supporting family. “I was at Newcastle when I was ten until 12 and I first went there as a ball-boy,” he explains. “But my whole family has always been Sunderland.
“My first game as a young kid was Sunderland. It was always the first result I looked out for as a kid growing up. Everyone presumed I was a Newcastle fan because I was there.
“Then I went to Boro and everyone presumed that because I had played for Newcastle, I was a fan. But I wasn’t really. (David) Ginola was a winger I looked up to at Newcastle about that time but (Ryan) Giggs was my hero.
“I have had ties with all the North East clubs throughout my career really. Growing up at Boro, they were the ones who gave me my opportunity so Boro then became the first result I looked out for. So I never really had a team that I followed but my whole family was Sunderland.”
Newcastle’s poor recent record in bringing through young talent cost them Johnson’s services. “I left Newcastle because more people got the chance at Boro,” he reasons. “Boro’s Academy was more renowned. I had a choice to stay but Stan Nixon was a coach at Newcastle at the time and was leaving to go to Boro and said come with me. I had an older cousin at Boro as well.
“I had family who went to the (FA Cup) final in 92. Malcom Crosby was the manager that day and he ended up being my reserve team manager at Middlesbrough, so I speak to him quite regularly. There’s all these connections down the line.”
Adam Johnson: I don't have any regrets about joining Manchester City
Adam Johnson has no regrets about joining Manchester City.
There were high hopes for one of England’s most exciting young players when he moved to Eastlands for £7m in 2010.
However, in two and a half years he made just 39 Premier League starts.
The winger fell victim to City’s fondness for off-the-peg overseas stars over developing English talent and a clash of personalities with then-manager Roberto Mancini.
Yet he said: “I’d still do it again, having that chance to play for City the way they’re going and winning the Premier League.
“The way the club was run, the way I was looked after, I couldn’t fault them for it.
“It’s a great club and but for the circumstances I would still be there now. You want to win medals and I did that there.
“I was disappointed the way it ended. I wanted to play more games. I was not asking to play every week – I knew I couldn’t – I just asked to play one in four. It was as simple as that.
“So I wanted to play somewhere I could play week in, week out and feel more loved.
“With a different manager, who knows?
“Player after player after player was coming in and I was slowly going further backwards.
“That’s what it’s always going to be like at City, there’s always going to be the next best thing coming in.
“I think the fans at every club I’ve been involved with have loved me, it’s more the managers having trust in me playing.”
If Johnson was a small fish in a big pond at Eastlands, it was the opposite when Sunderland paid £10m for him.
He added: “I knew that was going to be the case but especially early on it didn’t really work. That happens.
“Everyone was expecting me to come in and we would finish in Europe but it’s never as simple, is it?
“Looking at it now we seem to have come out of it.”