THIS week grumpy old manager Martin O’Neill was bemoaning another aspect of the modern game, the fashion for multi-coloured, wafer-thin football boots. But Sunderland’s boss is not afraid to exploit the changed landscape when it suits him.
When the Black Cats play at Manchester City today, Adam Johnson will be kitted out in the red-and-white stripes (and quite possibly matching boots) of his local team, not the blue of the Premier League champions.
That Sunderland were able to sign one of England’s best players – even at the cost of £10m – is thanks to the influx of foreign talent and the habit the top clubs have developed of collecting footballers like, in the terms of old-schoolers such as O’Neill, cigarette cards.
Johnson is by no means the only player whose career fell foul of joining too big a club, too early. Between them, Chelsea and City have ushered quite a few players who thought they were on the verge of greatness into obscurity. James Milner, Joleon Lescott and Jack Rodwell should all have designs on being England regulars.
Yet they had plenty of time to reflect from the City bench on Wednesday night that just getting a game for their club is a stiff enough ask. Likewise Theo Walcott at Arsenal, and Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck the previous day.
England’s Champions League giants would rather have talented internationals sat on their backsides – reserve-team football has become a virtual no-go zone for the rich and famous – than playing elsewhere.
Clubs like Sunderland cannot get on their high-horse about it either. Yesterday they loaned Ryan Noble to League One Hartlepool United, a youngster victim of a similar lack of opportunities at the Stadium of Light.
The 19-year-old is at the back of a queue headed by Steven Fletcher, Louis Saha, Fraizer Campbell, Ji Dong-won and Connor Wickham – four full internationals and an England Under-21 striker. Many an exciting prospect has been happy, as Johnson was when he decided to leave Middlesbrough, to either back themselves to unseat established stars, or failing that take the riches on offer for understudies.
But when – if – pride finally stops them picking up the pay cheque they have done little to earn, the likes of O’Neill are ready to pounce.
If Milner is next, you can bet the manager who took the Yorkshireman from Newcastle United to Aston Villa will be asking owner Ellis Short how much is in the Sunderland piggy bank.
“Adam did not play often enough at City,” he reflects. “They can take some reflected glory of winning the championship (for younger readers, he means the Premier League, not the division below) but the truth is players want to play more often than being left out and that applied to Adam. Adam did want to play more and got a better chance here.
“He may well with the big schedule they (City) have been playing in Champions League have got a run in the league. He must have thought about that. That must have been a dilemma, leaving a big team, who have won things and are capable of winning more. But he wanted to go.
“His position for England became very important. Roy Hodgson has said it would be better to see his players playing. I do think that played a part in his thinking. England is very important to him. That helped sway him and it is good news for us.”
Johnson, who could have gone direct to Sunderland from Middlesbrough had he wanted to two years ago, has confirmed as much in an interview with The Journal today.
O’Neill is of an era when only Alan Ball wore boots that were not black, and what an England manager said on the Tube, stayed on the Tube. But he is no stranger to playing for big teams, as his two European Cup (Champions League in modern parlance) winners’ medals prove.
“You can go to a club like City and take off or really struggle,” he says. “If you come out a better player, a stronger player, better mentality does it matter? But the length of time you are out must not only disappoint you but frustrate you.
“Adam always thought he could hold down a place in the side and I hope we can reap the benefit.
“Has he a point to prove? Yes, we all have. Going back there (to Eastlands this afternoon), he will relish it. We have to get him into the game. He will want to do well and I hope he comes up big in the game.”
At £2m more, Fletcher has already scored five goals in a Sunderland career which only stretches to four Premier League games. But it was the bit-part player signed hours later who did most to excite the Wearside public in August.
“He has great talent,” says O’Neill. “Terrific ability.
“In the course of the year I hope he can lift us. He has the ability to lift us.”