I first saw Adam Johnson play in a pre-season friendly at Carlisle when he was seventeen or so. He reminded me of a friend of mine from primary school who wore a duffel coat all-year round and lived on a diet of Heinz tomato soup and Jacobs crackers. I wrote this about him in 2010 inspired by a conversation with Bob Fischer.
There's an episode of Porridge in
which the inmates receive a letter from the recently released Lukewarm.
Lukewarm has returned to his native Teesside and encountered prejudice because
of his homosexuality. Godber expresses surprise at the news, "I thought
people were more tolerant these days," he says. "Not in Middlesbrough
they're not," Fletcher counters. "They are a hard uncompromising
bunch of men in Middlesbrough. As is attested to by their football team."
I recalled this scene the other
day when a friend told me that when he met Adam Johnson, "I drew his
attention to the fact he bears a strong facial resemblance to kd lang".
The winger was apparently unimpressed. "He denied it vehemently," my
friend said. "To be honest, he got a bit huffy."
Times have moved on since Godber
and Fletcher were banged up in HMP Slade, yet despite the widespread acceptance
in dressing rooms across the land of man-bags and moisturisers, it is fair to
say that telling a north-east footballer he looks like a gay female singing
star is never going to help establish a rapport.
Whether Johnson resembles the
woman who sang Constant Craving, or not, I will leave for others to judge. What
is certain is that he looks like a player from a bygone age. With his pallid
slenderness he has the aura of the romantic hero from one of those chaste yet
romantic blockbusters that tantalise teenage girls: "She was drawn to him
passionately, yet knew that if she was to give herself to him, even once, then
she would be pulled irrevocably into his twilight world. She too would become
... a winger."
They've more or less disappeared
these days, but back in the 1960s English football could always find room for
boys such as Johnson. Spectral waifs who looked permanently goosebumped by a
chill wind, cuffs grasped in fists and shoulders hunched against the climate
like the chesty lad who has foolishly persuaded his mother not to send a note
to the PE master seeking permission to keep his vest on during games.
Teeth chattering, they glided
over the ground, controlling the ball with feet that moved so loosely it was as
if they were attached to their hips not by bone, muscle and sinew, but by
lengths of velvet cord. They were so pale it was as if they have never ventured
out in daylight, or spent the afternoon lying under a sun-bed with the dial set
to "suck". The sun reflected off their cheekbones giving them a
luminous quality so that, even on a bright afternoon, you seemed to be watching
them under floodlights, in black and white.
Take a peek at film of George
Best back in the day when he looked like the fifth Beatle rather than some
chubby geezer who played session marimbas on the second Eagles album. Or Peter
Marinello, Peter Knowles, Ian Storey-Moore or Tony Green (scoring on Match of
the Day for Blackpool, David Coleman burbling, "No wonder they say this
boy is worth £100,000", and sounding to modern ears like Dr Evil demanding
a million dollars in return for sparing the world from destruction). All of
them lads who guarded their mercurial image and seemed to live for the day they
provoked the rampantly romantic Barry Davies to squawk ecstatically: "Oh, my
word, and you have to admire the sheer impudence of the boy!"
Not that the pale winger was
above getting involved physically. Indeed he was always likely to get his
marching orders after lashing out a boot when an opponent felled him for the
third time, then towered over him growling: "What's up, pet, dropped a
false eyelash?" On other occasions he would react to the cynicism and
brutality of a defender by subjecting him to a humiliating demonstration of
ball artistry. And then spitting straight in his face from 10 paces.
The pallid slim ones largely
disappeared in the 1980s, though a few kept the flame burning thereafter. Gary
Crosby, who succeeded the scurrying Franz Carr – a member of that large society
of speeding wingers whose only problem is that no football pitch is ever quite
long enough for them – at Nottingham Forest was one who springs to mind. Steve
These days the role of the winger
has changed. The last time I watched the left-footed Johnson play, he was
cutting in from the right. Wingers who cut inside are the latest football
fashion. At one time you played left-footed players on the left and
right-footed players on the right as if it was the natural order of the
universe. But since Spain won the European Championship using a system that,
like some world-saving McGuffin in Dr Who, reversed the polarity of the
widemen, cutting inside is de rigeuer. It's even revived the career of Steed
Malbranque, an entity previously so lifeless strangers in County Durham were
attaching floral tributes to it.
Soon the wing-backs will be
cutting inside too, and the area around the D of the penalty area will resemble
a Dark Age battle with two walls of men shoving each other, apparently unaware
that there is acres of room simply to go round. In fact this is probably how
rugby union started.