Banished to the bench after an unlucky 13 Premier League starts. Not quite how things were supposed to pan out for the £6 million man.
On the training pitches of Compton last week Roger Johnson was told to look towards the unlikely surrounds of Gigg Lane and the Manor Ground in a bid to find resurrection. Now he is odds-on to return at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford.
Gigg Lane and the Manor Ground? It was at those unlikely footballing outposts where Mick McCarthy’s own career was falling apart and then put back together after he had finally reached the big time with Man City.
“I was like a baby looking forward to playing in the First Division,” McCarthy once said of his expectations for the 1985/86 season.
Johnson, likewise, was full of hope for this season despite having played for Blues for two seasons already in the top flight – without missing a single league game.
McCarthy’s City began a difficult season of consolidation at Coventry with a 1-1 draw. After a home draw to Leicester and away defeat at Sheffield Wednesday they won at Albion and beat Spurs but they’d draw four and lose seven of their next 11 league games, finally winning again at Nottingham Forest in November which took them out of the relegation places.
An own goal against Southampton in September, a poor backpass in the next game – a 3-0 home defeat to rivals Manchester United – and another own goal against West Ham the following week sapped McCarthy’s s confidence. “It was a nightmare,” he recalled. “And it just continued. The more I tried to get things right the worse I seemed to get.”
A penalty against him for handball at Bury (September 25, 1985) in the League Cup ironically turned his fortunes around.
“I thought: ‘Well bugger it, it can’t be all my fault’.” In the next game, three days later at Oxford, he “went back to basics”.
Against John Aldridge and despite a 1-0 defeat he came through his darkness into light.
McCarthy recalled the events of that troubled month at Maine Road, 26 years ago, to illustrate to Johnson how things can turn.
“We played Bury and somebody shot from about 35 or 40 yards and I was just stood in the box. The ball hit me on the hand and it was a penalty. I thought: ‘that’s not me... that can’t be me’ but we won 2-1. I’d had a run of mistakes and own goals and stuff and then we played Oxford and I thought: ‘right... back to basics.’
“We played them on the Saturday and I played against Joe Cooke and Mick Harford and it was a real ding-dong. Perhaps Cookie had gone by then but it was that era.
“Anyway I had a right war with them. It was head it, kick it.. and I had my best game. It really was ‘re boot’.. switch me off, switch me back on and I came back the player I was. And from then on I just returned to playing in my usual form, which had been good at City.”
Similarly, Johnson shone against Sunderland. McCarthy adds: “Roger came on played really well. There were a couple of good headers. He’d trained brilliantly all week as I’d told him on the Tuesday he wouldn’t be playing.”
Has the captaincy affected him?: “Not at all,” says McCarthy. “Just sometimes it happens. There’s no reason for it. ‘Jarvo’ went through it. Players are human beings and at times, like the own goal at Liverpool, there was nothing Roger could do about it. Something like that can just change it, you try and repair it a little bit and it gets worse. You try harder and it doesn’t seem to get any better for you.”