Deal that makes no sense - striker puts England on hold as club gambles future

The Selhurst Park golden boy's status as the highest-paid player in the Championship could become a millstone if the Eagles miss out on the top flight. Jason Burt reports

Given that the average wage in the division is around £4,000 a week, the scale of yesterday's announcement appears even greater. It will certainly make interesting reading to Johnson's team-mates at Crystal Palace, some of whom will have seen their pay reduced, not more than double, since relegation from the Premiership.

But Jordan, the Crystal Palace chairman, has always been someone with more than a modicum of chutzpah. It was with relish yesterday that he claimed that he could not even recall how much Tottenham Hotspur, Everton and La Liga's Seville had bid for Johnson in the last couple of months (the top offer was probably around £7m). The letters slipped off his fax machine, he said, and remained unread. "One of the top two or three strikers in the Premiership," was simply, totally, non-negotiably not for sale. Even if he was not in the Premiership any more.

On the face of it, the new contract makes no sense - professionally for the player and economically for the club. Certainly not for Johnson, as there are four weeks to go in the transfer window, clubs would have definitely come calling again and the salary is at least what he could have commanded elsewhere. And not for Palace, who have now saddled themselves with a contract which will total £6.2m over its duration.

If they remain outside the Premiership, that will become crippling even for a man of Jordan's wealth and, if Johnson's form fades, they will not be able to recoup anything like the money they were offered for the 24-year-old this summer. The golden handcuffs may come with a ball and chain.

Nevertheless, Jordan yesterday insisted that with Johnson, Palace were certainties for promotion. Without him, he said, that was unlikely. "If I give AJ away for £10m-15m, I lose £25m for not getting in the Premiership," Jordan said. "That is not good business - that is stupidity."

What Jordan did not add, of course, is that no club had offered that kind of fee. With Johnson's performances last season - in which he scored 21 Premiership goals, the second-highest total, and the highest by an English player, and did so in a relegated team, and as a lone striker - it remains puzzling that he was not more in demand. It would have been all the more galling for him and his advisers that Peter Crouch, the Southampton striker, and a player he partnered on England's post-season tour to the United States, moved so seamlessly to Liverpool for £7m.

"There are clubs in the Champions' League who would like to sign AJ," the Palace manager, Iain Dowie, said yesterday. "But we have done it. You always fear that you might lose him but we never wanted to sell him."

So it is Crouch, not Johnson, who is playing in Europe. Both are direct rivals for that World Cup squad.

With his movement, touch and energy, Johnson has all the attributes to continue to succeed even if his new contract will undoubtedly pile the pressure on him to do so and, crucially, from somewhere where he is outside the main arena.

It is ironic that Johnson only arrived at Selhurst Park in the first place as the £750,000 makeweight that took Clinton Morrison to Birmingham City for £4.25m three summers ago. Johnson's record at Birmingham was unimpressive - 13 goals in 102 matches - but the mitigation was clear. Half the appearances were as a substitute, many playing wide. For a long time he was simply famous for missing the crucial penalty in a shootout for Birmingham in the 2001 Worthington Cup final defeat against Liverpool.

Once free of injury, Johnson certainly blossomed under Dowie. The 32 goals he scored in the promotion season were referred to again yesterday and Jordan was unequivocal in what he now expects.

"He will be playing in a team better than in the First Division before and better than last year. I am expecting him to score a significant amount of goals."

How many would suffice? Sixty, Jordan said, and Johnson would be in the "England team" next year. And Palace would undoubtedly be back in the Premiership.

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