Johnson wings his way into Capello's thoughts

City's new recruit looks to impress on big stage again, writes Steve Tongue
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The Independent Online

If it is hungry and ambitious young men that Fabio Capello wants around him, he should this week add the name of Manchester City's new recruit Adam Johnson to his provisional list of 30-something for the first friendly of this World Cup year, against Egypt, the full squad for which will be confirmed next weekend.

The England manager had already namechecked Johnson as "the best player in the Championship" while looking ahead recently to the Euro 2012 campaign starting in September. Scarcely had he done so, however, than the young winger was winging his way down from Middlesbrough to Manchester and back up to the Premier League, where the media and scouting spotlight shines so much more brightly.

His full debut, at home to Bolton, was live on TV and brought him the man-of-the-match award, so Capello was able to see for himself what his compatriot Roberto Mancini would undoubtedly confirm, that the young man has already taken one daunting step in his stride. He is no stranger to that exalted level, having first appeared for Middlesbrough against Arsenal as long ago as September 2005, as an 18-year-old. He was generally reliant on Stewart Downing suffering an injury, however, to play anything like regularly until Downing departed for Aston Villa last summer following Boro's relegation.

As Johnson pointed out on Friday, it was also very different playing in a team threatened by relegation to one that last week leapt above Liverpool into the top four and will defend that coveted position against Rafa Benitez's side at Eastlands today.

"I know I played in the Premier League with Middlesbrough but we were a struggling team and it was tough for me to show what I could do," he said. "I was defending quite a lot. I think that experience has helped me, I felt like I hadn't been away, but playing now in an attacking team that has the ball all the time, that's what I want, where I don't necessarily have to track the full-backs all game.

"Teams stand off us, especially at home, and that's where I get the freedom to do what I like doing and had the chance to do against Bolton." Do it he did, to notably good effect down the right, where he was able either to come inside on his favoured left foot or go outside his marker and head for the byline; which was how City won the penalty with which Carlos Tevez sent them on their way to victory.

On loan spells to Leeds United and Watford, Johnson had made a habit of winning over supporters early on and he has already done the same to City's. Nor can Middlesbrough complain about having received some £8 million for a product of their excellent academy who could have left for nothing in June, when his contract was up. As the club played a game of brinkmanship in slowly driving the price up, Johnson wondered whether he would finish the season on Teesside, but late on transfer deadline day Boro's manager, Gordon Strachan, finally telephoned to say he could talk to City.

"There were all sorts of things going on in my head," Johnson recalled, "like playing in the Championship I wasn't going to be even seen as much, let alone getting picked [by England]. I needed to be seen on TV most weeks and getting talked about, which wasn't tending to happen in the Championship. I just think you've got to come to the biggest club you can in your career, because you might not get another chance to do that, and to learn off the quality of players that are here and the coaches and be part of what's happening here.

"I want to just prove to everyone that I could play at that level with those sort of players. That makes you a better player and that's what I want, to be the best player I can be."

A less confident newcomer might talk down his international prospects entirely at this stage. Having made 19 appearances for England's Under-21 side, including four at the European Championship finals last June, Johnson cannot wait to take the next step. "That would be unbelievable for me to go to South Africa with England. That's what everyone dreams about, it's the biggest tournament in the world. I want to play on the biggest stages but I think I've got to concentrate on playing like I did on my debut.

"If I can continue like that, hopefully I'll be in with a sniff of a call-up. It would be a dream come true. I've got to just keep working hard on the training field and practicing and then hopefully things will come. You never know, if I play a few games and do well and there's a few injuries..."

There would probably need to be, for the queue for England's wide positions is longer than for any other part of the team: his club-mate Shaun Wright-Phillips, Aaron Lennon and David Beckham on one side; Joe Cole, James Milner, Ashley Young and Downing on the other. Johnson will have a supporter, though in Capello's assistant, Stuart Pearce, the Under-21 coach, who has already successfully pushed for Milner's promotion and is keen to keep the production line moving.

What would Capello get? An exciting dribbler capable of opening up a defence by either trickery or pace, and a goalscorer, Middlesbrough's leading one for the first half of the season. In fact, nothing less than a young Ryan Giggs, according to Mancini, a description that thrilled Johnson as much as anything in this momentous past month. "I've modelled my game on Giggs. Without a doubt anyone who's watched football for the last 10 years or whatever would know he's probably been the best player in England.

"When I was growing up he was probably my hero, I had all the videos. He's probably been a lot of wingers' hero over the years, and for the manager to say that about me or even to be likened to somebody like that is an honour for me."

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