The Champions League is within touching distance of Eastlands now; so close, in fact, that Adam Johnson's mind is being drawn back to the nights spent in his bedroom with a carefully concealed radio, listening to Faustino Asprilla, Keith Gillespie and others lighting up the European stage with his beloved Newcastle United.
The Manchester City winger was only 10 years old on the September evening of Asprilla's hat-trick that beat Barcelona 3-2 at St James' Park, but the look in his eyes when he describes it suggests that it provides a personal incentive to help City to the two wins in four now required to join the Continental elite. "I can't remember if I was allowed to stay up actually!" he said yesterday. "I think maybe I was just in the bedroom with my door locked! I remember the 3-2 game; Gillespie set up all three with crosses. Obviously night matches were a bit special for me and that game ... well, it was one of those nights, wasn't it?"
Gillespie was not a particular hero, even though he stood out as a winger that night. "It was more David Ginola [for me]," Johnson said, "and [Ryan] Giggs". Johnson is not the first player to cite Manchester United players as the benchmark this season. Patrick Vieira's all-time best Premier League XI included five United players, while City's manager, Roberto Mancini, cited three as the standard for Mario Balotelli. Here is the evidence that United's is the level to which City aspire and Johnson admitted that the second-half display in the FA Cup semi-final has provided that little extra belief that they can make the leap among the elite. "Yes," he said to that notion. "I think we had the belief we would do it. It was just about going on the pitch and doing it."
Johnson is not exactly lacking in the self-confidence department, it must be said. This is the player whose disgruntlement after being substituted against Liverpool in August was followed by an expression of dismay when goals in successive European Championship qualifying games for England in September did not secure his release from Mancini's bench. Neither was he ecstatic to be withdrawn after 72 minutes at Ewood Park last week, though Edin Dzeko's goal with his first touch vindicated Mancini's decision. You sense that the relationship with Mancini has taken some working at.
The same must still be said of Johnson's own game. Those two goals in the space of five days against Bulgaria and Switzerland last autumn marked him out as one of the new season's finest prospects and, though the training ground ankle injury which threatened his entire season at one stage has not helped, he has not dominated. Some wingers would have had more of a field day against West Ham United's Danny Gabbidon on Sunday than he did.
Carlos Tevez's absence has drawn Balotelli away from a right-sided role into the centre and restored Johnson to a pivotal role there, but Johnson occupies the flank where Mancini envisages Alexis Sanchez being deployed, if City's anticipated early pursuit of the Chilean pays off. City's close season transfer activity is subject to uncertainty, though. It will be impressed upon Mancini that money will be tighter if the players City have out on loan cannot be sold off, although if Tevez leaves there will be £50m more in the kitty.
Johnson's value to Mancini's "home-grown" quota is undeniable and the patent desire for Champions League football may engender a willingness in the 23-year-old to heed more of the manager's entreaties. It is six months since Johnson declared in an interview that he would "definitely" consider leaving if he were not given more starts – yet here he is now, at a club that have not forsaken all hope of bypassing a potentially dangerous Champions League qualifying round knockout by finishing third in the Premier League. "It's obviously a plus point if we don't have to play that qualifier," he said. "I think we still have only a slim chance of avoiding it, with Arsenal winning [against United], but we'll push on and cross that bridge when it comes."
Johnson's description of what Champions League football would mean to him also provides a sense of what he would be leaving behind. "Oh!" he said. "I mean, obviously, it's the biggest club competition in the world. Playing against the best teams in the world in massive stadiums. At the start of the season we wanted to be top two and being in the top four all season we want to keep pushing and pushing and pushing. This is what you dream about when you're growing up as a kid, playing in massive arenas in massive games. We've still got a bit of work to do but it's ours to lose."
- More about:
- French Football
- Manchester City
- Mario Balotelli
- Patrick Vieira
- Premier League
- UEFA Champions League