City boys combine to build England future and see off the Swiss

Ian Herbert
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:26
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Manchester City were offering to print Adam Johnson's name on their replica shirts for free yesterday, in recognition of his first England goal against Bulgaria last Friday. They probably feel they can go in for this largesse, given that the £8m they paid Middlesbrough for him last January is looking more ridiculously cheap by the day.

Johnson had received several text messages from friends suggesting that goal was a fluke, but his effervescence last night suggested that his recent achievements are part of a footballing destiny and nothing to do with luck. Theo Walcott's latest England injury was a bitterly unfortunate one, given his far brighter start to this game than England's last. But Johnson is a 23-year-old with ice in his veins, aware from the bitter disappointment of being dragged to Fabio Capello's pre-World Cup training camp in Austria and then released, that football is not for the faint-hearted. While Walcott was carted off for X-rays, Johnson capitalised. He went under an examination of a different kind last night and this morning we know for sure that he is a footballer of international class.

The club team-mate on the opposite left flank from him made a contribution of a fine order too, but James Milner badly shanked a cross over the dead-ball line a minute or so before Johnson spun around right-back Reto Ziegler and drilled in an accurate cross which Jermain Defoe managed to screw wide. In that moment, it was then genuinely difficult to entertain the idea that Milner actually cost City £16m more than Johnson.

There is something prosaic about the way Johnson runs up and down a touchline to do his defensive work – head down, arms pumping, looking as little like a sprinter as Chris Waddle, whose gait he calls to mind. But the offensive side of the game is the wolf in sheep's clothing. It revealed itself in the way he collected a first-half ball from Xavier Margairaz in front of England's defence, played a quick pass out and launched into a sprinting, diagonal, counter-attacking run which no England player managed to pick out. Then, a speculative 30-yard effort whipped a few inches over Diego Benaglio's bar. And we hadn't even seen the willingness to take players on around the outside, which has led Waddle to see something of himself in Johnson.

The young man's sangfroid can on occasions drift into overconfidence, though Capello suggested late last night it has more to do with inexperience. "Sometimes he plays like a young player. For this reason, when you play in the national team, you can't play like a young player. You have to play like a senior."

But there was certainly no naivety in the way Johnson seized possession, took up dangerous positions, linked play and ran into the box with the pace which is his most dangerous weapon. Nor in a goal which can invite no text-message digs like the first. It was shortly after an attempted give-and-go with Rooney nearly came off for Johnson that Gerrard sent a ball straight through the centre of the Swiss defence and he hared off in pursuit.

Steely belief, as much as technical ability, helped deliver the goal. Johnson's first touch appeared to have taken the ball a fraction too far left and in that situation players of lesser inner strength – Walcott, indeed – might have frozen. Johnson reached it, steadied himself and clipped into the empty net.

As Shaun Wright-Phillips ran on to replace Rooney, the on-field City contingent here went up to an extraordinary six – the kind of one-club dominance we haven't seen too much since seven Liverpool players lined up against Switzerland at Wembley in 1977. But Johnson was the name to conjure with – and the one we will surely be seeing in abundance on new sky- blue shirts in Manchester.

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