Oh Adam, Where did it all go wrong?

by | Mar 4, 2016

The Sun newspaper, bastions of taste and decency to the last, led with the headline “Paedo In His Speedos,” accompanied by a picture of the (now surely former) footballer. The dividing line between extreme sexual deviancy and wholesome family entertainment in the black and white world of the tabloid press presumably falls somewhere between the fifteen years of age of the victim in the case of Adam Johnson and the sixteen years of age of Samantha Fox when she made her Page Three debut under a strap-line reading ‘Sam, 16, Quits A-Levels for Ooh-Levels’ in 1983. Moral relativism was never really the strong point of the British tabloid press.

None of this is to say, of course, that the details of the Adam Johnson case aren’t revolting in their own right – a toxic combination of the apparent sense of entitlement of the player, the tawdriness of the hundreds of WhatsApp messages, the promises of a signed shirt and the meetings in a car behind a Chinese takeaway. One can only wonder as to what was going on in his mind throughout those weeks. A combination of “not a great deal” and “definitely too much” would seem to be somewhere approaching the truth. Whatever, his playing career is over, his reputation is dirt, and a lengthy prison sentence awaits.

With the matter of Adam Johnson vs The British Public, which is being heard in the court of public opinion at this very moment, being very much an open and shut case, considerable attention has turned towards Sunderland AFC’s behaviour throughout the whole affair. Having initially been suspended by the club when the claims first came to light, it was claimed during the trial that Johnson had told “everything” to Margaret Byrne, the club’s chief executive, at a meeting held in May 2015 but that the club kept him on until the weekend before the trial began last month. Byrne had copies of the 834 messages that Johnson had exchanged with the girl as well as transcripts of their police interviews, and the player had admitted kissing the girl on the lips and knowing she was under the age of sixteen.

Adam Johnson earned more than £2.7m in the time subsequent to his brief suspension being lifted, and continued playing until the weekend before his trial. He was on trial for four child sex offence charges, and the club has stated that it believed that he was to plead not guilty to all four of these charges. However, on the first day of the trial, Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child and one count of grooming. Four days after this, his contract was finally terminated by the club. What will most likely turn out to be his last acts as a professional footballer involved scoring a goal for Sunderland in their 2-2 draw at Anfield against Liverpool and then throwing his shirt into the away support at the end of the match.

Johnson’s continued on-pitch involvement for Sunderland until the bitter end raises a couple of questions, neither of which are particularly comfortable to contemplate. Firstly, did Johnson lie to the club about which way he was going to plead in order to keep playing and keep earning until the last possible moment? Secondly, if Sunderland had “everything”, as per Johnson’s claim, did the club really believe that a stated intention to plead not guilty outweighed everything that they knew about the situation in terms of allowing them to make a decision over retaining the use of the player? The club states that it took legal advice before pursuing the actions that it did, but the face that she Margaret Byrne had access to these messages means that she – and, by extension, the club – was fully aware that any plan to plead not guilty to all four charges was going to be far from cut and dried in Johnson’s favour.

Of course, we don’t know exactly what Adam Johnson’s definition of the word “everything” might have been, and he wasn’t pressed on this at trial. We know that he lied to police at the time that he was charged claiming he didn’t initially know that the victim was under the age of sixteen, and that he also claimed that there was no sexual contact beyond kissing, a story that the jury was not persuaded by. And although the information that the club seems to have been in possession of would seem to hint at guilt on his part, they might well argue that the charges brought against him weren’t sufficient to justify sacking him and that suspending him might considerable as being prejudicial with a court case pending. They might well argue that they couldn’t take any other action, that Johnson’s lies to them ultimately left the club with little choice.

The club’s statement on the matter is wholly unsatisfactory, though. It is tantalisingly light on detail at the precise moments where a little more detail would be very useful in allowing us to establish what on earth has been going on regarding this matter over the course of the last few months or so. We might also suggest that Margaret Byrne’s oversight of this matter has fallen some way short of what one would expect of the CEO of a company and that it would not be difficult to imagine her position within the club becoming untenable in the near future, especially when we consider the confirmation given today by Detective Inspector Aelfwynn Sampson, of Durham Police, that he held a meeting with Byrne in March 2015 at which it was clear that Johnson had kissed and texted this child.

A press conference with Sam Allardyce held yesterday went much as we might have expected, and we can see a full transcript of it here. It certainly gives a flavour of the pressure that the manager is under at the moment, and doesn’t seem to contradict Allardyce’s earlier statements that he was unaware of the documents received by the club and only fund out that Johnson had changed his plea against two of the charges to guilty until he saw it on the television. Furthermore, we can see the tensions that now exist between the manager and the press in this answer to a question concerning Margaret Byrne’s ongoing role at the club and his comfort at answering questions on the subject as a whole:

I’m not comfortable answering any questions on Adam Johnson. I’m trying to take some responsibility on behalf of what has happened with it to answer some questions. The difficulty is that I am not a lawyer, I’m a football manager. I’m not an academic and I don’t want to slip up with any of the answers I might give because it can make headlines, the manager says, so I can only answer as much as I can answer and I move on.

And this is where Sunderland AFC rests at the moment, with senior management clinging on to increasingly untenable positions within the club, a manager who seems almost distressed by having to answer deeply uncomfortable questions on a subject the seeds of which were sewn before he had anything to do with the club, and with a former player now staring down the barrel of a fairly lengthy prison sentence. We could pontificate that there are broad questions to ask here about the sense of entitlement that vast amounts of money seem to have bred into players, about the culpability of senior managers when players find themselves – even potentially – on the wrong side of the law. These are certainly questions that will troubling a good many at The Stadium of Light today. If Sunderland AFC is to recover a reputation that is somewhere near the gutter today, it may well require heads to roll and a degree of full and frank honesty that eluded Adam Johnson for a considerable amount of time. This is a story from which very few people, if anybody, emerge with much credit, apart from the victim herself, whose bravery throughout the legal process is something that the club and all others concerned may well wish to note. And as for Adam Johnson and for the question that forms the title of this piece… well, the answers to that question are partly out in the open and partly not. It seems highly likely that he’ll have a long time to consider them without too much other distraction.

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