Lifting the lid on the world of football

The Secret Footballer
19 Jan, 2013

Fame and money: the great destroyer

The tragic life of Diana Barrymore has been well documented over the years. Her name seems to crop up every time one of today’s celebrities goes off the rails.

The daughter of renowned actor John Barrymore, Diana’s life was a series of alcohol and drug-related episodes, pierced by bouts of depression that led to her making several suicide attempts.

Barrymore’s story endures because although not exceptional by today’s standards, she was one of the first Hollywood actresses tipped for stardom who struggled to deal with the excesses of “Tinseltown”.

“Too much, too soon” is all I’ve heard from those within the game since the news broke that Michael Johnson had agreed a severance package from his £40,000-a-week contract with Manchester City.

Many columns I’ve read have cited Johnson’s dreadful injury record as the main reason behind why he could not regain his early promise. But those within the confines of City’s Carrington training ground will tell you a different story, a story of a young man who swapped his talent for the bright lights of his local nightspots.

Johnson himself has stated that mental health issues were the reason behind his decision to call it a day. His last appearance for City came as a second-half substitute in a Carling Cup-tie against Scunthorpe United back in October 2009.

It is fair to say that very early on in his career, Johnson had the English game firmly by the balls. At the age of only 18, he was tipped by Sven-Goran Eriksson as a future star of the World Cup and was the subject of a £10 million bid from Liverpool, the European champions. A friend at City told me that the older pros referred to him as “FEC”, Future England Captain – a nickname that must have felt like a cruel joke by the time that he left the club.

Johnson isn’t the first player to suffer from the excesses of modern-day football and, with the money flooding into the English game from all corners of the globe, he definitely won’t be the last. I’ve seen it a million times. Every club has their own Johnson.

Sometimes they are found out very early on – at 15 or 16 – because they refuse to put in the hard work that would complement their talent. Other times, they will earn their first professional contract and become heady as the first pay slip hits their pocket.

My room-mate was telling me a story about a lad at his former team that was coveted as a 14-year-old by a host of top clubs. Eventually, he picked the club that he felt best suited his talents, helped, in no small part, by the offer of employment within the club for his father. Last week, the club that moved heaven and earth to sign his talents, sacked him at the age of 17 for poor time-keeping.

And at our current club, we have our own example – a 16-year-old who is currently the subject of a bid by one of the world’s biggest clubs. While the youth team was working to clean the snow off the pitch this week, he was sat in the first-team dressing-room.

It doesn’t sound like a lot but, believe me, when you’ve been playing the game for a while like I have, these are the tell-tale signs that give a young player away.

A lot of professionals talk about the difference between the youth-team players of today and those of, say, 15, ten or even five years ago. There is one player who I always go to when I’m looking to illustrate the difference, a player who came through Manchester United’s youth team at a time when United were beginning to exert a stranglehold on the Premier League.

“I never thought about earning money at United until the day I signed my first professional contract,” he recalled. “Fergie called me in and said that the club had offered me £2,000 a week. He told me to take ten minutes outside and then come in and let him know. I signed it there and then because I had to get back to clean Eric Cantona’s boots.”

I love that story. Maybe one day I’ll be able to share with you the honest thoughts of a youth-team player in the same position today. I already know that it won’t read anything like my friend’s version.

It is true that money can be a great motivator but it is proven that it can also be a great destroyer. So many of my friends say that they want to win the Lottery and yet hardly any of them have given any thought as to why. When I press them, they usually reply: “Because I won’t have to work again”.

Michael Johnson now has the chance to see if that lifestyle is all it’s cracked up to be. He seems philosophical about the way his career has ended. “I am more disappointed than anyone,” he said this week, “but that’s the way it goes.”

After only six “significant” film roles with Universal Studios, Diana Barrymore’s personal problems ended her film career. In 1957, she published her autobiography, “Too Much, Too Soon”. She died of a drugs overdose three years later, at the age of 38.


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About the author: The Secret Footballer


I’ve seen everything there is to see in football, and a lot more outside of it. My anonymity let’s me tell you how it is, from inside the game without the shackles of pre-conception or fan bias.

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  1. Baby Jebus

    Diana Barrymore was the daughter of a notoriously unstable alcoholic actor, whose own father had severe mental health issues. She was likely aware of the pitfalls and proved sadly unable to negotiate them. Michael Johnson’s case was no more than potential unfulfilled, hardly unusual in top flight sport, especially football, where as everyone in the game knows but never admits, youth signings are there solely to make up a full team for the handful of genuine talents to play alongside. Johnson just wasn’t good enough, but my God, he picked up millions for proving it.

  2. Josh

    I’ve been chewing on this for a bit.

    This young man said he had mental health issues, yet you say in-league, the whispers say indulgences did him in?

    If it’s mental health, what is the difference between your own mental health issues and his? That you survived longer in your career then he?

    If it’s a lack of ambition on his part, then he doesn’t have what it takes to be top-flight. That IS paramount for sustainability at your level of football.

    All the money did was exacerbate either option. But to say it’s the cause of his problem is curt when contrasted to your anonymity in this forum.

  3. Joe R

    Clubs obviously play a huge part in the development and success of a young player. Perhaps I am wrong but would events with Michael Johnson have turned out different if the club had imposed more discipline and rules to keep him on the straight and narrow? Would he have gone off the rails if Sir Alex had been in charge. You don’t hear of many players getting away with anything at United or do you?

  4. TonkaTom

    Is the problem that Kids who get signed up by big clubs have often skipped on their education and when this is combined with coming under the influence of an Agent who promises them the world the poor kid is left detached from reality and without the necessary tools & guidance to cope.

  5. Johnno

    Surely a club can put something in place for a youngsters contract in that half of it goes into a savings account or ISA that he cant touch until he reaches a certain age to avoid this sort of thing happening..

  6. Ieuan

    To put the blame on his night-life is simplifying the issue far too much.

    The guy had no behavioural problems at all until after his first major injury. The failure to fully return from that as the same player is what lead to the depression and hence the other issues.

    Yes there was an obvious mental weakness there from teh start, however without the injury I doubt the otehr issues would have become so prevalent.

  7. Ron

    Super analysis.
    I think that most of us that have played hoped to be good enough to be a professional player – even in the days when it was £20 a week. All we wanted to do was to play football and improve our skill levels and I still think (hope) that the kids that set out on the path to-day also have those values.

    Unfortunately it’s the many are called syndrome but the game is still as fascinating now as it ever was. But the temptations laid before a young man with lots of money must be overwhelming at times and the suprise is that there aren’t more that bank a million or two and think that’ll do for me!

  8. MoogTube

    I was at that Scunthorpe game where he came on. He looked unfit and a long way off getting back to be the player that had excited City fans a year or so earlier. That said, he scored a stunning goal to give fans a glimpse of his massive talent. Agree with TSF points here, such riches for a teenager without the right kind of guidance from those around you can only suggest that this kind of thing is happening far more frequently than us fans even know.

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