'I didn’t like the person I was becoming' - Michael Johnson opens up on his early retirement from Man City and hints at return to football

By Joe Bray

Michael Johnson, the former Manchester City prodigy, has given a rare interview discussing his early retirement from football.

Johnson burst onto the scene in 2006/07 with a series of promising performances and spectacular goals, and he was destined for the top when he broke into the team under Sven-Goran Eriksson.

However, a series of bad injuries restricted his game time, and when Mark Hughes came in and Sheikh Mansour later completed his takeover, competition for places grew. By the time Roberto Mancini replaced Hughes, and the injuries just kept coming, Johnson's time at City appeared over.

In his last five seasons at the Etihad, he made just four appearances, with an ill-fated loan at Leicester in 2012 towards the end. He retired from the game to move out of the spotlight, and has been largely successful in remaining anonymous.

Off-field problems famously followed Johnson throughout his career, and he has carefully picked his moments since then to speak about his ups and downs in his short career.

Now, Johnson has spoken to former teammate Nedum Onuoha for his Kickback with Nedum podcast, where the pair discussed Johnson's brilliant highs on the pitch, and the lows off it that led to his retirement at just 24.

After reflecting on a brilliant time breaking into the team and making his name as a once-in-a-generation talent, Johnson said his journey turned when he picked up a hernia injury in his second season.

"I had my hernias repaired. That wasn’t too hard, I was only out for about a month, you can come back really quickly," he explained.

"It wasn’t that bad because I hit the ground running back playing. It was this pubic synthesis thing that young players can get, I don’t think the skeletons are a ‘man’ yet, it’s a bit of excess training on the body. That was harder because there appeared to be nothing wrong but you’re getting a grinding pain.

"All the other stuff, even my knee, it’s a visible injury. When you can’t show something, all you want to do is play because you build your life around playing. That’s when I struggled personally with that. You’re getting so much self-worth from performing and people patting you on the back and it was giving me a lift. And when you’re not playing you’re not getting that because it’s a bit of a shallow world football.

"I started to feel the effects from that. Myself thinking if I’m not playing is this all I am? Am I ‘Mike the footballer’? I didn’t want to be that, I wanted to have my own confidence, to be ‘Mike the person’. "

Johnson added that his injury problems affected his confidence to do basic in-game things like sprint or jump, in fear of aggravating something, and the arrival of Mancini and his band of talented midfielders also restricted his ability to return to the team.

A loan at Leicester followed to reunite with Eriksson, but soon after that Johnson took the decision to retire from football all together - a decision he took as much for his own mental health as much as it was forced by injury.

"I’d got to a point where my knee was giving me so much pain," he told Onuoha.

"I wasn’t able to get fit, I was so dejected with it. It was an accumulation of a load of years of trying so hard to be fit and not being able to. I’m talking playing regularly, not being fit to keep playing and having that constant level of fitness. I was so dejected with it.

"I was thinking is this all there is? Is this just what I’m going to be forever or is there something else? I don’t want to be defined by football, I don’t want that to be me. I made that choice, I just went and didn’t look back. I didn’t like the person I was becoming, I didn’t like myself.

"I needed to be someone, I needed to go out and do something else and find myself if you like. I needed to do something different because I wasn’t enjoying my life. That’s the step I took and that’s why I’m here today.

"I didn’t know who I was, I was afraid to go out to the supermarket. People looking at me, anxious and no confidence. I wanted to go and get that confidence. How, I wasn’t sure. I wanted to do it and needed to do it for me, for where I was then. It’s not like I just wanted to change but I wanted the confidence, to look someone in the eye when I was talking to them. That’s how low my confidence had gotten.

"I wasn’t happy with that, so I wanted to be able to go wherever I went in Manchester, to Sainsbury’s or the Arndale, and not be cowering away wearing a hat so people wouldn’t see me. I wanted to be me.

"I’d been like that for a while, it was just me. I was getting less and less confident with the more I couldn’t play because that was giving me a good bit of esteem. It was built on the wrong thing, that I needed to perform to feel good. It’s a flawed concept and it got to the stage where I wanted to change.

"I was seeing a psychologist, it was my choice. Over time, when you’ve always been a certain way it’s relative to you. It takes time, you look at other people, you become a bit more aware of my feelings and other people don’t have to live like this. I became fascinated with exploring that.

"I wanted to see someone to address those issues and that’s the best thing I’ve ever done - learning these things about myself, fears I had and made up. They were real to me but not real to me. I only know this now, at the time I lived my life by hiding away from my fears."

Michael Johnson's profile on Football Manager 2011 (Football Manager 2011)

Johnson is now an estate agent and works with his family importing American cars.

However, after years of putting his own mental health first, he says he would be open to returning to football in some capacity - especially with the rise in awareness of how important mental health is for players.

"More support and more openness would be a positive, it wouldn’t be a negative. At the same time a lot of stopping was my knee, it was both. It wasn’t like i was completely fit. The knee made it easy to stop. It was still bad at the time.

"In a perfect world I’d have been able to change how I was feeling, sort my knee out and I’d still be playing. But that isn’t the world we live in. I look at it now we’re all blessed. I wouldn’t have my family for all these decisions and things that have happened. That’s the most precious thing to me. I don’t look back with any regrets, I look that you can learn every day.

"I learned from everything in my past and I learn today to pass on to my kids and try to help others who are struggling. I’ll always give advice, loads of people have done that with me and I’m trying to give back.

"I’m here now doing what I’m doing because it’s how things have panned out. At the start when I stopped playing I wanted to stay away from that toxic world. Now I certainly would [go back into football], I do think about it. What could I give back in a football way.

"My number’s never changed! If someone asked me for some help I’d see what I could do. You don’t know what the future holds."


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