When he broke into the team as an 18-year-old, he appeared to be something very special indeed.
But six years later, if he still writes ‘footballer’ on the employment section of forms, it is in the loosest sense of the word.
After being on Everton’s books as a schoolboy, Johnson signed for City in 2004, and just two years later he was in the first team.
Following a four-month gap between his first and second starts, he then played seven consecutive games before a hamstring injury ended that particular run.
It was an injury that didn’t prove serious. But it was also a hint of things to come. Because when considering the reasons behind Johnson’s stalled career, injuries play a big part.
In his second season, an abdominal injury was followed by a double-hernia operation.
At just 19, fans were seeing only glimpses of his talent. Until the 2008-2009 season when, fresh and injury-free, Johnson formed an effective midfield triumvirate with Elano and Stephen Ireland.
It was this season that turned the glimpses into main events, with Johnson being talked about as a future England international; and not just any international. Fans seeing similarities to Colin Bell were soon referring to Johnson as “FEC” – Future England Captain.
Liverpool were reportedly prepared to pay £10million for him. While then City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson described him as the outstanding player of his age in English football; which makes it that much harder to comprehend his downfall, if we can even call it that, when he had so little time at the top.
In that same season he had started so well, a recurrence of his abdominal injury saw him miss the next seven months.
There are countless examples of next-big-things who prove to be anything but. Yet Johnson’s case is one of the more confusing.
This isn’t a case of a player scoring one great goal and never bettering it, as Federico Macheda is starting to realise. And it isn’t a case of all the hype coming from within the club, hot air swiftly cooled the moment he played.
When he did play, he earned even greater plaudits. But then he just stopped playing. The injuries certainly had an impact, but there were whispers of a player who didn’t take his career seriously.
Rumours within the club were of a player with too much too soon, adopting the clichés of modern football excess with regular visits to nightclubs and casinos and a poor attitude off the pitch.
Five seasons since making his debut, and with just 37 City appearances in that time, a man who should have been approaching his peak was closer to obscurity.
Last season saw a loan move to Leicester City, but after just seven appearances the all too familiar injury problems sent him back.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Johnson is that he is still a Manchester City player.
Where so many others who shined only briefly move on to smaller clubs, he is still owned, and paid, by the richest club in the league. A consequence of the five-year deal he signed in 2009.
So he is still a Premier League footballer, for 18 months at least, after which he almost certainly won’t be.
It will be interesting to see where he ends up…if he ends up anywhere.
It is easy to forget that for the players, football is a job, even if it is one with unimaginable rewards.
For some players, like Johnson, the rewards come regardless. And perhaps that is the problem, because if they didn’t, he may be pulling on a shirt and playing somewhere this weekend.
image: © Gene Hunt