A friend of mine once had a boat, one of those wood paneled river cruisers. It was beautiful. He lived a good 25 miles from a river that he could sail down. He’d bought it on eBay on a whim, blinded by romantic notions of his family floating carefree down the river on sunny days.
Of course there were very few days in which the sun shone when they were free to tow the boat down to the river. When they did, they nearly drowned as the weight of the boat dragged both them and their car into the Thames as they tried to launch it. Such a beautiful dream that didn’t quite work. It quickly went back on eBay to be sold on.
The sale of Marvin Johnson to Middlesborough feels a bit like that; everything about him seemed right, but at the same time there’s something about his time at Oxford that didn’t quite fit. He had pace, strength, a deft touch and he was a joy to watch, but was he ever quite an Oxford player? It sometimes felt that the squad was made up of him and then everyone else.
I got a similar sense with Kemar Roofe, destined never to be in and or of the team, but a discreet entity surrounded by his own aura. But Roofe achieved something notable with the collective; promotion, and that cemented an enduring quality that Johnson could never have.
Like the boat, what should have been a dream never quite fitted and he always felt like an asset to sell on. Part of the point, I suppose, was that he was with us for such a short period of time. Had he stayed we might, in two or three years, have had five or six Marvins and he would have been an original of a new breed and considered a club legend. Instead the fit was slightly awkward, the right player at the wrong time; a bit too good.
He didn’t do interviews or maintain much of a social media presence, he had all the assets of a great player on the pitch, but not the brand that engaged fully with the fans off it. It was more introversion and focus than arrogance, but his aloofness made him harder to love.
To some extent we are victims, or beneficiaries, of the financial doping of the Premier League. Although Johnson will be playing in the Championship, it’s no surprise that two of the teams that were in for him were ex-Premier League teams with parachute payments to spend. Time will tell whether blowing your wad on players is the best way of getting back to the big time – over time as more teams get into that position these spending-sprees will be less of a differentiator and we may drift back into the same cycle that has affected so many clubs who spend big, fail and then capitulate before eventually someone will learn a new way to succeed. For now, spending is believed to be the quickest way forward and that’s what we’re benefiting from. But this is perhaps one of the weird things about this; Johnson is the second largest fee we’ve received, but in five years he won’t be mentioned in the same breath as others in the top 10 like Elliot, Roofe or Beauchamp.
As for Johnson’s conduct during the episode, people are being wholly unfair. Firstly, his physicality and ability is the result of hard work and focus, the same focus that allows him the option of moving into the Championship or beyond. He has earned the move and deserves it. The reality is that he is far more likely to play in the Championship and beyond with Middlesborough than with us. That said, it’s still a big decision for him personally and professionally, so to expect it not to affect him is nonsense. Secondly, there is likely to have been a significant amount of admin involved in getting the deal over the line with payments to Motherwell as well as plenty to negotiate between players, agents and clubs. Third, once a deal was likely, it was in nobody’s interest to scupper it by playing Johnson and risking injury. And finally, delaying the announcement until the last minute discouraged a bidding war, which may have been good for us if it had forced the fee up, but it would have created uncertainty which could also have killed the deal. Football transfers can be messy; it’s not Johnson’s fault that he and we have to go through such processes where in normal working environments he would just hand his notice in and leave with a handshake.
For me, Johnson and Oxford never quite gelled. But, this is not his fault. In the future, he’ll probably be viewed in the same way as someone like Dean Windass; fondly but not deferentially. For a fleeting period he was exciting to watch, as good as those we remember as legends, and while we may never learn to love him wholly, he’s a product of his own hard work; so he deserves his move and I hope he succeeds.