Sunderland have said they were unaware that Adam Johnson would be changing his plea and admitting two child sex offences on the first day of his trial. The club announced they refute "in the strongest possible terms" claims they knew he was to plead guilty but still allowed him to continue to play football for the club.
Johnson, 28, admitted one count of sexual activity with a 15-year-old and one count of grooming on 10 February 2016. He has also been found guilty of one count of sexual activity at the trial, mainly digital penetration (putting a hand down the victim's pants), following the end of his trial. The jury cleared him of a second count.
Johnson was initially suspended by the club but was reinstated after 16 days and continued to play for the rest of last season and several games in the 2015/16 season, even scoring a goal in his final appearance for the club against Liverpool. He was eventually sacked by Sunderland after admitting the first two counts.
During the trial at Bradford Crown Court, Johnson claimed he told Sunderland's chief executive Margaret Byrne "everything from the start" and that he had kissed a 15-year-old fan. When asked how he felt playing for the club knowing he had "seriously wronged" the girl, Johnson replied: "It was hanging over me, but I had a job to do." He added: "I was just doing my job. I wanted to carry on doing my job. They knew from the start, everything I told them, so I didn't see it as a problem to go back and do what I was paid to do."
Sunderland FC have now issued a lengthy statement denying they were aware of Johnson's intentions to plead guilty and would have sacked him earlier if they did.
"To respect the legal process, Sunderland AFC was unable to comment on this case until after the jury had delivered its verdict. It has now done so and we thank our supporters for their patience and understanding. We now wish to clarify certain matters which arose during the trial.
"Mr Johnson was suspended by the club immediately following his arrest on March 2, 2015. At that time, the club was advised by police of the broad nature of the allegations against Mr Johnson, who was being advised at all times by his own legal team. The club felt that the decision to suspend was appropriate at that time, even though he had not then been charged with any offence. Two weeks later, his suspension was lifted after a meeting between the club and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA), and after the club took independent legal advice. The club reached this decision only after carrying out a safeguarding assessment and liaising with relevant agencies.
"On 23 April 2015, Mr Johnson was charged with four offences. The club was informed that it was Mr Johnson's intention to defend all the charges, a stance he maintained right up until the first day of trial. The club continued to review the safeguarding procedures it had put in place throughout this time.
"On 4 May 2015, an introductory meeting took place between Mr Johnson, his father and Orlando Pownall QC. Mr Pownall had not previously met Mr Johnson. The club's CEO was present during part of that meeting. During the time that she was present there was no suggestion whatsoever that Mr Johnson would be changing his plea. Some documents were received relating to the case, which were immediately sent to Mr Pownall for his attention. However, the club was not in a position to make any judgement on the outcome of the case nor on Mr Johnson's decision to defend all the allegations. Following that meeting, Mr Johnson again confirmed to the club, presumably on advice from his own legal team, that his intention was to defend the charges in their entirety and he was confident of success once all evidence had been considered. He subsequently entered not guilty pleas to all charges on 6 June 2015.
"The club did not give evidence either for the prosecution or the defence in this case. It was therefore not present in court when it is understood that a suggestion was made that the club knew all along that Mr Johnson was intending to change his plea just before trial to enable him to continue to play football for the club and that the club may also have been involved in tactical discussions about the plea. This is utterly without foundation and is refuted in the strongest possible terms. The club never placed any pressure or demands on Mr Johnson to play football during this process. Decisions in relation to the pleas and the conduct of the trial have been left entirely to Mr Johnson and his highly experienced and skilled legal team. Mr Johnson has admitted in evidence that he changed his plea "on legal advice".
The club only became aware of the change of plea, in relation to two of the four counts on the indictment, on the first day of the trial, after hearing it reported through the media. The club was not advised in advance that Mr Johnson would plead guilty to any offence. Had the club known that Mr Johnson intended to plead guilty to any of these charges, then his employment would have been terminated immediately. Indeed, upon learning of the guilty plea on 11 February 2016, the club acted quickly and decisively in terminating Adam Johnson's contract without notice.
"This has been an extremely difficult time for all involved. The victim and her family have endured an unimaginable ordeal in the last 12 months and we trust that they will now be allowed to move on with their lives without further intrusion or public scrutiny."
Johnson will be sentenced at a later date. The judge warned the footballer faces the "real possibility of a lengthy custodial sentence". He was released on conditional bail, including a 7pm to 7am curfew.