Sunderland defend their position after Adam Johnson guilty verdict

Johnson warned he faces lengthy jail sentence
Johnson warned he faces lengthy jail sentence

Sunderland have insisted that they were stunned by Adam Johnson's decision to change his plea to guilty in the court case that has concluded with the footballer being found guilty of one count of sexual activity with a child.

The Premier League club have been criticised in court for backing Johnson after he was initially charged with four counts of sexual activity with a 15-year-old, with the club claiming they were duped by their now former employee who insisted he would plead not guilty to all charges.

Johnson was sacked by Sunderland soon after he changed his pleas to guilty on two counts of sexual activity with a child and they have now issues a lengthy statement defending their actions in the case. 

"To respect the legal process, Sunderland AFC was unable to comment on this case until after the jury had delivered its verdict," reads their statement. "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. 

"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 judgment 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."

Suggestions in court that Sunderland were aware of Johnson's plan to change his plea were then strongly refuted by the Premier League club.

"This is utterly without foundation and is refuted in the strongest possible terms," read the statement as they rejected criticism of their decision to back Johnson.

"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."

Sunderland will hope that their eagerness to defend their stance in this case will douse some of the criticism flowing their way, but many will still question why Johnson was allowed to continue to play for the club with such serious allegations hanging over him.