Sunderland have denied having any knowledge of Adam Johnson’s intention to plead guilty to sexual activity with a child, stating they would have terminated his contract immediately if informed of his plan to do so.
Johnson pleaded guilty to one count of sexual activity with a child and one of grooming at Bradford Crown Court on the opening day of his trial on February 10, denying two further charges of sexual activity with a girl under the age of 16.
The 28-year-old, whose contract with Sunderland was terminated following his guilty plea, was found guilty of one charge of sexual activity with a child on Wednesday, having earlier been cleared of another charge.
His lawyer has stated Johnson intends to appeal the verdict. During his trial, Johnson alleged Sunderland were aware he had kissed the girl in question.
The former England international was suspended by the club following his arrest in March last year before being reinstated and helping Sunderland escape relegation from the Premier League.
Sunderland’s statement read: “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 [Margaret Byrne] 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.
“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.”
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