By Liam Twomey
It is a mark of his startling resurgence that, when Adam Johnson runs out onto the Wembley pitch on Sunday afternoon, there will be more than Sunderland's first cup triumph since 1973 at stake.
His seven goals and two assists in 10 matches in all competitions in 2014 have helped the Black Cats to progress to the FA Cup fifth round, overcome Manchester United to reach the Capital One Cup final and pull themselves back from seeming oblivion into the relegation dogfight, as well as deservedly earning the man himself the Premier League's Player of the Month award for January.
Suddenly, for the first time since Martin O'Neill brought him to the Stadium of Light for £10 million in the summer of 2012, Johnson is being viewed in a positive light.
So positively, in fact, that when England boss Roy Hodgson travelled to watch Sunderland's defeat to Hull City earlier this month, Tom Huddlestone was not the only World Cup possibility that he had in mind.
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But Sunday's showpiece clash with former employers Manchester City offers another compelling opportunity to stake his outside claim for a place and also, perhaps, to make a point.
The two-and-a-half years that Johnson spent in Manchester yielded an FA Cup win, a Premier League title and a Community Shield, yet still left everyone involved wondering what might have been.
He was man of the match on his full debut for City, a 2-0 home victory over Bolton in February 2010, winning the penalty from which Carlos Tevez opened the scoring and tormenting the visiting defence until he was withdrawn to a standing ovation with eight minutes remaining. A first England call-up soon followed and he narrowly missed out on his country's disastrous World Cup 2010 campaign.
In the minds of some, Johnson's pace, fearlessness and skill evoked memories of a young Ryan Giggs - a comparison which, as a boyhood Manchester United fan, he would surely have relished.
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The Italian interpreted Johnson's penchant for going out with friends - he was pictured at a student house party alongside Joe Hart, Gareth Barry and Shay Given in 2010 - as a sign that he lacked the mentality and determination to fulfil his huge potential. He also harboured concerns that his winger did not possess the physical fitness to last 90 minutes at the intensity which he demanded.
There was also a sense among the City coaching staff, despite the fact that Johnson was widely liked - David Silva particularly enjoyed his company on the training pitch - that he believed his own hype.
As an emerging star at Middlesbrough he compared his style of play to that of Lionel Messi in an interview with FourFourTwo magazine in March 2008, while at City many of his goal celebrations were viewed as arrogant and, at times, pointedly disrespectful towards his manager.
Consequently, Johnson invariably found himself employed by Mancini as an impact substitute. It was role in which he sometimes excelled - one particular superb winner against Newcastle in a Premier League clash in October 2010 lingers in the memory - but never enjoyed.
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Mancini never found the secret to garnering consistent performances from his mercurial winger and his decision to publicly favour the stick rather than carrot after Johnson had scored and set up a goal in City's 5-2 Premier League victory over Wolves signalled the end of their relationship.
Johnson reportedly initially refused to board the team bus after the match and, though he saw out a season which resulted in City's first league title since 1968, it was clear that his future lay elsewhere.
Despite the satisfaction of scoring the winner as Sunderland beat Mancini's men at the Stadium of Light last season, for the best part of 18 months the chaos of his hometown club looked more likely to propel Johnson into the Championship than the England squad.
But with 2014 has come the most consistent form of his career and a chance of redemption. At 26 Johnson is certainly not a prospect but nor is he over the hill and, with Theo Walcott injured, Andros Townsend becoming re-acquainted with the bench and Aaron Lennon as erratic as ever, a seat on the plane to Brazil no longer seems quite so far-fetched.
First, though, comes City at Wembley and an opportunity to adorn his revival while settling old scores.
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