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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Back for Good? Magic Johnson’s Roundabout turns full circle

City’s most successful manager in a generation finds himself back where he made his name

He’d often wait.  Letting the initial cheers on the final whistle subside and pausing whilst the players walked towards the tunnel, milking the deserved acclaim, shaking each one of them by the hand as they made their way off the pitch. 
Then, this short, round, lovable, chirpy Cockney would start making his way over.  Occasionally he’d break into a little jog and as he got nearer the wide, delighted but cheeky grin became more evident and told you all you needed to know. 
He’d tease the fans, pulling his arm back slightly before letting it rest back by his side.  Again and again whilst the fans’ “Woooooahs” reached a crescendo and then the big arching swing of the arm, back as far as he could manage before launching into a ferocious upper-cut punch of the air as the fans cheered and he was lauded, smothered in adulation by the long-suffering supporters.
Possibly the biggest cheer came on March 1st 2008 when Bristol City beat Hull at Ashton Gate to go back to the top of the Championship.  Somehow, against all the odds, Gary Johnson had steered, induced and persuaded this team of honest, hard-working professionals – finally promoted from League One the previous summer after years of near-misses – to the brink of the Premier League. 
It was to prove a pivotal moment.  The moment in which Johnson’s star shone brightest.  He was a regular on Sky with his camera-friendly charisma always in demand, and helped to raise the profile of the entire club almost single-handedly. 

Johnson enjoyed plenty of success at City
In an article in the Observer newspaper he was touted as “a modern-day Revie” and “the best English manager of our generation”.  He even made it onto the long list of odds as next Manchester United manager at one point, albeit as a 50/1 outsider.  He was that good.
This was no team or riches and there were very few stars.  City were certainly not favourites to achieve promotion. 
Nevertheless, at that precise moment Bristol City were top of the league and marching towards the big time.  Premier League clubs going through sticky patches and some of the fallen giants in the Championship were shooting covetous glances towards the West and, had Johnson been a decade younger than his 52 years, it seems inevitable one would have made an offer neither club nor manager could have refused.
‘Magic’ Johnson could do no wrong.  The goalkeeper was man of the match that day, a Brazilian who was playing for Woking when Johnson spotted his potential.  Adriano Basso went on to be the club’s player of the season.

Adriano Basso starred in goal and was voted Player of the Season in 2008
The defence included a former Newcastle reserve midfielder, switched to right-back so successfully by Johnson, whilst in midfield the manager’s son, Lee, who had played his way up from non-league football with his father and Marvin Elliott complemented each other perfectly when each was on their game.  Bradley Orr, the right-back and Elliott – unwanted by Millwall the previous summer – were so impressive that term they earned places in the PFA team of the season, not an easy accolade for players to earn at an unfashionable team playing against bigger and better-known names.
Indeed, in the Hull match the goals came via his big January signing Dele Adebola – his third in six games – and giant centre-half Jamie McCombe who somehow managed to half hook, half-bicycle kick the ball into the corner to seal the victory.
It was the sort of thing that happened to City that season.  The sort of thing Johnson seemed to be able to make happen.

Gary Johnson’s managerial career began at Cambridge where he faced the daunting task of following the indomitable John Beck into an over-achieving hot-seat.  Falling agonisingly two matches short of promotion to the top flight was an experience Johnson would suffer again, and when Beck’s scrappy, aggressive side eventually broke up – Dion Dublin’s £1m move to Manchester United the most eye-catching – and he was sacked, Johnson unsurprisingly struggled to maintain the momentum. 
A short spell at Kettering was followed by a surprising move to become the Latvian National manager off the back of the instrumental role he played in Marian Pahars’ move to Premier League Southampton.  His unabated charisma enabled him to talk about Latvian football in such glowing terms the authorities clearly felt he was a fifth-generation native!
However Johnson failed to inspire his charges on this occasion and considering a home draw with San Marino would be enough to see off the safest of international managers, Johnson’s brief sojourn in Riga was at an end.  The character and enthusiasm of the man is such that he is still regarded with respect there and has regularly since taken his clubs on pre-season tours to the country.
Relatively quickly he was handed a fresh challenge in England.  Yeovil had long been one of non-league’s biggest clubs.  Famous giant-killers in the F.A.Cup, home attendances regularly larger than most and multiple-champions of the Southern League before automatic promotion was installed, Yeovil had been searching for the final piece in the jigsaw to take them, finally, where they felt they belonged - into the Football League.
Ben Barrett, of Barrett Sports Writing, explains how Johnson wrote himself into Yeovil folklore: 
“When Gary (before his local knighthood) arrived in Somerset for the first time, it was greeted with a universal cry of ... "Who?!"
The former Watford and Latvia man was a relative unknown to many but he was the man the club had entrusted to fire them into the League. That's all we wanted, League football.
The challenge of gaining a simple promotion was just too darn easy for Gary and his men; records tumbled, teams were conquered with an incredible ease and the trophies soon added up.  Three in total, the Conference title, the FA Trophy and then League Two.  He had guided the team that was so often the bridesmaid down the aisle on their own accord."

Johnson won the Conference title first time around at Yeovil
This success was duly noted just up the M5 and when Bristol City begrudgingly sacked club legend Brian Tinnion, following a 7-1 reverse at Swansea, all fingers pointed straight to Huish Park.  Ben doesn’t hold it against him:
“He was promised a crack at getting to the Premier League with Bristol City, seeing him leave stung – of course it did, but no-one would argue he didn't deserve it.”
Johnson began with a win but when seven straight defeats left the club bottom of League One even the biggest advocates of giving a manager time must have been wondering if this was a manager way out of his depth. 
It was then that the Johnson magic kicked in, and from that moment on City never looked back.  Five defeats in the final 25 matches put City on the fringes of the play-off picture and offered hope for the following campaign.
Three early losses led to doubts resurfacing but the belief and spirit that proved to be Johnson’s trademark burst into life after three of the squad were jailed for their part in a nightclub brawl, whilst Orr was sent off at Northampton in a game live on Sky for fighting his own captain, Louis Carey.  Many managers would have ostracised Orr but Johnson used the incidents to bind the squad closer together and City finally achieved promotion, leaving Blackpool, Nottingham Forest and former club Yeovil trailing in the play-offs.
Promotion was achieved in style too, with defenders encouraged to play the ball out from the back, midfielders moving the ball through quickly and cleverly and enough goals to make a difference.
The feel-good factor was everywhere and Johnson played on that, even when it seemed bizarre.  He once asked fans to ‘hold a candle’ to help support the players.  Battery-powered candles that lit up were soon the best-selling item in the club-shop when hundreds and hundreds of fans jumped to the call.

One of the more bizarre episodes at Ashton Gate
Another time he suggested it would be nice to see the City fans a little more active in their support, perhaps they could bounce around the ground, he suggested.  It was the first time in decades that the entire ground responded.  For months, even fans who like to keep their own counsel and politely clap winning goals found themselves on their feet bouncing around like a child on a pogo-stick.  The Johnson factor was truly remarkable.
Alas, back to March 1st 2008.  The opponents that day were to prove sadly prophetic.  The Humbersiders used this result as a fillip, losing just two more matches that season before securing an unlikely play-off place and, ultimately promotion.  City suffered the opposite effect and although the flailing run-in was hardly of Devon Loch’s stature, only two more wins meant the play-offs were scant consolation for being ousted from the automatic spots.
Whilst the semi-final victories over Crystal Palace were magnificent moments, the first cracks started appearing in Johnson’s relationship with some fans at Wembley as, looking for a scapegoat, some have always claimed he made a substitution to enable his son to play a part, rather than choose the right change for the team.
So where did it all go wrong? 
The Lee Johnson factor was an undercurrent that never went away and increasingly bubbled to the surface over the next 18 months.  The initial confidence and positivity had slightly rescinded and Johnson in particular suffered as a result of Elliott failing to reach the same heights as he did in that so-nearly-glorious season.  Without the spectacular protection offered by his comrade, Johnson found himself increasingly exposed in the toughest part of the battle-field.
But it wasn’t just that.  Something appeared to change in Johnson.  This idol, whose every word was seized upon as an instruction to his faithful followers seemed to change his principles.  The exciting, passing, fluency with which City got promoted and to the top of the Championship was abandoned upon signing Adebola, and defenders who thus far had looked comfortable in possession were suddenly encouraged to ‘find the big man’ quickly.
Michael McIndoe, Johnson and playmaker David Noble were suddenly being missed out and City lacked a partner for Adebola who could take advantage or an on-rushing midfielder who could pounce on the balls he was holding up.
The ability of Johnson to motivate his players when it mattered started coming to the fore with a series of disappointing cup defeats and losses in key matches.  Always a bubbly, excitable character, Johnson seemed to skulk further and further into his big overcoat with every passing week.
The Johnson teams seen at Ashton Gate had always been daring, exciting without necessarily scoring bundles of goals but wingers were always played and teams battled until the 95th minute when games were often saved, or even won.  However the players suddenly seemed to follow Johnson into his shell, too concerned with keeping games tight for too long and forgetting how to attack with relish.

The pressure was starting to tell on Johnson
By this time doubts were being raised over Johnson’s ability to spot a decent striker.  Aside from the popular Adebola a whole series of forwards came and went with relatively little success.  Lee Trundle’s play-off goal masked what had been a disappointing step up and many others tried and failed.  No single City striker scored more than 11 goals in three seasons.
He also seemed to become more desperate in his search for the right formula.  His much-publicised ‘total review’ of a prospective signing had led to many possible additions being told they were no longer wanted, with Johnson adamant that he wanted to check all aspects of their background to make sure they fitted with what he already had in place.  This requirement suddenly seemed to dissipate as a succession of loan signings were rolled through the revolving Ashton Gate doors, mostly to no avail.
Finally, doubts began to surface about Johnson’s ability to handle his players’ ever-increasing opinions of themselves.  McIndoe, undoubtedly talented and one of City’s main creative sparks faded and regularly looked disinterested as Johnson seemed to encourage play to switch away from his flank and eventually moved on.  Orr turned down the offer of a new contract and was promptly ostracised from the team, whilst Basso’s head was turned by the apparent riches on offer elsewhere (which never materialised) and he too was left kicking his heels on the sidelines.
Eventually a devastating 3-2 defeat at Plymouth proved the final straw and rumours persist of a particularly aggressive row with hot-headed winger Ivan Sproule in the dressing-room on that fateful night.
Even his critics wished him well – after all he’d achieved more for City than any manager since the great Alan Dicks inspired First Division football in the 1970’s – and when he went to ambitious Peterborough, working for the flamboyant Barry Fry seemed the perfect next step for Johnson to resurrect his promising career.
John Verrallof the excellent Peterborough blog Standing on the Glebe, takes up the tale: 
“When Gary Johnson was announced as Peterborough United manager there was a massive buzz around the club.  Barry Fry, rather hyperbolically, stated that it was “an appointment that would shake world football” but fans were quietly confident Johnson was the man to get Posh back to the Championship at the first attempt.
It had been a while since we had enjoyed the luxury of having an experienced manager in charge of the club – with Mark Cooper and Jim Gannon taking charge after Darren Ferguson – and Johnson was arguably the most high profile manager in the club’s history.
We had doubled our wage budget to secure promotion when Johnson was appointed, and at the request of the manager, had strayed away from our usual “young and hungry” policy that had served us so well in the past. 
In came more high-profile and more experienced players but the star was Lee Tomlin, who was a throw-back as he reminded us that sometimes experience isn’t always key.  We were already on the right track at Posh.”
Initially Johnson looked to be doing well.  ‘The Posh’ started their campaign on fire scoring bundles of goals but at the expense of attention at the back.  John explained:  
“The team, generally, was playing attractive attacking football and we were scoring lots of goals in the process.  He was the manager who started the ‘we’ll score one more than you’ attitude at the club that we have built a reputation for.
However, the reason for this appeared to be his inability to coach the team to be solid defensively. We were leaking goals and against the better sides in the division we simply couldn’t compete.  A 5-1 defeat to Bournemouth on the second weekend of the season was a warning sign of things to come.  A 3-0 hammering by Brighton, a 4-1 reverse against Southampton and a 5-1 mauling at home to Charlton followed and all of a sudden the pressure was on for Johnson of whom we had expected much.”
Other than Tomlin, many of the other relatively expensive signings failed to impress.   Whereas at City Johnson had built his squad on a handful of existing players and five players who’d performed for him at Yeovil, he was starting afresh at London Road.  The magic dust he seemed to sprinkle on unknown names at Ashton Gate had seemingly dried up – perhaps a result of ignoring the character check outlined above. 
John continued:
“Critically Johnson struggled to get the best out of Grant McCann – brought in on massive wages – and a player who has thrived under Ferguson’s second reign.  His other big money midfielder, James Wesolowski, often found himself sitting on the bench.
Worse still was the signings of players like Arron Davies, Seth Nana and Kelvin Langmead all of whom barely troubled the starting line-up throughout the season and now find themselves playing at League Two level.”
Peterborough had spent some time in the top two, and most of the season in the play-off positions but around Christmas they’d slipped a little further adrift.  An attractive F.A.Cup draw at Premier League Fulham was perhaps a chance for respite and to forget the dwindling league form.  Not so explains John:
“Chairman Darragh MacAnthony isn’t one for sympathising with managers and was typically ruthless.  Whilst most Posh fans went to Fulham just wanting to enjoy the day out, the Chairman, being characteristically ambitious, wanted to test our Premier League opposition.  But we got smashed 6-2 and it was the final straw.  Johnson was fired and Darren Ferguson was brought back.” 
To summarise John explained that
“there have been fewer occasions when expectations have been so high at Posh, but we really did expect promotion from League One when Johnson was in-charge and anything else would have been a failure.  It’s safe to say that had he been in-charge there is no way we would have made the play-offs and no way that we would be currently be playing Championship football.
“Johnson always remained positive at Posh, that much was clear to see.  He would celebrate Posh victories, which became increasingly rare as his tenure went on, with a dramatic pump of the fist towards the crowd
(ER: that bit hadn’t gone amiss then) and often would be seen participating with his players applauding travelling fans before kick-off if we played away.

The Johnson fist-pump re-emerged at London Road
That said he often looked clueless in his dug-out. Rarely coming out and issuing instructions from his technical area and often just looking to the sky to search for inspiration. It’s fair to say that it didn’t come quick enough to save his job.”
Johnson wasn’t out of the game for long though but even for someone desperate to be in work, a move to struggling League Two side Northampton came as a surprise to many.
Danny Brothersan exiled Northampton Town fan living near Bath, writes for ‘A Load of Cobblers’ and has less than fond memories of Johnson’s disastrous spell in charge at Sixfields.
Initially there was positivity.  “The general feelings I had on his arrival were good ones.  As for his Peterborough days, we saluted him for holding them up more than anything!”  Expectations were sky-high on the appointment and Johnson even made the mistake of targeting the playoff places in his first interview!
But when asked to select the best moments of Johnson’s time, Danny struggled.
“It’s tough to think of real highs, barring the victories that kept us in the league last season, at home to Stevenage and at Morecambe. 
After dropping down the league and just surviving we gave him another chance with a full summer to bring in his own players, and he went ahead and completely dismantled the squad.
In the summer Bayo Akinfenwa was brought back from Gillingham which lifted the whole place for a while, whilst the signing of Jake Robinson was also seen as a major coup at the time despite not really finding form in a Cobblers shirt yet.  So there was another bout of high expectations come August but once again we failed to get going, with Johnson’s tinkering leading to another few months of struggle.
There were signs of hope in September’s 3-0 win at AFC Wimbledon but it really is a struggle to find massive highlights!
On the other hand, I could go on for a long time about low points…his falling out with striker Shaun Harrad that saw him sold to Bury at the end of the transfer window with no replacement ready.  Hiding out in the dugout when things were going wrong rather than leading from the front-line.  There were dodgy signings who were unproven in League Two, and he had a general lack of enthusiasm for the job.”
Danny expanded on further signs of a lack of judgement when it came to player signings:
“The likes of Ashley Corker, Nick McKoy and Chris Arthur were all questionable acquisitions for this level.  All three seemed to try pretty hard but just aren’t ready for this level of football and only Corker remains after a bit of a clear-out by new manager Aidy Boothroyd."
With regard to Johnson’s character, Danny’s view is somewhat contradictory to previous experiences:
“My main gripe was that he just didn’t connect at all with the Cobblers fans.  As mentioned above, he sulked and hid in the dug-out during some games, not even coming out to make tactical changes and that was the point when it really started to go downhill.  He then went on to blame our fans on national radio afterwards for having too high expectations!”

It seems that Johnson and the Cobblers was no marriage made in heaven.  From the outside looking in, it appears as if he never really wanted to be there and no-one can perform in a job if that’s the case.
So is this a career on a downward spiral?  Has Johnson lost ‘the knack’ just four years after seeming so impervious?
Two short, unsuccessful spells at clubs will have hurt him, with a seemingly ever-diminishing ability to get the best out of the players at his disposal.  A litany of questionable signings doesn’t bode well but of more concern would be the demeanour displayed at Northampton.  The Johnson City fans remember was always smiling, grinning and generally enjoying life.  He’d crack jokes with the press and media and always be able to make light of any situation by taking the mickey out of a player or himself.  If he’s lost his charisma and school-boy-esque excitement then he’ll naturally struggle to motivate players in the same way he did whilst in the West Country first time around.  Players loved him because of who he was.  Unless he can rediscover that zest it seems unlikely Gary Johnson will ever reach such peaks again.
Saying all of that, if he’s going to do it anywhere then Huish Park seems as good a place as any.  There was initial concern about his return – “Never go back” they say, but Paul Scholes and Thierry Henry have done so already this month so perhaps Johnson is just following a trend.

Ben finishes this tale with some thoughts on what lies ahead for Yeovil second time around.
The great one is back...
Arsenal and Man Utd fans stop nodding along in agreement, I'm not on about those old boys who have re-signed for you.  In fact, neither Mr Henry or Mr Scholes has a patch on the sensational return of "Sir" Gary Johnson to Yeovil Town.
He didn't exactly ride in on the back of a horse and slay his way through anyone who stood in his way before finally claiming the Manager's office as his own, but it seemed somehow as dramatic.
Johnson and Yeovil carried on apart.  For the Glovers, Steve Thompson, Russell Slade and then Terry Skiverton came and then went, whilst for Gary, Bristol City came so close, Peterborough didn't quite work out and if anyone can explain the Northampton mess then they'll be able to write a book - it almost seems right to see the two come back together.
To see Johnson back, crucially, combined with Terry Skiverton, was a very odd sight - many of us supporters literally had dreamt it.
It seemed like seven years had come and gone almost overnight. His wit and light hearted approach to media responsibilities haven't changed, neither had his ability to drum up a local buzz and we even won a game.
His targets are now different, if we get promoted twice and win a cup in the next six years we'll be a Premier League side.  Let's be honest, that won't happen.
His goal is to keep us in the league this season, and next, and the one after.  In the process the team need to play the sort of football to get the crowd back.  I was convinced we would see less that 3000 people at a Yeovil game this year, half the number we saw the day we lifted the Conference trophy.  Maybe not now.
If he achieves that, he can begin building a team to make strides up League One, and who knows – the play-off campaign of 2007 may no longer be a lucky one-off.
If in the process of all this we can develop a star, or if Gary can find another Arron Davies - a man who eventually earned the club £1m in transfer fees - then the club as a whole will benefit.
He has been at the club for merely a week but already the changes have been rung.  Club captain Paul Wotton has left the club and Bristol City youngster Joe Edwards has made a brilliant start on loan.
Strap yourselves in Yeovil fans, this is going to be fun.”

Fun.  A perfect way to end.  That’s what it’s all about for Gary Johnson.  If he can keep that light burning then this might just be the moment a reputation starts to be rebuilt.  Many in Bristol and further afield will be desperate for that to be the case.

Follow me on Twitter: @TheExiledRobin


  1. Fantastic article. Don't think many football supporters - especially not our lot - would begrude Johnson and Yeovil a bit of success. City and Yeovil to both get promoted from their respective leagues in the same season? Never say never.

  2. Thanks - no I think many City fans have a soft spot for Yeovil anyway, especially those from Somerset.

  3. An excellent and enjoyable read. I will never forget the home game against Palace, that was a classic. Wish the man all the best

  4. I remember first seeing GJ get off the bus at Brentford and from that moment it was fun again to be a city fan (after the disaster of Tinnion). What followed were great times.

    Great article and brings back memories.

  5. Enjoyable one seems to be like both are best on their side for the playing circumstances. Cause both have the tight one game early at the start.

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  6. I have always said, Gary Johnson will come back to haunt my Bristol City Club, many where glad when he left, I however thought it was a very sad day, he would have got us back on the road to success in my opinion. All the very best to Yeovil Town!!


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