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Thursday, 6 February 2014

Lee Johnson EXCLUSIVE: "I'd love to manage City"

As Oldham Athletic become the latest side to try and end Bristol City's remarkable unbeaten start to the season (in November!!!), here's a reminder of the exclusive interview I carried out with Latics boss Lee Johnson earlier in the year:

An extra-special 'Inside Line' feature this week as Lee Johnson, the manager of Saturday's opponents Oldham Athletic, speaks exclusively to The Exiled Robin.

Lee was a virtual ever present in the City side that settled and then got promoted from league one last time around, and then continued to play a significant role in helping us reach the play-off final at Wembley, coming so close to reaching the promised land of the Premier League.

However his time in BS3 wasn't always smooth. Accusations of favouritism from his manager - and Dad - Gary and the lack of the all-action throwing-himself-into-tackles displays that some fans see as essential led to Lee receiving a fair amount of stick and his name was an almost constant feature on the forums at the time, with plenty of support railing against the criticism.

He discusses this time with me and talks of the love he still has for the club, along with an insight into what he's trying to achieve at Oldham and explains how his Dad has helped - and been unable to help - with situations that have popped up in his short managerial career to date.

Nearly a year now into your managerial career, how are you finding it?
It’s got – it’s had – everything. It’s exciting, there’s carnage, there are ups and downs and you learn so much every week, literally everything that can come up has come up so far. Obviously being around my Dad for so many years I’ve seen and heard a lot but he’s never managed at Anfield and he’s never been involved in a spot-fixing incident – there’s no coaching manual available to help me through some of what I’ve had to deal with this year!

You’re obviously making a good impression though, Lee, as you were recently awarded a new contract?
That’s very nice!  I’m working very hard & I’m passionate about the club and the job and I’ve always loved football. I give my heart & soul and I’m delighted the club have seen that and allowed me to sign a three-and-a-half year deal.

Just going back a little, when you got the job it sounded from a report I read that you blew the Oldham chairman away at the interview? How did you approach that and what was it that impressed him so much?
It was just the preparation really. I hadn’t just turned up and said I fancy being a manager now my playing career is nearing an end. I’ve been preparing for six to seven years to get to this point.

People like Steve Lansdown have helped me out, I practiced making the presentation to him just for a bit of advice, as a friend and he gave me some good advice from a Chairman’s point of view.

Also I’ve met a lot of managers and become friendly with a few big names in the game so it’s all just helped my knowledge over the years. I’m a long way along with my coaching badges as well – it all just helped to prove I had the commitment and desire level to make a good manager.

What would you say the big differences between being a player and a manager are, Lee? Do you ever wish you could put your boots on and go and influence the match more directly?
Yes all the time, I miss playing so much! I’m a very competitive person and I certainly miss pulling the boots on and then coming off at the end having given everything with three points earned. Now other people have to do it for me, I live my life through them!

The highs are very very high and the lows are really low. Now the honeymoon period is over and it’s very much my team out there, it really hurts quite badly when you lose, but when you win it feels great, probably better than when I was playing.

At just 31 years old when you were appointed, you were the youngest manager in the football league. Does that make the job harder?
No, I don’t think so. Obviously some people can play on that and make it seem tougher.  But I’ve been around my Dad for a long time and seen a lot of the things that can go on and would go on and without that experience I think I would have found it very difficult, but having had that at first hand I’ve probably had a bit of a head start compared with other managers.

Talking of your Dad, Gary, do you utilise his experience and ask for advice? Are there any areas in particular you discuss?
Yes of course, we talk all the time, we bounce stuff off each other though, it’s not just one way, but he’s obviously seen a lot, done a lot and has been almost continuously employed for twenty-odd years so that’s certainly something I respect a lot. I know he’s a good manager and I just look to take the advice I get and use it as best I can – it’s great to have someone with so much experience available but I come up with my own thought process on all these things.

One of your first fixtures was against Gary’s Yeovil side. How was that experience?
It was strange because it was such a big game. We needed it desperately as we were trying to stay up whilst they needed it as they were still going for automatic promotion. It was a really strange scenario, if we had played each other earlier in the season we both might have enjoyed it a bit more.

It all worked out well in the end though with them going up via the play off final and us surviving in this division.

But it was probably worse for him than it was for me as I want to beat him at everything we do anyway, but I think his fatherly instinct is to want your children to do well and I did catch him going ‘oooh’ when we just missed a chance at one point so that maybe tells its own story!

You were recently name-checked by Brendan Rodgers as a lower league manager who likes playing football in ‘the right way’. Given your playing style which revolved around a passing game, is that a natural progression for you to make and the style you want to become known for as a manager? And can it succeed at this level?
Yes, I’ve no doubt it can. This level at the moment is a very very tough level . It’s not easy, I think it’s well documented we have one of the worst budgets in the league and I’m trying to build a specific methodology around the club, sticking to my principles, influenced by the way I played and the way I like the game to be played.

But sometimes – like the game at Swindon on Saturday – you have to play the conditions and that’s something else I learned off my Dad who is good at adapting certain things and getting the best out of players in certain situations. That’s been a big reason behind the success he’s had in his career which has been getting clubs to perform higher than they probably deserved to be.

A quick interjection into the football chat, what’s the explanation behind your twitter name (@LDJhepingping)
Ha ha, it came about when I was playing and the guy who was the smallest man in the world was called He Pingping so I thought I’d take the mick out of myself and make out I was the world’s smallest player.

How has this season panned out so far, Lee? Have you performed roughly as you expected?
What I’ve realised at a club like this is its very difficult when your best players are out. We’ve had two spells this season where we’ve had three of our best players missing for six or seven games and then it’s very hard to compete with the top teams with big budgets.

When we have got our best group out I think we’re a match for anyone in the top eight and results prove that this year. So that’s key for me, can we have that bit of luck to keep the key players fit?

In terms of the squad you had quite a busy transfer deadline day, picking up ex-City players James Wilson and Jon Stead amongst others. Firstly Wilson, I presume you’re hoping you can reignite his career a little and pull out some of the potential you saw when you played with him at Ashton Gate?
Yeah definitely, sometimes you have to realise what your market is and we have to be a bit of a home for the unloved and the unvalued of other clubs. I’ve obviously known James for a while and know his qualities and I just need to see if he’s got that bit of hunger in him. The way we’ve structured the deal it gives him a chance to prove himself first, but there’s no doubt he’s got the qualities and the attributes to be a good player.

It is difficult sometimes when you’ve been a youth team player at a club, you’re often seen as the baby and always as that youth team player however old you are. Whereas when you move club you’re then seen as a man, and that will be the challenge for him.

He played very well on Saturday at Swindon, helped us keep a clean sheet and was one of our better players, so we’ll be hoping he can maintain that sort of performance.

And in Jon Stead I’d think you’ve probably got one of the signings of the window at this level, someone who performed tremendously well for us in an ultimately losing cause the last few seasons – you must be delighted to have picked him up?
I am, I know Steady and I know what he’s about. We had to move a couple out to get a few in and I’m very pleased with my dealings.

In terms of Bristol City next weekend, who are looking out for as the main threats to neutralise?
Well they’ve got quality all over and threats coming from everywhere. They’re quite big at the moment. Marv’s obviously dangerous from set-pieces, you’ve got Flint and others. Then you’ve got the front two who are truly quality players at this level, but obviously they’ve got weaknesses and we have to try and get into those and take advantage.

Do you still follow City’s progress more closely than other teams?
Of course I do, I’ve got a massive love for the club, a lot of affiliation and a lot of friends around the place – and I still feel  a lot for the club – I’m desperate for them to do well and that’s the same for Yeovil and Kilmarnock.

You know what I’m like, I’m very passionate and give my all for the team do well –and keep in touch with people.  I had some really good years there and successful ones as well, so it’s always going to have a place in my heart.

Whilst at City you were part of the most successful side in a generation but you personally had some issues with some small sections of the fan-base. Did that affect you and how did you deal with it at the time?
I think at times it affected me, I think I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. I understood when I went there it was a big club, it wasn’t the fact I was overly comfortable at the level initially, so when we won it was all good but when we lost I was often the first one to get it in the neck. But I knew that would come when I signed, so I half expected it.

Generally though opinions in football don’t always reflect reality and if you look at the points per game ratio whilst I was at Bristol City I don’t think there would be too many better? And that goes to show – although I wasn’t the biggest tackler in the world I was brave in wanting the ball and trying to get things ticking over and, generally, when I played well the team played well and I helped us to be successful.

I was disappointed to leave Bristol City but it was at a time there was very much a changing of the guard.

So when you returned in November, did you get the sort of reaction you expected when you walked out from the dressing-room?
Yes I did, I got a lovely reaction. Generally I think 99% of people realised I loved the club, tried hard for the club and wanted them to be a success – which we generally were.

Maybe I was the type of player people realised they missed more once I’d gone.

And finally, if at some point in the future the chance came to manage City, would you be interested or would that be a job you’d never take, given your history?
No, why would I not want to take it? Firstly I’d like to say I’m really happy here at Oldham and I’d never bite the hand that feeds me and they’re a fantastic club and gave me my first chance, but we all know football’s crazy – at some point in my life there’s no doubt I’d love to manage Bristol City because I’ve got such strong feelings for the place, like I have now at Oldham and have for Yeovil and Kilmarnock too.

There are a lot of very friendly people there and I’d love to at one point be a part of more history.

My immense thanks to Lee for his time in an interesting and informative interview. I got the impression of an extremely hungry, determined and passionate young manager who is thorough and will leave no stone unturned in getting the maximum out of his squad, a trait his (for now) more famous father is certainly renowned for. If he could have even half the success that Gary has had, he’ll be doing pretty OK for himself.

For now, his job is to keep Oldham up and push them towards the top half of the table. In the future, who knows, we may well see a manager called Johnson once more prowling the touchline at a redeveloped Ashton Gate. 

The Exiled Robin

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