Lee Johnson Exlusive: Bristol City boss talks promotion hopes and managerial innovation

Callum Pragnell by Callum Pragnell / 06 May 2020, 15:27

This week’s #ManagersAtHome guest is Bristol City boss Lee Johnson. The 38-year-old discusses life in lockdown, how he’s been using this spare time to develop as a coach and how he tricked one of his old players into thinking his uncle worked for MI6..

Pulling together

Bristol City have not kicked a ball since the start of March, and with the return of football currently unknown, Johnson admits that while it has been difficult dealing with this unprecedented situation, everyone at the club have been understanding in the fact that decisions have needed to be made for the sake of its future.

“It’s been tough for everybody, make no mistake about it. Obviously it’s been made public about cuts that have been made, staff being furloughed and player deferrals etc”, said the former midfielder, who turned out over 150 times for the Robins between 2006-2012. 

“But to be fair, the trust is in the club and the people that are involved in the club - everything we’ve been asked to do we’ve done, and that’s because of the relationships that have been built up so well from very good people who run the club. 

“So, people have been happy to help as they understand that there is a sustainable model we’re working towards, not just for the future of the football club, but also the expansion of the business and certainly the community projects that go on.”

Lifting the community

As Johnson touches on, Bristol City have strong links to the community, and the importance of the role they play is being highlighted now more than ever - despite the fact that the UK is currently in full lockdown.

“It’s obviously difficult because we’re also being told to isolate, and naturally you want to be out there knocking on people’s doors and cheering them up. 

“But what we have been doing is, certainly on the phone, speaking to particularly our - I won’t say older, i’ll say our more experienced supporters - and wishing them happy birthday. 

“I don't know if you would have seen it but we gave away the lottery winnings, £12,000, and the guy, Rob Fernandes, instantly donated half back to the Bristol homeless and half back to the NHS which was an amazing moment really. He didn't know he was being videoed and it was off the cuff.”

Johnson says that the club have been instrumental in assisting the more vulnerable members of the local community throughout this difficult period, helping with food deliveries and donating money to the charities they have worked closely with for a number of years.

“We've had volunteers in terms of our staff who have been delivering food to the lonely and the vulnerable. 

“As a footballing staff we have donated a decent amount of cash and food to the local food banks and that's been a humbling/heart-warming story

“Then of course we've got the charities that we support throughout the year, the children hospice South West and obviously the community schemes.

“There's been a lot of people sacrifice a lot in terms of time, energy and money but also people know we're there for them on a human level as well. If need be, we can brighten up someone's day by a phone call or a video message, we'll be more than happy to do that” 

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Johnson's side have been instrumental in lifting the spirits of the local community.

Chances of promotion

Although there is no guarantee that we will see the return of football this season, Johnson believes his side possess the capabilities to reach the play-offs if the EFL is given the green light to return in forthcoming months. 

Bristol City are currently 7th in the Championship, and are just a point outside of the play-off places with nine games remaining. 

“Yeah I believe we can, I think we’re a good side and we’ve had our issues this year, there’s no doubting that. 

“When big players are sold, naturally it takes a percentage out of the quality in the team and I think that’s been our challenge. 

“We’ve had big players come out for a number of reasons, it’s not just sales it’s also injuries - the likes of Benik Afobe, Thomas Kalas and Jay Dasilva missing half a season - these are really top players at our level. 

“So, for me, actually I've got to use this period to reflect and look at what’s gone well and what’s not gone well, but really define the weeks that we’ve got to build that cohesive team unit even more.”

Secret agent Johnson 

Technology’s involvement in football has increased massively in recent years. Now, with the world essentially moving completely online due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s importance to society is being further highlighted.

“We want to bring as much knowledge and innovation to the football club, whether that’s through software or technological gadgets, or just old-fashioned football methodology. 

“You don’t ever stop trying to improve, I’ve got that thirst for knowledge and it’s something that drives me. 

“We’re permanently trying to push the boundaries, and I think that’s been the success of the football club over the last four/five years. 

“I’ve done a lot of webinars for the FA for young coaches that are coming through and I’ve enjoyed that too, as it enables you to give a bit back.”

On the topic of technology, the former Bristol City and Brighton midfielder shares a story with us about one of his former players, and how he tricked him into believing he was being spied on by MI6.

“We can do a lot now with modern technology, that’s for sure” [laughs].

“I remember a funny story about that actually, we signed Johnson Clarke-Harris when I was at Oldham. 

“He was a little scallywag at that point but a real talent, and I really wanted to guide him and nurture him. 

“I managed to convince him that my uncle was in MI6, and when he went for his medical I said listen, he can zoom in on you from all over the world, even in your back garden - everything that you do, I’m going to know about it. 

“So he went in to have his medical anyway, and I was following him in about five minutes later. The lady in the reception said ‘what’s your striker all about?’, I said ‘what do you mean?’ She says: ‘Well he’s addicted to sugar, isn’t he? He’s just put six sugars in his tea!’ I went, ‘you’re joking!’ It was only a tiny cup. 

“I walked into the room and said: ‘Oi Johnson, what are you doing putting six sugars in your tea?’ He couldn’t believe it, he thought that the CCTV had been tapped into by MI6 and had spotted him putting six sugars in the tea!”

“So yeah, I think technology is good but sometimes the threat of it is even better; I don’t think there’s any need for me to chase this lot with drones just yet.”

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Six sugars, Johnson? Six? That's insane.

An opportunity to reflect

Johnson admits that one positive to come from the current situation is the fact it’s given him an opportunity to reflect on the season so far. 

As with the case with most managers, there is little time to stop and think about things as you’re always preparing for the next game - especially in the Championship, where teams will often play three matches a week. 

“I won’t lie, it has been nice to jump off that hamster wheel and reflect and look back.

“This time I can use to genuinely assess where myself and my staff are, and also where we are as a football club and try to drive that forward for when we return.

“But yeah I love it, I love the sort of day-to-say battle of being a manager. The team building process excites me, I don’t like losing and therefore there is always a drive to win, and to win you’ve obviously got to be the best in every field - recruitment, coaching, communication.”

Lockdown managers

It wouldn’t be a proper #ManagersAtHome interview without hearing about which three managers Johnson would self-isolate with if he had the opportunity, would it?

“Kenny Dalgleish, without doubt because he’s an unbelievable fella, an unbelievable leader and he’s just somebody I like a lot.

“Pep Guardiola, for sure. I just think the modern-day chat would be amazing. Obviously I’ve had a taste of that at half-time and the end of the games when we played Man City, and that was great so I’d like to continue that.

“If I could bring somebody back, it’d be Johan Cruyff. I think he was a pioneer of the game; the way he thought about football, it’d be so interesting to understand his thought process.”

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