Recently I wrote a piece for The Boot Room, analysing the major contenders for the vacant managerial (or as we know now – Head Coach) position at Bristol City. I examined eight potential candidates for the role, based on odds of the bookmakers, and an educated guess.
Somewhat embarrassingly, Lee Johnson was not on my list of potential candidates. This is not because I completely forgot about the man who played for the Robins between 2006 and 2012, but rather I didn’t think the board would appoint him – not yet anyway.
Much has been made about Johnson’s desires to manage City and follow in his father’s footsteps. I must confess I thought it was a likely scenario, albeit not one at this moment in time, given Johnson’s relative lack of experience as a gaffer.
However, as much as I’d like to be, I’m not in charge of who gets appointed and when, and Johnson has put pen to paper on a three and a half year deal. The question is: is Lee Johnson the right man for Bristol City?
He certainly seems to love the club, and that can only be positive. LJ said in his first press conference at Ashton Gate that Bristol City had become “his team” and returning was akin to “coming home”. The central midfielder who won promotion with Bristol City to the Championship in 2007 also stated his lofty ambitions to bring Premier League football to the redeveloped Ashton Gate.
Of course, to some degree this is just lip service, and City fans have certainly heard the promise of the promised land before, but it is refreshing to have a seemingly genuine fan (or at least someone who truly cares about the club) at the helm, not just at Bristol City, but any organisation.
Understandably Lee wants to shake off the ‘son of Gary’ tag, and be his own man. This is poignant because LJ suffered at the hands of a vocal and significant minority of City fans during his playing days at Ashton Gate, and will always have his spell on the pitch tainted by claims of nepotism (for most of Lee’s time at City, father Gary was manager).
The 34-year-old made it very clear in his opening interviews at City that he will be his own man, which one feels is good for all concerned. The only hangover from Gary Johnson’s era will be the “bounce around the ground” chant, popularised at the height of Gary’s tenure.
Oldham Athetic was LJ’s first job in charge, and the man from Newmarket kept the Lactics up in his first season, and then achieved a credible 15th position in his second season, despite losing key players in January and relying on loans. At Oldham Johnson signed Korey Smith from Norwich, and made the young midfielder his captain. Korey and Lee are now reunited at the Gate.
The Ched Evans scandal overshadowed LJ’s time at Oldham, and it must be noted that Johnson was against signing the player. Soon after this, in February 2015 Johnson left to join fellow League One side Barnsley, the Evans fiasco, and the role the OAFC board played in this, no doubt a factor in Johnson’s departure. Despite a rocky start at Barnsley, LJ recently won manager of the month for January 2016 and has guided the Tykes to a JPT Wembley final, playing, by all accounts, good free flowing football whilst doing so.
That said the appointment of Lee Johnson to Bristol City is not without its risks. In fact it is plagued by risks.
Johnson has no experience of managing in the Championship, at a time when Bristol City desperately need results to avoid the drop. Interim (now reverted to number two) John Pemberton spoke of every league game for the Reds now being like a “cup final”. Whilst LJ has amassed nearly 200 games as a manager/head coach, none of these are in England’s second tier. Is there a difference between managing in League One and the Championship? You get the impression Bristol City fans will find out sooner rather than later.
Did Bristol City aim high enough with this appointment? Nigel Pearson, Neil Warnock, and to a lesser extent Garry Monk and David Moyes were on the lips of City fans, wanting a high profile appointment with a proven track record. Their wishes were not granted – possibly because some of those targets are unrealistic, or perhaps because the board set their sights too low. Even Garry Monk has managed three quarters of a century of games in the Premier League, meaning he was perhaps the best balance of experience and realism. The truth is unlikely to be revealed any time soon.
If LJ suffers a poor run of form and Bristol City get pulled back into the relegation zone, one cannot help but feel the ‘boo boys’ from his playing spell will be out in full force and on his back, rightly or wrongly. Hopefully that is something Johnson is prepared for, but it will not make his job any easier.
In conclusion, only time will tell whether Lee Johnson is the right man for Bristol City, and right now it is impossible to make a judgement (apologies if you feel short changed of an answer). Keeping John Pemberton as his assistant may well be the difference between success and failure for Lee Johnson. Pemberton has worked at City in that capacity under Sean O’Driscoll and Steve Cotterill, and put together an okay run of form when in charge himself – notably tightening up the defence.
His knowledge of the players, combined with an impetuous of charisma and energy from Johnson may well be enough to keep City in the Championship. One thing I do urge to any Bristol City fan reading this, is regardless of your opinion on Lee Johnson the player, give him time as a manager to prove himself at Ashton Gate.