The outlook from the high-rise flats behind Ashton Gate, once Nelson Mandela house in the sitcom Only Fools and Horses, has changed significantly in the past 18 months.
The stadium is in the process of a £45m facelift – one it is hoped will help finally to put Bristol City firmly on the football map. Once completed, it will be a 27,000-capacity state-of-the-art facility with a crèche and an oxygen tank.
The club are attempting to break new ground on the pitch too. Lee Johnson, the forward‑thinking head coach, is determined to take City into the Premier League after failing to do so as a player eight years ago.
Johnson is a student of the game and his face lights up when he is asked, in the canteen at the club’s training ground, where his will to keep learning has taken him. “I have been everywhere, all over the world, studying,” he says, citing trips to Barcelona, Real Madrid and the Latvian club Skonto Riga. But perhaps most intriguing are visits not to football clubs but to the SAS and the NHS.
“I went to the NHS to study pressure environments and leadership,” Johnson says. “I went into an A&E ward with the doctors and nurses there just to see pressure because it’s very difficult to replicate – on a matchday you’re a lunatic. For 90 minutes in that technical area – because you’re so emotional – everybody’s an idiot. There’s so much tension and pressure, so it’s how can you recreate that and be calm under pressure? It’s a way of trying to learn, using the little tricks of the trade to become better, and I enjoy that.”
Johnson’s approach is leaving no stone unturned and his forays into other walks of life are not finished yet. “I am trying to get into a top Michelin star kitchen just so I can study the chefs and the pressure of delivering quality. I’ll take Jamie Oliver, anyone who will do it, but it’s got to be Michelin star though.”
It was 2008, in the play-off final at Wembley, when the then Hull City striker Dean Windass abruptly ended Bristol City’s big dream. Johnson’s father, Gary, safely the club’s most popular manager since the turn of the millennium, was in charge that day and Lee played the second half. Since then, the club’s rivals from across the Severn bridge, Swansea City and Cardiff City, as well as the towns of Bournemouth, Burnley and Blackpool, have reached the Premier League. The city of Bristol – England’s eighth-biggest by population – has been starved of top-flight football for 36 years.
“It was a successful time while I was here [as a player] but I want to make sure I am the one to deliver Premier League football to the city,” says the 35-year-old Johnson, who spent six years as a midfielder at the club. “I felt guilty that we did not get into the Premier League. I think you have got to earn that right to be there. I think you earn that right by doing things in the correct manner and holding yourself correctly as a club. But we can handle it: the city can handle it, the stadium can handle it and the board can handle it and we’re ready. Of course, you have to do it sustainably, but we’re ready.”
Johnson’s vision is somewhat mirrored on the club’s home shirt for the coming season. The hashtag #MakingBristolProud, a slogan used by the club’s commercial arm, Bristol Sport, adorns the right shoulder of the red strip. Bristol Sport, the group of sports companies owned by the Bristol City owner, Steve Lansdown, has overseen the stadium’s redevelopment. Within the Bristol Sport banner are a number of affiliated clubs, including Bristol Rugby and various others from badminton to basketball. In fact, the only major team in the city in which Lansdown does not hold an interest are Bristol Rovers.
The drones above the club’s training ground and the rapidly expanding sports science department are indicators of the club’s development and attention to detail. Johnson, who also played for Yeovil Town and Kilmarnock, has been key to implementing performance psychology. “I used it a lot as a player myself and if we can allow our young players to be expressive, to be bold and not fear retribution for giving the ball away, that can be quite powerful if that’s over 11 players,” he says.
“We are always trying to future-proof football. We are not trying to reinvent the wheel because football is still the same. But there’s a lot of pressure now: there’s a lot of money at stake, there are a lot of supporters watching and there is instant anger or adulation now with social media. All of these things have to be managed to make sure the equilibrium of the team is correct.”
An hour in the company of Johnson is absorbing and it is easy to forget he is still only four years into management. The former Barnsley and Oldham manager is the fifth-youngest coach in England’s top four divisions and the youngest English coach in the top three.
“Eddie Howe is completely out there on his own at the moment in terms of that youthful breed,” says Johnson. “People like myself, Gary Rowett and Sean Dyche have to emulate people like him. I think there’s some really good coaches, some passionate people but I think emotional intelligence separates the men from the boys.
“There are millions of technically and tactically good coaches but the best ones that I’ve seen are the ones that can adjust and show that emotional intelligence to get the right blend. I also think people have to have the strength of character to hire young, English coaches. I am still forging parts of my leadership skills and philosophies. It’s something I’ve got to make sure I keep pushing.”
The hard work and persistence has continued behind the scenes in the transfer market too. Lee Tomlin, a box-office hit on loan last season, has signed permanently from Bournemouth and Adam Matthews has re-signed for the club on a season-long loan from Sunderland. The Iceland defender Hordur Magnusson and the goalkeeper Ivan Lucic have arrived from Juventus and Bayern Munich respectively and the Republic of Ireland midfielder Callum O’Dowda signed from Oxford United as one of the Football League’s brightest talents. Josh Brownhill has arrived after a year on loan at Barnsley and Gary O’Neil will add his priceless top-flight experience to a fairly youthful squad. Last season’s spine of Aden Flint, Korey Smith and Jonathan Kodjia, who scored 20 goals in his debut season, are likely to return improved.
One of the club’s biggest signings, though, has been Mark Ashton, formerly of Oxford United, who was appointed as the chief operating officer in January. He works in tandem with Johnson and the club’s longstanding owner, Lansdown, a billionaire from the city, whose son, Jon, became vice-chairman in 2013. Johnson’s predecessor, Steve Cotterill, who ensured the club returned to the Championship last year, was repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to bring in players – notably the strikers Andre Gray and Dwight Gayle – because of what he said was their “perception” of the club. That perception appears to have changed.
“It’s just a great city to live in, it’s a good football club with a good owner, who has got the right intentions,” says Johnson. “If we can work together – and Mark Ashton can be the glue in it all – and let me deal with developing the football side then the world is your oyster. I am here to do my very best. Will we achieve the promised land? Who knows, but we will certainly die in a ditch for that honour.”
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