It is the final day of the Championship campaign and Lee Johnson, Bristol City’s head coach, has just welcomed Steve Lansdown, the club’s owner, into his office at Ashton Gate, where a candid discussion about a rollercoaster season, including the need for “big balls” in the dugout, has strayed into a broader debate about a hire-and-fire epidemic in the second tier.
Twelve managers were sacked in the Championship between October and April, another two resigned, one departed by mutual consent and one returned to his academy role after his contract until the end of the season was cut short. They are depressing statistics from a chaotic league and for a time it looked as though Johnson would add his name to that list as City’s superb start to the season badly unravelled. Sitting fifth in the table at the beginning of October, City suffered eight successive league defeats at one stage and dropped like a stone, making for a winter of discontent at Ashton Gate.
“There was a lot of noise in the middle of the season, very abusive, very aggressive,” Lansdown says. “But that element is always there. That element goes asleep when things are going well. And when they get an opportunity, they’re out with their knives.”
All the same Lansdown accepts that City were enduring a wretched run of results and admits that Johnson’s future was discussed at board level in March, when the threat of relegation started to loom. “Lee knows we had those conversations,” Lansdown says, looking across at Johnson. “We had a conversation after a game [the 0-0 draw with Burton Albion] where we were all sat around the table and Lee joined us. And I said to him: ‘Look, I’ve got to be honest with you, we’ve been talking about whether we should keep you or not.’”
The decision to stand firmly behind Johnson, who spent six years with City as a player, was brave. It also proved wise. City produced play-off form to pick up 20 points from their next 11 matches, climbing clear of the relegation zone to finish 17th, and it is tempting to wonder whether other clubs could benefit from adopting a similar approach in a time of crisis.
“The point is, we trust Lee,” Lansdown says. “The aim is to build and develop, and the relationship I have with Lee, the knowledge I have of his career so far, his philosophy, I want to continue. So I didn’t want to give up on what we know is so good. And I think more owners, more boards, should do that and take a longer-term view. But, unfortunately, if you get relegated, of course you get castigated. So that’s the pressure.”
From Johnson’s perspective the season has been “an unbelievable learning curve for us all”. At the age of 35 he is the youngest manager operating in the top two divisions and it says much for his resilience, as well as his ability, that he came through what he describes as a “horrendous spell”.
Football consumes Johnson, as is the case with his father, Gary, who has been desperate to return to his job as Cheltenham Town manager after a triple heart bypass. Johnson’s thirst for knowledge is taking him to Manchester City this week, he was on a scouting trip in Verona last week and he has already gone through a process of self-reflection to work out where he can improve, starting with trying to find some more “life balance”.
By his own admission he is “obsessed” with management, to the point that his desire to succeed means he has “probably over-coached a little bit at times”. Johnson also recognises the need to do a better job of keeping a lid on expectations during the good times. “That’s probably a lesson for me – I went with it, rather than saying: ‘Hold on a minute, calm down a little bit,’” he says, recalling the excitement that accompanied City’s excellent early results.
Yet some things are out of his control in an industry where there is no middle ground. “Before I signed my [new] contract here, I was named the eighth best manager in the world under 40 [in FourFourTwo magazine]. A few months later I’m having death threats and there’s a banner being put up. What other job does that happen in?” Johnson says, breaking into laughter. “It’s crazy. And the truth is that neither is right – I wasn’t the eighth best manager under 40 but I wasn’t the world’s worst, and that’s my point.”
Lansdown’s unwavering faith in Johnson, who was appointed in February last year, is part of a wider vision that is taking City down a different route from the past, when the billionaire’s chequebook was often seen as the solution to any problems on the pitch. That approach never worked, ended with City returning to League One in 2013 and wasted a lot of Lansdown’s money.
City are still heavily dependent on their 64-year-old benefactor, who has spent £45m transforming Ashton Gate into an impressive 27,000 all-seat stadium, yet they are moving towards developing a self-sufficient model by investing in the infrastructure. The club now place greater emphasis on bringing through their own players as well as signing youngsters with potential, such as Callum O’Dowda, the 22-year-old Republic of Ireland international who joined from Oxford United, rather than the high-earning underachievers of the past.
Mark Ashton, the chief operating officer, is heavily involved in a recruitment process that has led to money being spent on analysts, on sourcing data on players in other European leagues to widen City’s reach and leaving Lansdown full of enthusiasm about the overall picture. “We have a club here at the moment where everyone is focused on the right thing, 100% behind what we’re doing. And I’ve never had that feeling before,” he says.
Yet it is not easy to convince every supporter that the club is on the right track, especially when results start to fall away and the critics find their voice. Lansdown, whose Bristol Sport group also owns the rugby club that lost its Premiership status this season, genuinely believes that some fans would like to see him fail. Asked why that would be the case, Lansdown replies: “Maybe because we’ve broken some of their traditions, or they haven’t got the bar they used to drink in, or whatever it may be – people don’t like change. A lot of people in football want to go back to the good old days – or bad old days. And we’re progressing. The fact we’re sitting here now, having turned the season around, having finished very strongly with promotion-type form, with a full house for the last game of the season … there are more fans coming to watch Bristol City than for a long time and I think that shows there’s that belief in the club and what we’re doing. And that’s the thing you’ve always got to fall back on.”
For Johnson the pressure he has worked under in his first full season in charge at City has been unforgiving. “I don’t think anybody will ever realise what it’s like in that hot seat until you’re in it, because it is relentless,” he says. “It [the criticism] comes from all angles. You’ve got the massive boom in social media, you have your kids at school, you have your wife walking down the road, you have the board questioning things – rightly so. You have players’ agents kicking off. It’s all happening and you have to be the calmest man in the room, really.
“You have to focus and dig really deep. Sometimes it’s making sure you see the wood for the trees, thinking about everything and going with that gut instinct. I think I’ve been quite brave with certain decisions. I remember one game at home [against Rotherham United] where I made a triple substitution and took off Lee Tomlin and Tammy Abraham, and I absolutely knew we were going to get it from the crowd.”
Fifteen minutes later Matty Taylor released Jamie Paterson, whose shot was turned in by Milan Djuric for the only goal of the game. They were the three players Johnson had brought off the bench to a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from City supporters. “You have to make big decisions,” says Johnson. “You need big balls. And I would rather fail bold than fail timid.”
Where City go from here is anyone’s guess after such a strange season. The bad news is that they will no longer have the services of Abraham, who has returned to Chelsea after scoring 26 goals during a season-long loan that was a spectacular success. The good news, in Johnson’s eyes, is that City have “shown the world that we can be trusted with top young players”, opening the door potentially to another high-profile loan deal.
Either way, the bigger picture for this football club is all about reaching the Premier League, which City came within 90 minutes of doing when Johnson was part of the team that lost to Hull City in the 2008 play-off final. At the start and end of the season that has just finished, they were on course for the Premier League again. The problem, as everyone keeps reminding Johnson, was that period in between.
“This is a big club being built in flight and any advance is never like that,” Johnson says, gesturing with his hand straight upwards. “We had our little dip. And now I’m almost starting to get the hump with it,” he adds, with a chuckle. “This is the last interview on that. Let’s move on. We’re decent here. And now we’re through it all, everything’s positive.”
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