Lee Johnson: Evolution of a manager
Written by Simon Austin — November 29, 2020
LEE JOHNSON is yet to hit 40, but already has nine seasons as a manager under his belt.
He got the Oldham job at the age of 31, making him the youngest boss in the Football League. And by the time he left Bristol City in July this year, after four seasons, he had become the longest-serving manager in the Championship.
During the last four months, the 39-year-old has had chance to reflect on his career and work out how he'll approach his next opportunity. He shared these thoughts with TGG:
1. Growing up (hiding) in a dressing room
Lee Johnson: I definitely grew up in a dressing room. Sometimes I grew up hiding in a dressing room.
My dad (Gary Johnson) was assistant to John Beck at Cambridge United in the early nineties. I used to hide in a skip at half time and listen to the team talk. I must have only been seven, eight-years-old and I had a front row seat watching the intricacies of a dressing room and management styles.
What I’d do was look at the scoreboard and on 45 minutes I'd run in quickly. I used to tuck into one of those big metal skips, put a wedge in it so I could breathe, and then listen to John Beck either tearing strips off people or giving a motivational speech.
You had players like Liam Daish, Dion Dublin, John Vaughan - hard, hard men.
It was a time when they went up through the divisions quickly and had unbelievable cup runs. It was a really interesting time for the city. You can have an opinion on the style of play of John Beck, but in terms of innovation he was up there, he was well ahead of his time.
He left no stone unturned in delivering the objectives of his playing style and gave the players clarity. For example, he made sure there was luminous paint at the corners of the pitch, so you didn’t even have to lift your head to make a pass there, you could see it out of your periphery and clip it into the channels.
He also bonused players on actions, which he called reaches, which I’d never heard of before. So if a midfielder played the ball into the channel with quality, that would be a tick towards a bonus.
That’s a way forward in football potentially - a bonus based on your game model - and something I’ve been looking at while I've been away from the game.
2. Learning managerial lessons as a player
I was at Arsenal as a kid and moved to Watford while my dad was manager of Latvia. Then he came into Watford as Academy Director, so I even spent time with him there.
People looking in might say there was nepotism during my playing career, because I played for my dad at Watford, Yeovil and Bristol City. That can hurt and you have to live with it.
I read the recent interview on this website with Davide Ancelotti at Everton and he talked about that as well. I 100% believe he is the best staff member for his father, because blood is thicker than water and what you get from that is a purity and honesty.
You can give a really strong opinion without fear of retribution and know it’s not personal. Of course you need the skillset and the qualifications too, which he has, but it will be brilliant for them working together.
With me as a player, dad had someone who was one of the lads. I wouldn’t stitch any of my team-mates up if they went out, but I could have that communication with him that no-one else could.
If we’d had a really tough week and our legs were heavy, he would trust my honesty to say, 'We need to go light tomorrow'.
As a player, I was 5ft 6 and not particularly quick, so I had to find ways of improving my performance. And I learnt a lot about coaching and management from a player's perspective.
Especially in the latter stages of your playing career, you notice how not to do things. That’s no disrespect to the managers I had, but you tend to look at what’s done well and then rub out what’s not so good.
I learnt about things like how to manage a maverick. When I played for Bristol City, I was alongside a lad called David Noble. Gazza mentioned him in his book as one of the best talents he’d ever played with, that’s how good he was.
He was an unbelievable lad too, but he lived the life. It was my job as the number six or number eight to feed him, the 10, as quickly as I possibly could. I was doing his running, covering the gaps he left, but every time I did he acknowledged it and made me feel on top of the world when I got the ball to him early. And I loved what he could do on the ball.
If a super-talented player can enhance the team then you'll make those sacrifices. I’ve always remembered that.
3. Enthusiastic but authentic
When I was 31 I was appointed manager of Oldham Athletic (making him the youngest manager in the Football League). It was shit or bust, really - 'you’ve got 10 games to keep this team up.'
It was a really brave decision by the owner Simon Corney to put me in, because he was putting a rookie into a relegation zone.
I felt ready, because I’d had the front-row seat and had done my coaching hours, but I’d gone from retiring as a player becoming a manager almost overnight, so you have to be honest and genuine about that.
I couldn't go into the dressing room and suddenly pretend I was Sir Alex Ferguson, because the players would have seen through that straight away. Players can read through bullshit very, very quickly.
That’s where you’ve got to show emotional intelligence.
You’ve got to be able to read a room, because if you try and be someone you’re not, you’ve had it.
When a new manager comes in there’s a clean slate and a boost. You can ride that, by bringing energy and passion to a place. I had the benefit of understanding how a player thinks, what's needed from their perspective, and I had a bundle of energy and enthusiasm.
I also found out you have to be adaptable. I had my own idea of how I wanted the team to play, which was quite idealistic, but then I realised we needed to play to our strengths first, especially in a relegation battle.
In the end we managed to stave off relegation and I stayed for two really good years.
4. Getting the right backroom team in place
To be a manager requires a lot of energy, discipline and skill, but you can’t be successful without good players and good staff. You’ve got to know what you are and what you need to complement that.
Putting your backroom team together is critical and it's something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, while I've been out of the game. How are you going to define roles within your staff? What do you need?
Credibility and skillset are key, but trust and dynamic are too. Assistant managers are so important. They have to be what the manager is not on a particular day. If the manager is full of energy, then have the emotional intelligence to sit back and observe.
If the manager has had a hard day, because he’s had a board meeting and the January window is on the horizon, then pipe up and bring energy and enthusiasm and humour to the group.
In my experience, the best assistants have had some experience of being managers themselves, because they understand what the manager has been through - winning runs, losing runs, transfer windows, players throwing their toys out of the pram - and what he needs.
5. Players evolve, so managers must as well
I have a certain set of values and way of thinking, but as times change you’ve got to evolve both as a leader and as a human, to make sure you understand every walk of life.
In terms of leadership, there’s never an end, you’re constantly evolving, constantly learning about techniques to get better, and learning about individuals, because every one is different.
I remember reading about Sir Alex Ferguson, who was brilliant at evolving and bringing in new staff and ideas, even when he was in his sixties and had won everything.
I’m quite a young manager, at 39, but so much has changed since I was a player. For example, I’ve been with my wife since I was 19 and had to court her. Now it’s very different and it’s swipe right to meet someone - or so I’m told.
On the field, there is so much money involved and influence from external areas. That is what worries me with all our kids - this external gratification which is relied upon.
Social media is brilliant but also dangerous and you have to find the balance. It’s yin and yang.
As a leader, or a parent, you have to try and constantly educate. I always say to my daughter, 'Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future,' and it's the same for footballers. If you can resist the material things in your twenties then you’ll have a good chance of being successful and well-rounded for the rest of your life.
6. Communication techniques
I’ve recently been talking to a guy who has amassed about 9,000 hours of interrogation at military level in war zones. He was fascinating, and I’m trying to work out whether I can bring some of that into my management.
Would that improve my style and help me implement the way I want to play with more clarity?
Because when you’re talking to a player, there are naturally boundaries that you can break down a lot quicker with certain techniques. Everybody is different and there is an ego to negotiate and also a hierarchy within the squad.
You have to realise that individuals have their own agendas. At the lower level that can be maintaining mortgage payments, looking after families and trying to improve.
Higher up, the manager can be the fourth or fifth person to impress, after potential suitors, Instagram followers, the owner, a girlfriend. The top players are their own PLCs now.
The objective for the manager is always to create a culture of relentless excellence though.
It’s really important to be able to communicate and inspire in different ways. Small groups work well when it comes to evaluating and critiquing a performance.
I loved All or Nothing with the Arizona Cardinals and the ‘quarterback whisper’, with the Head Coach (Bruce Arians) pulling the main leader (Carson Palmer) to one side and having a conversation with him on a level of commonality rather than dictating.
I’ve had that as a manager too, with players like Marlon Pack and Bailey Wright at Bristol City, where I had that level of trust with them and knew they were such good professionals that anything they said was coming from a position of wanting the team to do well.
You can also do things like taking a player off site, because you often find they open up more away from the office, having a coffee. It’s a leveller. They’re all little techniques you learn, which have to be true to how you are as a human being and how you work.
The power of introduction is also huge - literally bringing people together as a third party. It’s an intelligent way of lifting somebody, so long as it’s genuine and honest.
7. Who motivates the motivator?
What is the most important part of leadership? Perhaps it's getting four or five people around you who you can seek the advice of and get the truth from when the shit hits the fan. Because who motivates the motivator?
Sometimes as a manager you get to the point where you can’t see the wood from the trees, because you’re so in it. That’s why you see so many young managers getting burned out after nine months, because it’s a whirlwind. They haven’t even had the time to breathe or to reflect.
Sometimes being able to stand back and reflect is crucial and that support group, those mentors, can be crucial.
I agree with something I read from Eddie Jones - that what players want from a leader is to know you care about them and that you want to make them better. I’d actually add one other thing to that - they want to play.
As a player, I wanted to know that the manager cared for my future and livelihood; that he was challenging me and making me better; and that he picked me.
If I’m not playing, I’m not happy. That can be an impossible task for a manager, which is why I’m a massive believer in having the right squad size.
I think most people can separate the person from the manager, but if you’re not playing it will be human nature not to like that manager.
8. Importance of adaptability
I want my teams to be busy bees, to have the hunger and enthusiasm to get on the ball, to create numerical advantages through overloads and choreographed patterns of play. And when they're out of possession, I want them to win the ball back quickly and to be world class on the transition.
But you have to be adaptable, unless you’re at one of the very top clubs and have the resources and success to stick to your DNA no matter what.
Usually there are so many variables - the quality of players, the level, the regime that holds the power - and you’ve got to be fluid without being disingenuous or going against your values or principles.
If you can recruit around the DNA of your game model, then perfect, that’s what everyone tries to do. But if you lose your best players it becomes difficult, like when we sold Adam Webster to Brighton when I was at Bristol City.
Then it can become about the DNA of partnerships and matching things together. You might have a centre half who’s at a twilight age and a good footballer and strong on the first ball, and you couple him with a 19-year-old who’s coming through the ranks but is poor on decision making. Or a speedy wide man coupled with no legs from a full back.
I remember talking to Brian McDermott when he was manager of Reading and he'd signed Ian Harte. Brian put him at left-back and he was like, ‘My legs have gone, I can’t play left-back. I’ve been playing at centre-half for Carlisle for two years.’
But Brian emphasised what a good organiser he was and said Jobi McAnuff would on the same flank as him and that he can run.
9. A place for confrontation
At the right time and in the right way, you can get under someone’s skin and it can be productive. Take Adam Webster. After 60 minutes, his body language would often be horrendous - his shoulders dropped, his legs looked heavy, even when they weren’t.
I made a conscious decision to get under his skin. Every time he put his hands on his hips, I’d be at him. Because I don’t like poor body language and I don’t want a Lee Johnson team to look like that. If it becomes detrimental to the team it’s a problem and it needs resolving.
Adam probably hated me for it, but I felt I’d built enough of a rapport with him to be able to change that dynamic.
Eventually, the penny dropped and he thought, ‘He’s got a point’. I showed him evidence, explaining why I was saying what I was saying, and the other lads started to get on at him as well.
Hakeeb Adelakun was the same. What a lovely kid, but whenever he or someone else lost the ball his head dropped and he was out of the game for 10 seconds. When he gets that in his game he's going to improve even more.
10. Utilising tech and data
I’ve got a natural thirst for improvement. Not trying to reinvent the wheel, but continually seeking ways to be a better leader.
Technology and data are a big part of that in the modern game. Using video clips for analysis, via a platform like Hudl, is a means of conveying messages and encouraging players to critique their own performances - and those of the team.
You can say, ‘There are three or four things I want to work on. Have a look and let me know what you think.’
I love data, but it has to service your game model. Stats can be a nightmare, because you can always make them fit your own agenda. In terms of recruitment, they’re brilliant for flagging players early, who we might not have been able to identify with the human eye.
And data makes the world a smaller place, because you can get detailed information on players all over the world. But you need to give it context.
I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the relatively near future there’s a robot manager, with subs made based on physical and technical data. 'If player x comes on, your expected goals will go up 4%.' Someone will try it, genuinely.
But the game will always, ultimately, come down to people.