Michael Johnson: Seizing the day with Guyana
Written by Simon Austin — April 7, 2019
YOU could never accuse Michael Johnson of a lack of perseverance or resilience.
This is a man who holds every conceivable coaching and managerial qualification: the Uefa Pro Licence; the LMA Diploma in Football Management; the Master of Sport Directorship; FA Youth Modules; corporate governance qualifications... the list goes on.
Despite constant knock-backs in his quest to become a manager - he stopped counting the applications at number 42 - he continued to study and go for jobs. However, there was one morning when the former Derby defender almost jacked it all in, before his old friend Darren Moore intervened.
“We had a study trip to Switzerland for the Pro Licence and I messaged Darren, ‘I’m not going, I can’t do this any more.’ I was really low because of the constant no, no, no.
“Applying for jobs, checking your letterbox or inbox, and getting nothing. No feedback, no response. So I’m in bed thinking ‘what’s the point?’ But Darren's messaged me back, straight away. ‘If I have to drive from Birmingham to Nottingham to grab you, I’ll do it. You’ve got five minutes to call me back and say you’re on your way’.
“So I hauled myself into the shower, got dressed and I called him, ‘Mooro, I’m on my way’. It was on the basis of that trip that I completed my Pro Licence.”
A few weeks later, Brendan Rodgers was taking a workshop at West Brom as part of the LMA Diploma in Football Management. Two things he said resonated with Johnson.
“The first was ‘once you’ve been a professional footballer, you’ll always be a professional footballer'," Johnson remembers. "That meant stay in shape, maintain your motivation, don’t let yourself go.
“The second thing was, ‘When you’re out of work, it’s time to work.’ Brendan explained that this meant get qualified, go and observe training sessions, tap into your network. I wrote those two slogans down and I’ve always remembered them. They made a big difference to me.
"Sitting at home feeling sorry for yourself isn’t any good to anyone.
"All you can control in life is your own actions and reactions. I couldn’t control the people with the keys to the doors who wouldn’t let me in, but I could get as educated and equipped as possible.
“That meant when an opportunity did come up, I’d be someone who had played professionally for 20 years and then studied for 10, so I had every badge and qualification going.”
MAKING HISTORY WITH GUYANA
Nine years on from the briefest of spells as Notts County’s caretaker manager (he took four points from a possible six), an opportunity did arise, albeit one 4,600 miles away with a team ranked 179 in the world.
Guyana had never qualified for a Concacaf Gold Cup before, let alone the World Cup. Their main stadium was used mainly for athletics, the next best for cricket. There still isn't a professional football league in the South American country, meaning players either go abroad to further their careers or give up the sport.
Most of the national team’s players come from the lower leagues in England, or the MLS and Canada.
“It was a real culture shock when I got there, because the country has a lot of land but is devoid of good football pitches,” Johnson admits. “But I’m a very spiritual guy and believe in a purpose, so I was excited.”
This is where the 45-year-old’s years of study and preparation kicked in.
“I had an ideology, because I'd thought about it a lot. How I'd deliver a strategy, how I would interact with people, how I would lead. My staff were pivotal in me being able to do that.”
Johnson's assistant is Paul Williams, another Pro Licence coach and a former first-team coach at Birmingham and assistant manager at Swansea. Coach Taff Rahman is a former FA coach educator and Academy coach at Tottenham and Arsenal. Goalkeeper coach Ademola Bankole played for QPR and coached at Colchester for nine years. Mike Jones was brought in as a people and culture expert, which is certainly the first time Guyana have ever had that role.
“Paul and Taff predominantly deliver the training sessions, which enables me to speak to players one-on-one and to observe what's happening,” Johnson explains.
“This has enabled me to take a strategic view of things and develop strong relationships with the players.
“I’ve got good coaches, so I want to leave them to get on with what they're good at, rather than micromanaging and stifling them.”
For Johnson's first match as manager, there were less than 1,000 spectators present, but for his last, a historic 2-1 win over Belize on March 23rd, there were 5,000.
Dr Sara Ward: "Michael hit the ground running when he enrolled on the Master of Sport Directorship course at MMU. His determination to better himself was apparent from day one and he was always a friendly and positive presence on the course. Everyone here is extremely proud of his achievements in leading Guyana to qualify for the Concacaf Gold Cup for the first time in their history last month. I’m also delighted to read that some of the leadership and governance teaching from the course helped him in his role - and by the fact that Mike Jones, from the previous cohort, became a part of his backroom staff."
Dr Sara Ward is Head of Executive Education - Master of Sport Directorship & MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Bury midfielder Neil Danns scored their first goal, with Emery Welshman of Forge FC in Canada grabbing the winner. Victory secured the country’s place at the Gold Cup, with will be their first appearance at a major tournament.
“The match gripped the nation,” beams Johnson, who is a former Jamaica international. “It was on the radio, papers, TV - it was a wonderful time to be a Guyana fan.
“Right to the end there were people trying to get into the stadium. At the end, you could see men, women and children breaking down in tears of joy. Now the fans will be able sit at home in their Guyana shirts and watch their team on the international stage.”
The draw for the Gold Cup is on April 10th and Johnson insists “I’m confident we'll do ourselves justice and not just be fodder for the bigger teams.”
There's something else to celebrate for Guyanese football as well, with Fifa agreeing to fund a 3G facility in the country, which will be used by all the national teams and age groups.
WHY FOOTBALL NEEDS TO CHANGE
It's a feelgood story, but it hasn't lessened Johnson's desire to see changes in the way that coaches and managers are recruited by clubs. Of the 92 league clubs in England, only four have BAME managers: Brighton with Chris Hughton, Northampton with Keith Curle, Stevenage with Dino Maamria and Macclesfield with Sol Campbell.
Johnson, who was one of 10 candidates shortlisted for the Guyana job by Concacaf Director of Development Jason Roberts, argues that the way football recruits is often the problem.
“I'm reluctant to describe owners or decision-makers at clubs as racist, because I don't believe a lot of them are deliberately or consciously excluding black candidates," he says. "It's more a case of lacking a different perspective and not having proper recruitment processes.
“Often in football, a manager is appointed because he’s someone the chairman knows. The decision-makers often only mix with a certain demographic and the recruitment processes aren’t as professional as they should be.
“The key is getting decision makers in a room with people from outside their network, instead of them remaining in their office and mixing in the same social circles.
“If you are not looking at a diverse recruitment process, how can you be sure that someone from a different culture, from outside of your network, wouldn’t bring something different and valuable to your organisation?"
Johnson says he was careful to choose a diverse staff when he got the Guyana job.
“I’ve got a range of backgrounds, cultures and experience in my staff,” he explains. “I’ve got three people who are black, an Asian-Bangladeshi coach and two white staff. They’ve all offered up some golden nuggets in what they've contributed, which is what I think diversity brings you.”
Which brings us back to man Johnson mentioned at the start of this piece - his good friend of 15 years, Darren Moore. The former Premier League defender was sacked by West Brom month ago, with the side sitting fourth in the Championship.
“It left a sour taste, because Darren had galvanised that club,” Johnson says. “I was gutted to be honest - because I admire him as a man and as a manager, but also because they aren't many black managers in English football.
“Darren was someone who was an inspiration to the rest of us and I just didn't feel he was given a fair crack. For that to happen - for him to be sacked when they were fourth in the table and in the mix for promotion - was just incredibly deflating.”