Lee Johnson is discussing confidence and courage, traits that will likely go some way to determining his team’s play-off credentials across the remaining nine games of another marathon Championship season, though he is not talking Bristol City but rather a night behind-the-scenes at Cirque du Soleil.
“It is not as random as football but it is interesting to see how athletes control their environment,” he says in an Ashton Gate office usually home to Mark Ashton, the club’s chief executive officer. “It’s a billion-dollar business all over the world and they are often put in dangerous situations. There’s a sphere the size of this room and they chuck four motorbikes in there at full pelt and if you don’t trust your mate, or the timing, or the choreography, you’re dead and every rib has gone. There has to be that rapport or that bond.”
It is not the first time Johnson has been absorbed by an alternative milieu at work, having previously spent time shadowing the NHS, SAS, and staff at Casamia, a Michelin-star restaurant. The morning after this interview he has a coffee pencilled in with Pat Lam, the Bristol Bears director of rugby. “I think the main thing, not just for me but for the players, is thinking correctly under pressure,” says Johnson, citing a conversation with Gareth Southgate. “We were saying about those times when you know you’ve got to make a decision, and how to make those big calls by being brave, bold and not fearing the backlash. It’s completely different being Bristol City to England manager but it doesn’t stop the coaches’ thought process. I’ve got loads that I want to do; I would love to go and see a top choir, the process and the way it works because it’s about tempo and a lot of things that transcend into football; it’s about orchestrating a team, timing and performing to your best ability.”
Networking is not limited to these shores and, last November, Johnson raised more than £1,000 for the Children’s Hospice South West, the charity for which he and numerous players are ambassadors, after auctioning off a Juventus shirt signed by Cristiano Ronaldo that was given to him by Jorge Mendes after a trip to meet the super agent in Porto towards the end of last season. He attended seven matches and cast his eye over players, including Pedro Pereira, who joined on loan from Benfica last summer.
“It was a lesson for me in influence and leadership, in terms of the way he looks after his players and the way he spends a lot of effort – time and money – on influencing the decision-makers. It’s interesting to see and you can see why he and his company [Gestifute] have been very, very successful. I came out after spending a few days with him and his team feeling like a better player than when I went in,” the 38-year-old says, breaking into laughter. “My wife said: ‘There’s no way you’re putting that [shirt] up in a frame in this house.’ So it came to: ‘Well if I can’t do that, is there any cause that I can donate this to try and make someone else’s life better?’ I think that’s a massive part of who we are as a football club, not only trying to be elite athletes but trying to be good people in the community.”
As Johnson puts it, he is constantly trying to magpie titbits from different walks of life, while he plans to build bridges with Manchester United, having done so with Chelsea and Arsenal. It works both ways, with the Wycombe manager and part-time frontman for the Cold Blooded Hearts, Gareth Ainsworth, among those to pay Johnson a visit. “He’s the perfect man – he’s my hero. I would give it all up now, all the management, all the football, for one world tour. Not only was he a good player, because he played for my dad at Cambridge United, but he’s done an unbelievable job. He plays the guitar, he’s got a band – he’s living the dream.”
Bristol City have failed to reach full tilt in recent weeks, picking up one win from their past seven matches, but they remain handsomely placed a point outside the play-off spots before Saturday’s trip to Blackburn, another team intent on gatecrashing the division’s top six. Two years ago the City academy graduates Joe Bryan and Bobby Reid left for the top flight and last summer they sold Adam Webster and Lloyd Kelly to Brighton and Bournemouth respectively. In January the former captain Josh Brownhill also departed for Burnley but Johnson, referencing how Chris Wilder gradually tickled a solid core of players en route to the Premier League, is adamant the club can build on their eighth-placed finish of last season and join Sheffield United in the top tier. “He [Wilder] has taught me a lot in terms of their methodology. For us, that’s our challenge now: can we take this very good squad of players, have a bit of stability within that squad and actually coach our way to success?”
Groundwork for the club’s state-of-the-art training complex commenced at the end of January. Ashton discussed the flow of St George’s Park with Dan Ashworth, the former Football Association technical director who now holds the same post at Brighton. Ayman Benarous, an England Under-17s midfielder and Dylan Kadji, an under-16s forward, have trained with the first team in recent weeks but the new training ground, due for completion next year, is expected to smooth the pathway from the academy to the first team. “If you’re a 14-year-old lad walking past an experienced pro, say, Ashley Williams, who has just finished training, conversation happens that they might not get on separate sites,” says the assistant head coach Jamie McAllister. “Ash can say ‘I watched the last 20 minutes of your training today, I think you’re very good at this, but try this.’ I think those moments are gold dust.”
Johnson celebrated four years in charge last month and is the seventh longest-serving manager in the top four tiers, and the fourth longest-serving in the Football League, behind Ainsworth, John Coleman and Nigel Clough. “Lucky, eh?” he says, smiling. “It’s crazy. It’s ridiculous as a manager; in an ideal world I would achieve the mission at Bristol City and stay here for four or five years to come, minimum, and keep developing my side of the football club, as other areas of the football club develop. Is that a reality? Probably not, through success or failure. I don’t know. You have to treat every day like you will be there forever but know you could be gone tomorrow.”
EFL celebrates ‘Day of Action’
Tuesday marked the annual EFL Day of Action, with Football League clubs from Crawley to Carlisle holding events to showcase how they help change people’s lives in the community, with activities centred on diversity, inclusion, education, and health and wellbeing. Derby invited eight schools to a Show Racism the Red Card event, while QPR’s Àngel Rangel joined a food delivery to local homeless shelters with City Harvest, who use surplus food to provide for those in need.