Chris Dunlavy looks at the career of Oldham manager Lee Johnson
THEY say you need a thick skin to make it as a football manager. After a career spent being hammered by his own supporters, Lee Johnson certainly has that.
Though an Arsenal trainee in his youth, the Oldham manager spent all but three of his 13 years playing for his dad, Gary.
First at Yeovil Town, where he won promotion from the Conference to League One, winning the club’s player of the year three times running.
Then at Bristol City, where he came within 90 minutes of a place in the Premier League only to be undone by that Dean Windass thunderbolt for Hull.
But throughout it all, the diminutive midfielder – nicknamed He Pingping after the smallest man in the world – could never escape accusations that his place on the team-sheet had not been fairly earned.
“We both had to be strong,” said dad Gary, right. “When I picked him I always thought ‘Do people think it’s nepotism?’ I never showed him any favouritism because he wouldn’t have survived in the dressing room if I had.
“We’ve been very successful together but along the way we’d get beaten 6-0 and that was put down to me picking Lee. Even when he didn’t play it was his fault, according to some of the Bristol fans. He’s had to be thick skinned.”
Though Glovers fans swiftly came to adore their playmaker’s vision and ability on the ball, City fans weren’t so convinced – as Johnson found out when he joined the club from Hearts in 2006.
“My first game we lost to Blackpool and a fella ran on the pitch, swung a punch at me and said ‘We don’t want you or your old man’, said Johnson, who won a runners’ up medal for the SPL side.
“It’s human nature for people to look at it and say, ‘He’s only playing because his dad picks the team’. I would be the same, so I don’t hold it against anyone.
“It did affect me at times and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.When we won it was all good but when we lost I was often the first one to get it in the neck.
“Generally, though, opinions in football don’t always reflect reality and if you look at the points per game ratio while I was at Bristol City I don’t think there would be too many better.
“And that goes to show – although I wasn’t the biggest tackler in the world I was brave in wanting the ball and trying to get things ticking over and, generally, when I played well the team played well.”
That is backed up by exRobins boss Sean O’Driscoll, who earlier this season spoke of his attempts to lure Johnson away from Ashton Gate.
“I was always one of Lee’s biggest admirers as a player and I tried to take him on loan a number of times,” he said. “Lee always had great bravery on the ball and used it intelligently. People maybe didn’t see that in him as a player but as a manager he has got Oldham playing a certain way and they all understand it and buy into it.”
Indeed they are. Appointed at the age of only 31, Johnson has just completed his first year in charge at Boundary Park and has capped it by winning a nomination for manager of the month and keeping Oldham in League One for the second year running.
And this time, no-one can doubt he has done it on merit. During his time at City, Johnson spent every international break visiting clubs around Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Skonto Riga in Latvia – compiling reams of notes about coaching techniques.
“A lot of people – especially top players – go straight from playing to managing without doing any of that,” he said.“They just get offered a job and say ‘Go on then’. They sort of fall into it. I wanted to be prepared.”
Which is why, when Paul Dickov left Oldham late last season, Johnson blew the Latics’ board out of the water with the vision, contacts and philosophy he had spent years developing. And why today, they are one of the most attractive teams in League One.
“Lee’s team plays just like he used to,” said Sheffield United boss Nigel Clough, who managed Johnson at Derby . “They like to pass it around, they work hard and they’re difficult to beat. “He was always the type of player who liked to organise and he’s doing great.”