LEE JOHN­SON

Why he left Old­ham for Barns­ley – and the Ched Evans out­cry

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE - By Chris Dunlavy

WHEN Lee John­son says foot­ball is the easy bit of man­age­ment, it isn’t dif­fi­cult to guess what Barns­ley’s new gaffer is al­lud­ing to.

Ear­lier this sea­son, the 33year-old be­came the public face of a very ugly sit­u­a­tion when Old­ham ex­tended an olive branch to con­victed rapist Ched Evans.

Amid threats to club staff, ad­mon­ish­ments from politi­cians and a swirling hail­storm of na­tional op­pro­brium that even­tu­ally forced the Lat­ics to ditch the deal, John­son was ex­pected to both man­age a foot­ball team and play the diplo­mat. For a guy barely a year into his first se­nior role, it was the stiffest pos­si­ble test of his cre­den­tials.

Yet it was one he passed, emerg­ing from the cri­sis with his rep­u­ta­tion, if not en­hanced, then at least un­dam­aged.

“It was an in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion,” says John­son, who this week left Bound­ary Park to be­come the new manager at League One ri­vals Barns­ley.

“It was toxic. The is­sue was big­ger than foot­ball and it was cer­tainly big­ger than me. I saw that from the out­set and I just wanted to try and be hum­ble, try to re­spect peo­ple’s opin­ions, what­ever mine may have been.

“Then there was the me­dia scru­tiny on an enor­mous scale, which wasn’t some­thing I’d ever en­coun­tered. It was just a case of learn­ing quickly and mak­ing sure I didn’t get tripped up by a clever jour­nal­ist try­ing to make me write his head­lines.

“I wouldn’t have put my worst en­emy through that few days but, look­ing back, I don’t think I’d change it. It was the kind of ex­pe­ri­ence no­body can teach.”

It’s hard to imag­ine Paolo Di Canio – John­son’s ri­val for the Barns­ley job – cut­ting such a dig­ni­fied char­ac­ter amid such may­hem, which, along with two years of solid progress at Old­ham, helps ex­plain the de­ci­sion of the Oak­well board.

En­ergy

But what of John­son? Why would he choose to swap a set­tled side in the top half of League One for one two points and eight places lower?

“It was dif­fi­cult,” he says. “Very dif­fi­cult. I loved Old­ham, loved the fans. I was al­most in tears when I said good­bye to the play­ers be­cause they are peo­ple I’ve grown very fond of.

“But I had to look at the big­ger pic­ture. As a manager, you put a lot of time and en­ergy into mak­ing a club bet­ter.

“That’s hard at a club like Old­ham. You have to grind. It’s lit­er­ally 24 hours, seven days a week. You’re on the phone to ev­ery agent go­ing try­ing to save a few quid here and there. Some­times, that can be at the cost of get­ting out on the grass.

“Here, ev­ery­thing is al­ready set up to be a Cham­pi­onship club. We’ve got a cat­e­gory two academy, which means a lot of A- and Pro-li­censed coaches. Then there is the Fi­nan­cial Fair Play el­e­ment. Barns­ley get big­ger gates, and that means big­ger bud­gets and re­sources.

“For Old­ham, the new stand (the £6.5m North Stand ex­pected to be com­pleted for the start of 2015-16 ) is a big driv­ing fac­tor.

“Un­til that is com­plete, the club will be have to run on its mer­its and, at the mo­ment, that means sell­ing a cou­ple of your best play­ers ev­ery year.

“Once the stand is up and run­ning and the owner doesn’t need to dip into his pocket, that will change. But for now, I could only im­prove play­ers

and sell them on. The club would maybe have to ac­cept a fee that was a lit­tle bit lower than the player was worth. At Barns­ley, we’ll be able to im­prove them and keep hold of them un­less some­one makes a silly of­fer.That was a big fac­tor.”

Com­pen­sa­tion

John­son is proud of his Bound­ary Park le­gacy. Bat­tling rel­e­ga­tion when he was ap­pointed – aged just 31 – in March 2013, the Lat­ics went into the week­end ninth in League One.

More­over, hav­ing brought in de­cent money for the likes of Korey Smith and Jon­son ClarkeHar­ris dur­ing the sum­mer, John­son’s part­ing gift is a “healthy” com­pen­sa­tion pack­age from Barns­ley.

“I think I left them in a much bet­ter po­si­tion than I found them,” he adds.“We sold a lot of play­ers for a lot of money, three of whom we brought in for free and one whom we brought through the ranks.The club now has a lot of saleable com­modi­ties and they’re all on long con­tracts.

“And don’t get me wrong – it may have been tough but it was great ex­pe­ri­ence. I may not have been ex­actly run­ning the club, but I was in­volved in ev­ery lit­tle el­e­ment. Hir­ing and fir­ing staff, set­ting bud­gets, com­mu­nity work – you see how a club works from top to bot­tom and that will only stand me in good stead here.”

In the un­likely event that past ex­pe­ri­ences fail to of­fer in­spi­ra­tion, John­son can al­ways turn to dad Gary, who was re­cently sacked as manager of Yeovil just 18 months af­ter lead­ing them into the Cham­pi­onship.

“You’d think he’d want a rest af­ter 20 years in the game wouldn’t you?” laughs John­son. “But he’s al­ready had talks with a few peo­ple about get­ting back in. I don’t think he’ll ever stop.

“We are close and when it comes to the lit­tle in­tri­ca­cies of be­ing a manager, it’s good to have a sound­ing board. Not just for me ei­ther – it’s still good for him to get my per­spec­tive.

“It doesn’t mat­ter that he’s my dad. If you’ve got ac­cess to any­one with that much ex­pe­ri­ence in your field you’d be mad not to tap into it.”

Not that the old man will be able to help him rouse the Tykes from their slum­ber, but John­son says a big­ger club doesn’t equal big­ger pres­sure.

“In foot­ball, you’re be­ing judged ev­ery three days,” he says. And there’s no big­ger pres­sure than the one I put on my­self to do right by my club.

“All you can do is try to get bet­ter – as a manager and a hu­man.You’re deal­ing with 40 or 50 peo­ple’s lives ev­ery day and it’s all on you.You have to be the best man you can be, stick to your val­ues and hope it sees you through. That’s the real test. The foot­ball is the easy bit.”

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