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