Gary couldn’t sit around doing nothing when stricken Cheltenham called
WHEN Gary Johnson ’s phone buzzed with an unknown number last weekend, the out-ofwork 59-year-old dared to dream big.
“I hoped it was Man United saying they wanted me to replace Louis van Gaal,” quips the former Yeovil boss. “Instead, it was the team at the bottom of League Two. But you know me – I love a challenge.”
Yes, football’s Terminator – the man who absolutely will not stop – is back in the dugout. Barely a month after leaving Huish Park, Johnson has been tasked with saving free-falling Cheltenham from Non-League oblivion.
He’s performed miracles before, turning Latvia into a competent footballing unit and hauling Yeovil from the Conference all the way to the Championship. Yet surely even Johnson thought twice about tackling a side who have won just twice in 2015.
“Not really,” insists Johnson. “I get fed up at home pretty quick. I’m not a DIY man. I don’t like gardening. If I’m not out on the training ground I just pace up and down the living room all day.
“I’ve been in football 27 years and, besides the summers, I’ve probably spent two weeks out of a job. This time it was over a month and it felt like a long time.
“I know it’s a tall order. But when somebody has specifically chosen you to help them, it’s very difficult to turn them down.
“And Cheltenham have always been good to me.Whenever I’ve gone there to watch games or play matches in pre-season, whenever I’ve loaned them players – they’ve always looked after me. So rather than sit and wait, I thought I’d get busy and try to save them.”
Under different circumstances, Johnson might still be fighting to stay out of League Two. Having led Yeovil from the Conference to League One during his first fiveyear stint, Johnson returned to Huish Park after an absence of six years and duly completed the job, winning a fairytale promotion to the Championship in 2013.
Yet the inevitable struggle and relegation left lasting scars and Johnson was sacked in February after the Glovers slipped to the foot of League One. The former
Bristol City and Northampton boss isn’t bitter but, with Yeovil seemingly doomed to the drop, feels chairman John Fry and Huish Park board are paying for failing to reinvest the Championship cash.
“It was disappointing, especially when I heard this week that they’d made a £1.4m profit last season,” he explains.
“I could have done with some of that money because we didn’t have a very big budget to stay in League One this year.
“We had six or seven regulars injured and we couldn’t bring
in like for like because they told me the Financial Fair Play limit had been reached. I was signing players for next to nothing.
“I remember having a chat with the board about what the future held for Yeovil.With the FFP rules and the gates that we got, I felt we weren’t going to have a big enough turnover to compete, even in the third tier.
“They disagreed.They said the budget was the 14th highest in League One, but it wasn’t. I know that for a fact.
“I’d never fall out with the people at Yeovil because I had a fantastic time there. But we were at loggerheads. I felt finances were going into other things when they maybe needed to be funnelled towards keeping the team in the division.”
Transfers, of course, won’t save Cheltenham. The window is shut.The loan market, too.The only weapons at Johnson’s disposal are 800-plus games of experience and the squad he inherited following the fruitless spells of Mark Yates, Paul Buckle and Russell Milton in charge this season. Is it enough to extend the Robins’ 16-year stay in the Football League?
“We’ll see,” he says. “But I’m hopeful. I know what’s needed. I know the type of people you need on your bus. Yes, my bus was already full of passengers but I’ve had two days with them and I’ve been really pleased with the response.
“I haven’t come in blind. I’ve worked with a few of the players at my previous clubs and I’ve watched the team because it’s just up the road from Yeovil.
“They aren’t a million miles away and there’s definitely room for improvement – sprinting more, getting back in quicker, shape and organisation, all those little things where you think ‘Yeah, I can give them that’.”
Not that Johnson is fooling himself that his experience gives him an edge over his relegation rivals.
“Just look at the managers down here,” he says. “I’ve done nearly 900 games now.
“Ronnie Moore at Hartlepool must be close to that, Micky Adams at Tranmere can’t be far
behind. Russell Wilcox at York has been an assistant for many years. You’re not coming up against rookies.You’re coming up against wily old foxes.
“What Ronnie’s done at Hartlepool shows why. That club were dead and buried but a bit of spirit and a bit of organisation and suddenly they’re winning matches.”
Mind you, Moore has had since December to fine tune his rescue act. Johnson has seven games to make up a two-point deficit.
Make that six matches to wipe out a three-point gap following a 10 defeat in his first game in charge at York on Friday.
“I know it’s a challenge,” he adds.“But people said that when I went to Latvia and when I went back to Yeovil. I’ve never regretted any of those moves.
“And If I pull it round, I’ve done the players a favour, I’ve done the fans a favour and I’ve done myself a favour. I don’t see it as a risk.
“To have been in the game so long and have the success I’ve had, I’ve been blessed.
“But I’m not finished yet. I want more success and I’m sure I’ll get it. Starting with keeping Cheltenham in the Football League.”
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