Give Lee chance to hit the heights again

The Football League Paper - - CHRIS DUNLAVY -

MID­GET Out. The bad­ly­painted flag strung up at Ashton Gate may be crude, but Bris­tol City and their ver­ti­cally chal­lenged man­ager Lee John­son cer­tainly got the mes­sage.

Last week­end’s grim 1-0 loss at Not­ting­ham For­est was the Robins’ eighth straight de­feat in the league, an un­wanted club record.

John­son says he is ashamed. Sup­port­ers want him gone. Steve Lans­down isn’t lis­ten­ing yet but, with just two points be­tween City and the sticky stuff, he re­fused to con­firm the 36-year-old’s job is safe.

And why would he? In an era when Garry Monk’s eight­month ten­ure makes him Leeds’ long­est-serv­ing man­ager in three years, no­body would be sur­prised if John­son took a bul­let. As we are in­ter­minably in­formed, this is a re­sults busi­ness.

Yet, be­fore we throw an­other young man­ager un­der the bus, re­mem­ber that re­sults can be de­ceiv­ing. Take Barns­ley, the club from which John­son was poached al­most ex­actly a year ago.

For six weeks in 2015, the Tykes couldn’t buy a win. They lost – wait for it – eight matches in a row. Nine would have set an­other grisly club record.

All the sticks cur­rently be­ing used to beat John­son were out in force at Oak­well. No in­spi­ra­tion, too much em­pha­sis on the long-term, best to get shot of a fail­ing man­ager now be­fore it’s too late. Typ­i­cal 606, boil-inthe-bag guff.

But Barns­ley stuck with John­son and were richly re­warded. Seven straight wins, a rise from sec­ond-bot­tom to sixth, a JTP semi-fi­nal vic­tory.

Yes, it was Paul Heck­ing­bot­tom in the dug-out for their two Wem­b­ley vic­to­ries. Heck­ing­bot­tom, too, is the ar­chi­tect of this sea­son’s vastly un­der-rated play-off push. Yet even the 39-year-old, who must be in con­tention for man­ager of the year, ac­knowl­edges the solid foun­da­tions he in­her­ited. Had John­son been jet­ti­soned, would Heck­ing­bot­tom, a man­age­rial novice, have been trusted to con­duct a rel­e­ga­tion fight? Un­likely. Would Barns­ley be in the Cham­pi­onship, as sta­ble, solid and suc­cess­ful as they are to­day? Al­most cer­tainly not. In hind­sight, a rev­o­lu­tion would have been dis­as­trous. Barns­ley’s suc­cess is a per­fect ex­am­ple of why runs – win­ning or los­ing – should never be taken too se­ri­ously. The Tykes lost 16 games last sea­son. It just so hap­pened that eight of them came in suc­ces­sive weeks. Bad tac­tics, sag­ging con­fi­dence, in­juries, buoy­ant op­po­nents. Any num­ber of el­e­ments can cause a sus­tained ebb or flow in per­for­mances. Bris­tol City were win­ning plenty of games be­fore Christ­mas. Isn’t that ev­i­dence enough of their abil­ity to es­cape this trough? Who’s to say they won’t now win seven straight, as Barns­ley did?

No doubt Robins fans will say ‘Ah but this is dif­fer­ent be­cause…’ but Tykes fans would un­doubt­edly have come up with umpteen rea­sons why John­son wasn’t good enough last Novem­ber. And they’d have been wrong.

That’s not to say John­son is flaw­less. Like Alan Pardew, his sides do seem prone to this kind of streak­i­ness, a trait that will leave his po­si­tion on a knife edge and pre­clude any se­ri­ous chal­lenge for hon­ours.

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But to cas­ti­gate him for eight bad games is short-sighted. Like Arsene Wenger dur­ing the fal­low post-Emi­rates years, he has been tasked with keep­ing a team com­pet­i­tive while money is ploughed into in­fra­struc­ture. Sta­dium im­prove­ments. Train­ing ground up­grades.

Just last month, he ad­mit­ted the Jan­uary win­dow would be a case of “rob­bing Peter to pay Paul”.

That is no slur on Lans­down, whose fo­cus on club growth and youth de­vel­op­ment is an in­tel­li­gent at­tempt to com­pete with the riches flood­ing in from the Far East.

But, un­der such re­straints, dips are in­evitable. Depth and qual­ity will al­ways tell. Avoid­ing rel­e­ga­tion re­mains the name of the game, at least in the short-term.

John­son, who per­son­ally per­suaded top-scorer Tammy Abra­ham to join the Robins, must be judged on over­all per­for­mance, not six weeks’ worth of re­sults. Leave him be, let the team re­cover, and this mid­get could yet be­come a giant.

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