CALLING THE BOYS IN BLUE!
Jonno loving life at Chester! But Blyth defeat still hurts...
Emotions? Anthony Johnson has had a few!
From mucking it out in the depths of the North West Counties League with Ramsbottom United to riding the crest of a publicity wave at big-spending Salford City, the last six years have seen the 35-yearold become one of the most decorated managers – along with sidekick Bernard Morley – in the Non-League pyramid.
But the Chester co-boss has been involved in football long enough to understand that no matter how many highs you enjoy, the knocks will always bring you thumping back down to earth.
One of those came last May, just two weeks after guiding Salford to the National North title. A dispute over promotion bonuses with the board forced him and Morley to leave the club, and while the Ammies’ loss would turn out to be Chester’s initial gain with a series of highprofile signings seeing a significant lift in pre-season ticket sales, the events of Saturday August 11 are still hurting Johnson to this day.
“Hurt is an understatement,” he says. “The only time I have seen a team losing by eight is the likes of San Marino when they play Germany or someone like that in a hopelessly onesided international mismatch – not a National North game between two sides on level terms.”
Johnson is of course referring to the 8-1 drubbing his Chester side suffered at the hands of Blyth Spartans in only their third league outing of the season. It was a result that not only left him questioning both the heart and appetite of some of his players, but also himself following a tempestuous few months in management.
“As managers you are not looking for an excuse, but you are looking for a reason as to why something has happened,” he adds. “We were just punished.
“It was the lowest result and performance I have been involved in, but what hurt more was when our own supporters were saying it’s the worst result in the club’s history. That was, and still is, tough to take.”
Sadly for Johnson, the storm clouds continued to gather – quite literally – with The Deva succumbing to a flood in the midst of a summer heat wave. It meant the Blues could not play any home games throughout August. With training affected too, they arrived at highflying Telford two weeks later cold and short of confidence. The result: a 3-1 defeat that left even more soul-searching.
“The flood killed us!” he says. “These aren’t things that come out at the time because it looks like you are making excuses. For two or three weeks we were just scratching about and then we played Telford away and they smelt blood. Seriously, they just tested us to see what we were about; killing any confidence we had by going at us!”
The Blyth game and its aftermath remains a constant theme throughout the 22 minutes I spend on the phone with Johnson. Even when I highlight the current run of results with Chester slipping almost seamlessly into the play-off spots – a 4-1 win against Ashton United on Tuesday night that made it eight games unbeaten before yesterday’s trip to Brackley…
“It’s nine!” Johnson barks. “Don’t you go taking one away. When you get beat 8-1 I can’t be having people taking one off us!”
So nine it is; a stretch that has seen Chester reinvent themselves as candidates for a promotion push. Key to that has been shoring up the leaky
defence that cost them so dearly in August, with only eight goals conceded along the way (with three of those in a 5-3 victory over Bradford Park Avenue). And with games to make up due to the closure of The Deva, Johnson maintains his and Morley’s remit is to build points month to month, with specific targets in mind that will keep them in the play-off mix come Christmas and beyond.
“What Bern and I have always done is block games off. So we looked at the following games and thought ‘what do we want?’ We want to be hard to beat, so that was the vision we had and we wanted to come through the month of September unbeaten.
“We would have taken three draws and a win just to stop the rot. That’s what we are doing now; we block things off and set targets… start again, if you like.”
For many casual NonLeague observers, Johnson’s footballing identity will long be associated with his time at Salford. From changing room dust-ups to wrangling over a full-time contract with Gary Neville, that fly-onthe-wall documentary has painted a picture of a man that some people won’t let go. But Chester is his and Morley’s new home, and it is where they are determined to thrive in a division they know and understand like the back of their hands.
“On a personal level we couldn’t win at Salford,” he says. “If we won the league it was because we had the money to spend, and if we lost the league it was because we were rubbish managers.
“But Chester have given us the opportunity to go and do it again. We did it at Rammy, we did it at Salford, and now we have the opportunity to go and do a job on our own two feet.
“It’s a fanowned club. We haven’t been involved in a club like this and the work that goes on behind the scenes is unreal.
“We can feel that momentum building and if we can stay around the top seven at Christmas then the club and city will start to get behind it a bit more.
“I think we could be a bit of an unstoppable monster if we get going!”
CHANGING TIMES: Chester co-manager Anthony Johnson has seen his side rise up the table after guiding Salford to National North glory with Bernard Morley last season, inset top, andThe NLP’s front page following Chester’s 8-1 defeat to Blyth Spartans in August