Lee Johnson On Managing Hibernian, Playing In The EFL And Learning From His Father

Lee Johnson On Managing Hibernian, Playing In The EFL And Learning From His Father

An interview with Lee Johnson, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You were appointed manager of Hibernian in May 2022. How would you reflect on your time in charge of the club so far?

“I love working at Hibernian. It is a fantastic club and I am working alongside good people throughout the club which is pleasing for any manager.

“The club has a strong history and a passionate fanbase so it is a privilege to be the manager.

“I do not think people realised how big the job was that I had when I took over but I believe that we are in really good shape now.

“We finished last season in the European places within the Scottish Premiership so we have UEFA Conference League qualifiers to look forward to which is massive for everyone at the club.

“We improved dramatically in the second half of last season and ended the league split as the second form side in the country which is a testament to the players and their hard work.

“The next step for us is to bring in quality players to the football club and strive to improve next season and beyond.”

Your former teammate at Bristol City, Jamie McAllister is your assistant manager. How do you both work in unison during the week with the rest of your coaching staff?

“Jamie is a huge asset to me. He played over 700 games as a player and is a top coach in his own right.

“He is more than capable of being a manager in his own right in the future but as a team, we work well.

“When it comes to training, we split the coaching so that we are both on the grass with the players whereas at the start of my managerial career, I wanted to do as much as I possibly could.

“However, having a strong staff to delegate to is important and Jamie is a crucial part of my staff.

“We are both passionate about the game and improving things at Hibernian which is why we work well together.”

As a player, you spent the majority of your career in English football with Yeovil Town and Bristol City. If we start with Yeovil, you won promotions and trophies at the club. How special are those memories?

“I do not often have the opportunity to look back at my career so it is nice to do so with you today.

“Yeovil Town was a great time for me because I was released by Watford as a youngster then I had a short spell with Brighton and Hove Albion before arriving at Huish Park.

“I was actually offered the chance to join FC Midtjylland and I was only training with Yeovil to keep my fitness up ahead of making that move. 

“My dad was in charge at the time and while I was training at the club, they sold a player called Ben Smith and they needed another midfielder.

“So, my dad convinced me to stay at the club and it felt like an exciting challenge because it enabled me to establish myself as a first-team footballer.

“I knew that I needed to find my feet as a professional and compete in the leagues which Yeovil gave me the chance to do.

“We had a good squad by recruiting players released by teams in and around the area such as Chelsea, Norwich and Reading.

“That gave us a good base to build on as a squad and we hit it off immediately.

“We had a young squad determined to succeed on the pitch and conduct ourselves in the best possible way off the pitch too.

“The positive environment at the club and our determination led to success with us winning two promotions and an FA Trophy during my time at the club.”

How did your time at Bristol City compare to your time at Yeovil because you achieved some success there as well?

“Bristol City is a great club and I loved every minute of my time at the club as a player.

“I had a short spell in Scottish football after I left Yeovil but the opportunity to join Bristol City was a move that was right for me and I was happy to go there.

“The only thing that made me forensically analyse the move was the fact that my dad was in charge of Bristol City and I did not necessarily want to play for him again in such a short space of time.

“However, I had a choice between Blackpool and Bristol City and I had to take the best option for me which, undoubtedly, was Bristol City. 

“Thankfully, things worked for me at Bristol City and I made friends for life from my time there such as Jamie McAllister – now my assistant at Hibs – Scott Nouble, Alex Russell, Bradley Orr and many others.

“We won promotion to the Championship from League One and made it to the Championship Play-Off final to compete for a place in the Premier League during my time there.

“It was an incredible journey for the club and for myself and I could not have picked a better bunch of players and staff to work at that stage of my career.”

What was it like to play under your father, Gary, at Yeovil Town and Bristol City? Did you worry that it could affect your relationship with teammates?

“It was a unique experience in many ways as it is not something that happens too often in football.

“However, I can honestly say that I never had any issues with my teammates about it. I always had their trust and respect on and off the pitch because they knew that I would not be running to my dad to tell him things from inside the dressing room.

“I treated my dad like I treated any other manager. There was no other way that it could have worked otherwise.

“The relationship that I had with my dad also worked well in the sense that if there was an issue that players wanted resolved then they would trust me to go and sort it out with my dad and we could have an even more frank conversation than maybe another player could have with him.

“Of course, fanbases of those clubs had to be convinced initially because shouts of nepotism were inevitable when I joined. 

“I understood those opinions and they spurred me on to prove my worth even more. 

“Looking back, my time working with my dad was successful at both clubs with promotions, trophies and play-off finals delivered for the fans so it worked out in the end for us which was special.”

You ended your playing career at Kilmarnock and won the Scottish League Cup in 2012 against Celtic in the final. Looking back. Was that a nice way to end your playing career even if you retired early than you would have hoped?

“Winning that trophy with a club like Kilmarnock against a team like Celtic at Hampden Park was unbelievable. It was one hell of a day.

“I will never forget it because it was a highlight of my career given that we were considered rank outsiders going into that final yet we won it on merit. 

“We deserved to lift the trophy come full time and it was amazing to be able to share it with a strong group of professionals at the club. 

“Our manager was Kenny Sheils who was an interesting character in many ways. He emphasised to us at full time how days like this don’t come often as players or for a club the size of Kilmarnock which hit home just how big an achievement winning the cup was for us.

“The major downside of the day itself was the passing of Liam Kelly’s father. That was hard for all of us to take because it was directly after the game.

“We wanted to celebrate but we knew that we also had to be respectful and responsible to help a teammate going through such a traumatic experience.

“We enjoyed the occasion with the fans which was important to everyone but it did not feel fair for Liam to have to go through such an experience at what should have been such a high point in his life and career.

“Unfortunately, my time at the club could not be extended due to a bad ankle injury which restricted my movement and led to me retiring from football at the age of 31.”

Retiring at 31 must have been tough but you jumped straight into management at Oldham Athletic to become the youngest manager in the EFL. How did you handle the expectation of management at such a young age?

“I had a front-row seat to the reality of football management by living and working with my dad so I knew from a young age what the pressures would be like.

“I also passed my coaching badges while I playing which set me up to enter management relatively quickly upon retirement from playing.

“I arrived at Oldham Athletic when the club was in a relegation battle with only ten games to go.

“I knew that I had to succeed or my career in management could be over before it had really started.

“I won’t pretend that I was not nervous when I initially went in as a manager.

“I remember being nervous before delivering my first team talk given that during my first training session, I had set up an attacking drill of players against mannequins with a goalkeeper.

“The plan was for the attacking players to showcase their movement and finishing against the mannequins and the goalkeeper. 

“It sounds straight forward but the mannequins actually scored first after a player scuffed a shot against one of them which ended up beating the goalkeeper.

“Mannequins 1-0 Oldham. It was a surreal experience and one that the players and I laughed at despite my nerves.

“Despite that training session, we won my first game 3-0 at the end of that week and went on to avoid relegation which was the minimum objective.

“I also had to face my dad after just four games in charge when we faced Yeovil Town. That was a surreal experience, especially with the build-up to the game being focused on father versus son.

“We won that game against my dad and Yeovil which settled any early nerves and at Oldham, I went on to build a good team who were progressed well.

“That led to interest in me from other clubs and such was the financial situation of the club, when Barnsley approached Oldham, the chairman told me that I had to go in order to protect the future of the club given the compensation on offer for me.”

You managed Barnsley and Bristol City before going on to Sunderland. How do you reflect on those roles?

“My time at Barnsley was a rollercoaster. I had a tough start at the club and there was pressure on me from the fans.

“Despite that, things turned around for us pretty quickly and we reached the final of the EFL trophy and were on the cusp of the playoffs.

“At that moment, Bristol City came in for me to join them as a manager and I could not turn that move down given my history with the club as a player. 

“Paul Heckingbottom took over from me at Barnsley and he went on to win the EFL Trophy and promotion to the Championship with the club.

“That was bittersweet for me as I was delighted to see the club achieve success but also gutted that it was not me taking them over the line having built the team and taken charge of them for 85% of the season but such is football.

“You never know what is around the corner.

“Overall, my time at Bristol City was a positive one because I arrived at the club when they were in a relegation battle in the Championship.

“I got them out of trouble and consolidated them in the division eventually progressing them up towards the playoff places during my five years in charge.

“We also defeated Manchester United in the League Cup which was a massive moment for the club which saw us reach the semi-final stage of the competition.

“We were unlucky against Manchester City in the semi-final but to reach that stage was a massive achievement.

“I look back on five good years at the club and I am proud of what we achieved before we parted ways.”

You moved to Sunderland in 2020 and won the EFL Trophy at Wembley during the COVID-19 pandemic which meant no fans were allowed to attend the final. How unusual was that experience given the success you achieved that day?

“I loved my time at Sunderland. It is a massive football club with quality facilities.

“It was going through a tough time when I went in and we worked hard to progress the club towards the top of the table while doing well in the EFL trophy.

“Winning at Wembley was an incredible moment for me and for the club. The EFL trophy is not the most prestigious trophy in English football but it still means a lot when you win it.

“It was my first piece of silverware as a manager and Sunderland’s first trophy in decades which made it extra special.

“It was just a shame that the fans could not be there to join us that day due to the pandemic.

“Overall, I left Sunderland with one of the highest win ratios at the club and towards the top of League One, in good shape for Alex Neil to get them over the line in terms of promotion.   

“I enjoyed my time there and I am proud of what we achieved together.”

Finally, Lee, what are your ambitions in the years ahead as a manager?

“My full focus and drive is to bring further progress to Hibernian.

“I want to do well here and bring success to the fans in the form of silverware.

“That obviously takes hard work, determination and steady planning and preparation but that has to be the aim.

“We want to compete in the top half of the Scottish Premiership and strive to finish as high up that table as we possibly can.

“We do not put a ceiling on that. We want to challenge every team in the league including Celtic and Rangers each week to do the best that we possibly can as a group to create something special.

“In addition to that, we also want to play European football and progress in European competition.

“We have a strong academy and I want to bring players into the team who are homegrown and give the fans a team and a club to be proud of on and off the pitch.”