Earlier today, I was able to interview Cheltenham Town manager Gary Johnson about his career as well as ask him some of your questions. He has been in football management for nearly 20 years, having great success at clubs such as Yeovil Town and Bristol City, and is now looking forward to the new National League campaign with Cheltenham. Many thanks to the club’s media officer Jon Palmer for helping to organise it, and to Gary himself for the great interview. Here’s what he had to say…
Olly Allen: Did you always want to go into football management when you retired as a player, or who influenced/encouraged you to do so?
Gary Johnson: I think when you’re a player in your early days, you don’t need to really think about it, and then as you get older you have a decision to make as to whether you want to stay in the game or find something else. I’ve always loved the game myself and in my late 20s and early 30s I started going on many of the FA coaching, management courses etc and enjoyed them. I’ve got a network of friends that I’ve kept in touch with, people in the game over the last 30 years. You sort of make a conscious effort towards the end of your playing career as to what it is you want to do.
OA: Did you enjoy your spell coaching the Latvian national team? How different is it to club football?
GJ: I enjoyed it very much. Most of the Latvian team played for the same club Skonto Riga, so I was luckier than most international managers where I could almost work with them and see them every day. Skonto Riga at that time were the strongest team, always won the Latvian league and got into the Champions League. They were one of few fully professional teams in Latvia. My role wasn’t much different to that of a club manager.
OA: Was there ever any nagging or arguments from your son Lee about whether he should play during your first spell at Yeovil Town?
GJ: [Laughs] Not really no, it would be nepotism if it wasn’t successful. We got a group of lads together that were all around Lee’s age, that had all been released from professional clubs and they all became mates very quickly. I always said that I would treat them all like my sons, and that’s the way we could get around it, so I did. We won the FA Trophy in the first year [2001-02], got promoted [to the Football League] in the second year, so we knew we had a good thing going and that group including Lee, had two or three promotions, not only with Yeovil, but other places too. I took Lee, along with some of the others to Bristol City, and we had a promotion there [in 2006-07], so it was a successful time, making it a little bit easier. Of course, on occasions when we lost a game, or if Lee didn’t have a particularly good game, there were arguments, but you had to take that on the chin. It was probably more difficult for Lee because he had to deal with some of his friends getting a bit of a rollicking from me, he also had to deal with himself getting a bit of a rollicking from me in front of his friends! But as I say, they’ve got the medals on the mantelpieces, and promotions to prove that it was a successful period.
OA: You had quite short spells at both Peterborough and Northampton Town, why did it not work out at those clubs?
GJ: People say it didn’t work out, but actually it did from my own point of view. When I took over at Peterborough [in 2010], they’d just been relegated and we had to build a new squad between me, the chairman and Barry Fry and we did. We may have lost a few players, but we built a squad and when I left, the team was in a play-off position, before Darren Ferguson came back. Unfortunately, myself and the board and the chairman, we didn’t see eye to eye on the future, so decided to mutually shake hands and part company. Of course, they ended up getting promoted via the play-offs which proved we’d actually built the foundations for promotion.
As for when I went to Northampton [in March 2011], they had been on a bit of a losing streak, and we had to try to turn it around which was difficult with the same group of people. I came in roughly half way through the season, and managed to keep them in the division. But in the end, it was probably just the wrong place at the wrong time really. There weren’t any relegations at either club, so you could say that it wasn’t a disaster.
OA: What is the thing you miss most about management when you are out of a job?
GJ: Generally I’ve not been out of a job very long for the last 29 years, when you are out of it, whether it be a few weeks, or the longest I’ve been is a month, you miss it. You’re forever wanting to get back in it. People ask why do you need the hard work or the hassle, but that’s like saying why does the Prime Minister want to be Prime Minister with all his hassle? Yet people are striving for it, and I think it’s the same with management. If you think you can help people and help players and improve a football club, you want to be in it. Football is one of those things that you want to stay in forever.
OA: Why did you decide to join Cheltenham in March, and did you feel you could have saved the club from relegation?
GJ: I knew it was going to be difficult as there were only seven games to go and they were bottom of the table. Obviously I couldn’t change anything as there was no transfer window and we couldn’t bring anyone in. Unfortunately there was a losing mentality which the lads had got themselves into, and we didn’t have enough time to turn it around. The reason why I decided to stay, even after relegation is because I felt it was a decent football club, that were unfortunate a little a bit with some poor decisions along the way. But generally it was a good place, with a good academy and I just felt that it was worth giving it go for a year or two, getting the club back where it should be in the Football League.
OA: What are your goals for the new season, having seen plenty of change at the club this summer?
GJ: We had to get rid of that losing mentality, which meant we had to get rid of 75% of the players, and then it’s not easy to bring in 11 or 12 players and expect to be successful. However, we’re working very hard to get a group that has experience, youthfulness and ambition to get the club back in the Football League. That’s what the brief was, very hard to do of course, as there’s some good teams, ex-professional teams, that have been trying to get back in for years and haven’t been able to. We know the difficulty of the task, but at the same time, it doesn’t stop you having the ambition of getting back there as quickly as possible, and it’s nice to have that sort of focus. Everyone knows that it’s a very, very important season for this football club.
A lot of Yeovil fans are asking questions along the lines of :Where did it all go wrong in your second spell at the club and would you change anything about it?
GJ: There was a lot of where did it all go right, we took a Conference club into the Championship and had a very good Championship campaign for the size of our club and our budget, and only missed out on survival by about three points or something. I think where it all went wrong when we were back in League 1 was because we had to try and bring in new players as we’d lost a lot of our better players to Championship clubs. So we had to quickly try and build a new team, and unfortunately the team we built, had six or seven major injuries at a very bad time. Simon Gillett, Kevin Dawson, Joel Grant, we had some long term injuries and didn’t have a big enough squad to cope with that. When I left, we were three points from safety, and I felt that we would’ve done it with some of those injured players coming back, but I was never going to stay at the end of the season. I was honest enough to talk to the club about that, so we mutually agreed that both of us needed a change with 18 games still to go. I accepted that, and we moved on.
Stephen Gibbens (@gibbz69): How did you cope with players who tried to overrule you and disagree with your style?
GJ: [Laughs] Well I don’t know that players did. There may be some that didn’t play for some reason so maybe they disagreed with what we were doing. But there honestly weren’t that many people that were unhappy with the way we were playing, that’s for sure. It would be interesting to hear whoever’s question it was give you a few names as to who he thinks those players are!
Christian (@ChristianBCFC): What was your most memorable game managing Bristol City?
GJ: Of course the game that took us up to the Championship in our second season [2006-07] – Rotherham at home. That was a fantastic occasion, I think we won 3-1 with a great atmosphere at Ashton Gate. Another one was the Championship play-off semi-final [in 2008], the two legs against Crystal Palace, fighting for a Premier League place. Then the other one was the final – memorable as it was obviously one game away from the top flight, but unfortunately we lost. As you know, Dean Windass scored the winning goal, and it seemed to be his year that season if you know what I mean. That was a great effort at the time for Bristol City to be one game away from the Premier League.
OA: Along the same lines, what is your most memorable game from your career overall, or your greatest achievement?
GJ: I think the greatest achievement would have to be Yeovil getting to the Championship [in 2013], I think that was the best. I’ve certainly had lots of highlights, but I think the unbelievable task we had at Yeovil at the time was achieved. That was the most difficult thing, with the squad and the budget, and to get that club to the Championship was unbelievable. Then you’ve got to remember getting Yeovil into the Football League after 108 years. I think Yeovil vs Manchester United was a massive event, whilst I’ve mentioned the Bristol City highlights. It’s very difficult to pick one, but certainly all of my successes were at Yeovil or Bristol City and I wouldn’t swap either of either of them.
Many thanks to Gary and John once again for making the interview happen, and thanks to all the Bristol City and Yeovil fans who put in questions. Can you name names Stephen Gibbens?!