By Matt Badcock
Don’t talk to Gary Johnson about Alexa. The smart voice-activated technology doesn’t always give the answers you want to hear. As the Torquay United manager found out.
“Even if you blinking ask Alexa, ‘Who is Gary Johnson?’ She says, ‘Gary Johnson is the father of Lee Johnson!’” he tells The NLP. “That’s unbelievable isn’t it? I was gutted. I had my little granddaughter Isabella with me ‘n all. She went, ‘Yeah!’”
Johnson is joking, of course, about son Lee Johnson’s burgeoning management career that sees Bristol City pushing for the Championship play-offs and a place in the Premier League.
Johnson says Lee’s move into management with Oldham Athletic as a 31-year-old came as shock – dad was even told he’d applied in the first place – which has subsequently taken him to Barnsley and now City in a rapid rise.
Johnson’s careful to only give advice when asked – “Lee’s his own man” – but when there’s more than 30 years’ experience and five promotions as a sole manager, there haven’t been many better to learn from.
No doubt a lot came from hours in the car together when he played for Johnson at Yeovil and Bristol City. “And in dressing rooms,” Johnson says. “Lee used to say, when I was manager at Cambridge, he used to sneak into the kit baskets in the dressing room so he could hear the team talks. That’s what he said – he did well to hide it all these years!”
Johnson went into management in 1986 with Newmarket Town before becoming John Beck’s assistant at Cambridge United as the pair took the U’s up the leagues to the brink of the Premier League. He later had two promotions under Graham Taylor at Watford, spent time in charge of Latvia’s national side and then returned to England to take over at Yeovil Town.
‘Gary Who?’ he remembers was the headline on the local paper. It didn’t take the Glovers long to find out as he took them to FA Trophy glory in his first season and then led a swashbuckling side to the Conference title by 17 points a year later.
Promotion to Division Two was secured after two seasons in the Football League before another followed at Bristol City, this time the League One title – a club he took to the Championship play-off final only to be defeated by Hull.
Spells at Peterborough United and Northampton, who he kept in the Football League, followed before a Yeovil return where, in 2013, another promotion came through the play-offs as the south-west club reached the unlikely heights of the Championship.
Add in a National League title with Cheltenham Town – taking the club back to League Two at the first attempt – and it’s not hard to see why Torquay United were so glad to get his services earlier this season.
A faltering Gulls side are now top of the National League South and going all guns blazing for the championship.
Wherever Johnson’s been, it’s been generally the same theory behind success – Plan it, Build it, Achieve it.
“I knew very early on in management I had to get a group I could get on with,” Johnson says. “Otherwise you come in and you walk past somebody because you don’t want to talk to them and that messes you up. So, very quickly, you’ve got to get a group that you know you respect, and they respect you. I learnt that pretty quick and then it’s experience.
“People can get bogged down in tactics. Sometimes you’ve got to let the lads game-manage and, therefore, you’ve got to get the ones that think about the game, watch the game on the telly, concentrate on the video tactics – and not just your review but your preview of the opposition. All those things, you have to get right.
“My little granddaughter, she’s ten and she’s just got into the school she wanted to get into. She really, really had to work hard to pass the exams. And she got in yesterday. It made me think, ‘How many hours did she spend with her mum and dad, her nan and grandad, her great grandmother?’ We all played a little bit of a part in her getting the chance of the school she wanted.
“That’s the same with players. You get your rewards. But if I hadn’t had any promotions, it would all be talk.”
Indeed, sitting in their new training base, complete with state-of-the-art 3G pitch, at South Devon College, Johnson explains how they’ve turned from an outside shot for the play-offs to a title contender. The first job has been to change the “thoughts” of everyone from players to the directors and fans. His positive nature sees to that and he’s made key additions to his coaching staff with Aaron Downes – a Gulls fans favourite and Johnson’s captain at Cheltenham – alongside Shaun Taylor.
Players who didn’t fit what he was looking for have been moved on and additions have been shrewd, along with knowing some of the existing players from previous clubs he felt he could build around. A ten-game winning run was only ended in a New Year derby with Bath City and the difference in the fanbase – sceptical of their owners’ long-term plans for the club – is noticeable.
Johnson’s wife Caron may have liked the 63-year-old to have hung up his tactics board by now but the pull of revitalising a club that has endured some tricky times was too much of a pull.
“She’s been great, of course,” Johnson says. “She’s got double bubble now with Lee. She goes to our games when we’re at home and funny enough we’ve been home and away at the same time, so she watches Lee.
“So to be a mum watching the stick Lee’s gone through sometimes and be a wife watching the stick I’ve gone through sometimes sitting in stands or boardrooms, she’s got to have been as strong as an ox and that’s probably where Lee’s strength comes from. But she has also been a part of the successes.”
It’s tempting to wonder if Johnson’s approach to management and the game is different following triple heart bypass surgery in 2017 that was followed by a separate debilitating syndrome.
“Just before I went down before the operation, I thought ‘I might have to retire at the end of this’,” he says. “I had some real good treatment from the NHS and they then said I’m fit enough to bypass the problem area.
“The man who did the surgery was actually Lee’s left-back’s dad! I said to him just before I went down, ‘Mr Bryan,’ – he’s Joe Bryan’s dad – ‘Mr Bryan, you do realise if this doesn’t go well, your son will never play for Bristol City again!’
“But the surgery is so good now. In fact, that wasn’t the thing that would have stopped me managing. I then got something called Guillain-Barre Syndrome, where your immune system fights your nervous system instead of the bugs.
“So all of a sudden, you’ve got nothing. Couldn’t move. I thought it was due to the heart operation because it was only ten days after.
“I had a special serum put through me six hours a day for six days. Thank God, because it was a dangerous situation, I came out of that. I worked hard to get my fitness back and I’m really pleased with where I am health wise.”
Johnson, typically, continued working from his hospital bed. Delivering team-talks to Cheltenham’s players over FaceTime while in his robe – “don’t underestimate the power of that” – as they beat the drop.
Fully recovered, Johnson believes he’s mellowed over the years although admits his staff may not say the same as he searches for the two promotions that will take Torquay back into the Football League. That is the aim.
The Johnson family will be hoping for a double celebration come the end of the season.
“You both love the game and in a morbid way you enjoy the downs as much as the ups because you believe in yourselves,” Johnson says. “I’ve probably quoted a few things on there where people go, ‘I heard Lee say that!’ But he nicks all my sayings and gets more publicity so everyone thinks I’m copying him! It’s terrible…”