Lee Johnson was a big part of Yeovil Town’s rise up the ladder
By Chris Dunlavy
Mark Twain famously said that it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight that counts but the size of the fight in the dog.
As twin terriers in the famous Yeovil side of 2002-03, Darren Way and Lee Johnson exemplified that sentiment.
Wind-up merchants. Ankle nippers. Purveyors of sneaky stamps and sly digs. At 5ft 6ins apiece, the pair looked like easy meat, but appearances couldn’t have been more deceptive.
“We were horrible,” laughs Johnson, now managing Bristol City in the Championship. “Just ask Lee Fowler.
“One game, me and Darren absolutely slaughtered him in every single way. Verbally, physically, mentally. He was so distracted that I even ran off him and scored a header.
“I remember he came in afterwards and said ‘That’s it, you getting a header… I’m retiring’. And he did! He was gone for about six months.
“He ended up having a really good career, Lee, at Doncaster and other places. But we just ran him into the ground that day and wound him up so much.
“But you’ve got to remember, this was an era when small players weren’t desired. One of the main reasons I left Watford was that they’d just signed two lads from Belgium. One was six foot five, couldn’t even get about the pitch. The other was also big and physical.
“At the time, that was the perception of what you needed to be successful in the Premier League.
“And there were countless times when managers said publicly that Yeovil couldn’t be successful with two 5ft 6ins centre midfielders. That went right through to League One.
“It was a really strong stereotype, and people did try to bully us on the pitch. But we just had this mindset that nobody would get the edge on us.”
Indeed, few laid a glove on one of the most complete sides ever seen in Non-League, with Trophy triumph in 2002 followed 12 months later by a cakewalk to the Conference title.
“There was a lot of talent in that team,” adds Johnson. “A lot of desire as well. We had Terry Skiverton, Nick Crittenden, Michael McIndoe and Gavin Williams, who to this day is one of the best players I’ve ever shared a pitch with. He ended up in the Premier League.
“Darren, inset, broke his leg when he was at Swansea, just as they got promoted and began their rise. If that hadn’t happened, he’d have played over 200 Championship games, without doubt.
“If I could put that team together in the Championship now, I’m pretty sure it would at least survive. It could probably get mid-table. That’s how good it was.”
Yet Johnson, who won player of the season three times running before forging a successful career in the Championship with Bristol City, came within a whisker of missing the party altogether.
“I’d actually signed a letter of intention to join Midtjylland, who play in Denmark,” reveals the 38-year-old, who was schooled in Watford’s academy before spending brief spells at Brighton and Brentford.
“It wasn’t a pre-contract or anything like that. They hadn’t even scouted me, really. It was essentially based on a recommendation from Graham Taylor.
“These days, Midtjylland play in Europe but they weren’t a big club at all then. I was 20, clubless, and it was just a chance for me to continue some form of professional career.
“My dad (current Torquay boss Gary) was managing Yeovil at the time, and he invited me down to do a couple of weeks training before I went to Denmark.
“Straight away, I got on with all the boys, who were all a similar age. And Yeovil had just sold Ben Smith, which was a natural opening for a midfielder.
“My dad said ‘Do you fancy it?’. I had my doubts, because playing for your old man will always create problems. But the enjoyment I got from playing with the lads outweighed any fears of nepotism. Looking back, it was the right decision.”
Johnson Snr called that side the Bash Street Kids, a clutch of waifs and strays still nursing the pain of rejection from elite clubs.
“That sense of having something to prove really brought us together,” says Lee Johnson. “But so did the place itself.
“I loved Yeovil to bits, but there wasn’t that much to do. Particularly for young tearaways, which is what we were.
“We were training three or four times a day. And what nightlife there was, we went together. Our girlfriends were all mates. We had parties together. Karaoke. Murder mystery nights.
“It forged an incredible bond that taught me everything about team spirit. And not the artificial stuff. What team spirit truly means.
“Take me and Darren. He was a cheeky little git, and he hated losing. I was the same. We could literally come to blows playing five-a-side in training. But that same night we’d go round to dinner at each other’s house and have a laugh about how competitive we were.”
There were other life lessons, too, such as the importance of momentum, good habits and a winning culture.
“We were relentless,” he laughs. “I remember we played a testimonial game a week before the Trophy final. It was Yeovil v Weymouth, which was quite a big rivalry because of the location.
“No lie, we played that game like it was the Trophy final. It got embarrassing. We were something like 13-0 up and still shutting down, still flying into challenges.
“There was no testimonial feel to it because we knew that if we played that way it would carry over into the Trophy.
“That drive was led by me and Darren, I think, plus probably Macca (McIndoe). That’s not being harsh on the other lads, but I feel like they joined us.
“Skivo is a good example. Very talented, a brilliant captain and a very funny guy who was loved around the town. But as a player, he probably could have gone either way.
“At Yeovil, though, he became a true professional. You even saw his body change shape. He was always a good player, but he got his head sorted and became an athlete as well.”
Johnson, who would go on to play in a Championship play-off final for City and win the Scottish League Cup with Kilmarnock, never did lose that spiky streak.
Even as a manager, he remains a slinger of grenades, his pre-match press conferences occasionally peppered with the sort of quips that so riled Fowler.
“I liked to be hated on the pitch,” he admits. “I knew that a lot of people would try and kick me, thinking ‘He’s a right little rat’ or whatever.
“But I also knew that they wouldn’t get near me – that I’d be able to suck them in, play it round them or even get someone sent off. It played into my hands.
“I wasn’t the fairest of competitors. I liked to sledge, and get under people’s skin because I believe that created space on the pitch for me to play the passes I wanted. I feel sorry for the modern player because you’ve got kids in the warm-up areas, loads of cameras. It’s a pretty sterile environment now. But you can win a game of football in that tunnel. And we did, I’m telling you. If you’re focused, busy, aggressive, you can mentally kill the opponent right from the start. Especially if you have a reputation.
“That’s still in me now. But as a manager in that high-profile world, and a figurehead for the club, I can’t let it out as much!”
And while 17 years have now passed since Yeovil’s ascent to the Football League, Johnson says memories of that team remain fresh.
“I spoke to someone this week, weirdly, a lad who was about 12 years old the year we won the Conference,” he says.
“He’s still buzzing about it, and he must be late twenties now.
“He still remembers the atmosphere at the time, the feeling around the town and what it meant to him. When he spoke about it, you heard the kid in him. It’s a great feeling to have given people that.”