2 April ~ At the end of October, Bristol City were sitting in fifth place in the Championship having lost only two of their opening 15 league games. Gary Johnson was a year and a month into a five-year contract and over the past two seasons had guided the club to two of their three highest finishes since 1980. Results took a turn for the worse with only four wins coming in the next 22 league matches and on 18 March, Johnson and the club parted ways.
As usual in football, there is more to the story than a side plummeting down the table, dropping 16 points to goals conceded in added time. Young defender Christian Ribeiro stated in his blog: “Gary Johnson was in charge here for such a long time that it felt a bit like there was no way other than Gary Johnson’s way.” This may have been an innocuous throwaway remark by Ribeiro, but it is right at the core of how many Bristol City fans will remember Johnson’s tenure.
When Johnson took over in 2005 the playing squad was undisciplined and underachieving. Within a month of his arrival four first team players were involved in a nightclub brawl that saw three of them jailed. Over a period of time Johnson was able to remove the disruptive influences and instil a more professional outlook on the pitch, winning promotion in his first full season and then taking City to the play-off final a year later.
The phrase “lost the dressing room” is a relatively new one, perhaps reflecting the need to fill 24-hour sports new channels. However, if anyone could do such a thing, it was Johnson. Last season Bradley Orr was dropped from the side after he turned down Bristol City’s offer of a new contract. Orr was subsequently targeted by a Facebook group accused of being greedy, and ungrateful for the way the club had stood by him while he was serving his sentence for his part in the above brawl. This was as a direct result of the noises coming from through the official channels.
Popular goalkeeper Adriano Basso was marginalised after turning down a new contract and was relegated to the bench and the transfer list at the start of this season. Rumours among supporters groups also hinted at trouble on the training ground between Basso and Lee Johnson, as well as the club turning away possible suitors for him. Again, the official message pointed the blame at the player.
Paul Hartley was rumoured to have requested a transfer after falling out with Johnson, and the pair allegedly didn’t speak to each other for over a month. Dave Clarkson was signed in the summer and quickly jettisoned in order that Johnson could play loan signing Alvaro Saborio, who proved to be so inept that not only was his loan cut short but his Swiss club also cancelled his contract.
Saborio wasn’t the first poor striker to attract Johnson’s eye. A succession of forwards including Bas Savage, Mark McCammon, Enoch Showunmi, Darren Byfield, John Akinde, Peter Styvar and Patrick Agyemang all failed to produce the goods in a low-scoring squad. Johnson gambled £1 million on Lee Trundle and then failed to show any faith in him on the pitch. Nicky Maynard was overpriced at £2.25m but the club were desperate for a striker after the collapse of a transfer deal to bring Egyptian international Emad Meteb to the club. He and Johnson fell out before the deal could be completed, with Johnson stating “if you can’t quite trust someone's personality, then at some stage they’re going to let you down”. Words that ultimately City fans could apply to Johnson himself. Mo Davies