“We can have a row over a game of tiddlywinks,” Lee Johnson yesterday said of his relationship with his father, Gary, though the dynamics of tonight’s League One contest between the two goes beyond anything they have encountered across the kitchen table.
At Oldham’s Boundary Park they will take up positions in the dugouts for only the second match-up in football history in which the opposing managers are father and son. The sole precedent was Bill Dodgin (Bristol Rovers) and Bill Dodgin Jnr (Fulham), who clashed four times in 1969-70, though this encounter offers an intensity not even known to those two on their multitude of contests.
For 31-year-old Lee, the threat of Oldham’s relegation looms, and the experience of sitting across the kitchen from his father when that has happened tells him all he needs to know about defeat. For 57-year-old Gary, there is the promise of a historic promotion to the Championship for Yeovil.
“He’s been great with me because we’ve discussed pretty much every decision he’s ever made,” said the Football League’s youngest manager. “I was picking my dad’s teams for him at nine or 10 years old and that’s what you do. It’s in the family. Even mum got a say, she’d pick the team!”
But behind the jokes – Gary declared his son may be persona non grata at the Sunday dinner table when the Oldham chairman, Simon Coney, and his board appointed him ahead of 120 other applicants last month – there is a story of how challenging it can be when father and son’s career paths track each other.
Lee began his career at Arsenal’s academy before leaving for Watford, where Gary first caught up with him, by taking charge of youth development there. Gary took over at Yeovil, delivering them to the Football League for the first time in 108 years, in 2003, and two seasons later to League One, where they have stayed, and Lee went with him. But it was after they were reunited at Bristol City, where Lee caught his father up via a diversion to Hearts, that things grew challenging.
In Lee’s first game for City, a defeat to Blackpool, a fan ran on to the pitch, swinging a punch and declaring: “We don’t want you or your old man.” City gained automatic promotion that season and went to within one game of the Premier League in 2008 , with Lee in the starting line-up on merit. But it didn’t satisfy all of those who suspected nepotism.
Johnson Jnr could be forgiven for following the methods of his father, whose almost unbroken 20-year period of employment attests that he knows the business. (Double promotions became a trademark – he achieved his first as John Beck’s assistant at Cambridge United, another with Graham Taylor at Watford, and then in his first Yeovil spell.
But he has adopted a radically different philosophy. There have been meetings with Dr Steve Peters, the sport psychologist behind British Cycling’s success whose work is also helping Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool to remove the fear of expectation. Johnson Jnr also talks about “purposeful practice”, a concept developed by former British table tennis No 1 Matthew Syed. “I am probably more methodical than my dad,” he says.
“He has some fantastic qualities but maybe to go to that next level it’s got to be intense planning, you can’t just be wheeling and dealing. I might fail miserably and he’ll say, ‘You should have gone of your instinct’, and if that happens he’d be right.”