Simon Hart: Lee Johnson impresses at Oldham thanks to dad’s early lessons

Life Beyond the Premier League

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it should surprise nobody to see Lee Johnson, the Football League’s youngest manager, shining in his first job at Oldham Athletic. After all, the 33-year-old was gaining an insight into the tricks of the trade when he was still in short trousers.

“I used to hide in the skips at Cambridge United as a 10-year-old where my dad was manager and assistant manager,” Johnson, whose father Gary is now in charge at Yeovil Town, tells The Independent.

“I used to listen to all the team talks. He was always very open and honest with me on the decisions he made in his career and we had quite a close relationship with that.”

If that gave Johnson a head start, his success in improving Oldham’s fortunes is also the product of the advance planning put in when he decided, in his early 20s, that he wished to become a manager himself.

“I gave myself a seven-year plan to be fully qualified and fully educated,” explains Johnson, who played under his father at both Yeovil and Bristol City. He already had his Level One and Two coaching qualifications by the time he left Huish Park for Ashton Gate in 2006 and began “taking Bristol City’s Under-14s and Under-15s”.

“Every international break I had when playing in the Championship I spent going abroad to look at top coaches and top clubs,” adds Johnson, who visited clubs as diverse as Barcelona and Skonto Riga and even spent time on a hospital A&E ward for “a case study of pressure environments”.

Johnson, who will complete his Uefa Pro licence early next year, has put all these lessons to impressive use with the Latics ninth in League One, two points off a play-off spot. Oldham have not had a top-half finish since 2009 but they have lost just three of their first 18 league fixtures – a fine start from a team with the division’s fourth-smallest budget.

“We had to be a home for the unloved,” says Johnson of an astute recruitment policy based on offering players “a kick-start in their careers” in return for a drop in salary.

A case in point is 12-goal striker Jonathan Forte, already in double figures for the first time in his career. Also catching the eye are centre-back James Wilson and captain Liam Kelly, whom Johnson knew from his days as a midfielder at Bristol City and Kilmarnock respectively.

“The players have bought into the way we want to play,” he says. “We want to play a very high-tempo, high-pressing game but keep the ball on the floor and try and be creative.”

Saturday's derby at Rochdale is their seventh away match against sides above them – and the only defeats were 1-0 losses at Preston and Bristol City. “I have been in a few promotion teams and we’ve probably got 90 per cent of what’s required,” adds Johnson. “We need to be lucky with injuries and suspensions.”

It has not all been plain sailing since his March 2013 appointment. Johnson was “knocked for six” when Colombian winger Cristian Montano – who was subsequently sacked – was arrested as part of an investigation into spot-fixing last season.

A happier memory is the 1-0 victory over his father’s Yeovil side which helped avert relegation last year. He suspects that Johnson Snr was “secretly quite happy that we won [as] it was so important for us to stay up”.

Their teams will meet again on 13 December at Boundary Park when, he jokes, he is more likely to offer his opposite number a post-match cup of Slim-Fast than the customary glass of wine. “I’m trying to look after him, make him lose a bit of timber.” It is the least he can do after all that good advice.

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