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Sunderland managerial candidates under the spotlight: Lee Johnson

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Reece Davies takes a deep dive into the career of one of the managers that bookies say could be in line for the Sunderland hot-seat – ex Bristol City boss Lee Johnson.

Bristol City v Fulham - Sky Bet Championship
Is he the man for the job?
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

All eyes are now on who will replace Phil Parkinson as Sunderland manager.

One of the names mentioned is former Bristol City boss Lee Johnson, so I delved into his career to assess his claim to the throne.


Oldham Athletic (2013-2015)

Johnson was the Football League’s youngest manager when he took over at Boundary Park in March 2013, aged just 31. Johnson got his tenure of to a flyer with a 3-0 win over Hartlepool, and from there he went on to guide Oldham to safety. He managed 10 games from mid-March to the end of the season, winning four, drawing three and losing three, finishing in 19th position.

General Views of Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park
Oldham was Johnson’s first job
Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

In his first full season, Johnson managed to keep Oldham out of the relegation places for the majority of the campaign, with the Latics fluctuating between 20th and 15th place – the latter being their final position.

Oldham’s end-of-season form saw them finish the campaign with an unbeaten run of 10 games, taking 18 points from a possible 30. Having being able to stamp his authority on the squad over 18 months or so, Johnson saw his side rise from the depths of League One and he began to catch the eye of clubs looking for a forward-thinking manager.

A welcome thought for Sunderland fans is his unpredictable tactics and changes of personnel and formations – far from what we are used to under Parkinson.

Johnson liked to tinker with his approach, preferring four at the back and fluctuating between a flat 4-4-2, 4-4-2 diamond and 4-2-3-1 throughout the campaign.

Johnson managed Oldham to February 2015, when he caught the eye of fellow League One club Barnsley. At the time of his departure, Oldham were seventh in League One, with 12 wins and 10 draws from 32 games.

Oldham record: P103 W37, D29. L37. Points Per Game: 1.36 Win ratio: 36%


Barnsley (2015-2016)

Barnsley were struggling in League One and had sacked manager Danny Wilson two weeks prior to Johnson being appointed.

Under the caretaker management of Mark Burton, Barnsley won their next two games, but still sat seven places below Oldham when Johnson took over.

Johnson hit the ground running with Barnsley, opening his reign with five wins, including a 3-1 victory at former club Oldham.

Barnsley would draw the next three games before seeing their form dip towards the end of the season.

Despite running out of steam, Johnson had changed Barnsley’s fortunes through the implementation of his fluid 4-4-2 system and they finished the season 11th, ending the campaign with a 5-0 win against Rochdale.

The following season, however, Barnsley only won six and drew four of their opening 20 games in the league, a run of form that saw them languishing at the foot of the table in early December.

Bristol City v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Johnson has a track record of putting together a run of wins, and this usually comes as a result of dynamic thinking and changing tactics and formation to get the best out of the players at his disposal.

In that run at the start of the 2015-16 season, he tried no fewer than five formations in an attempt to remedy the issues his side were experiencing.

His fail safe is variations of 4-4-2, which saw his fortunes change in the previous campaign, also brought about a run of seven wins in the new year – a spell that inevitably improved their league position.

He departed Oakwell after being approached by Bristol City in February 2016, after just 346 days. He left Barnsley in 14th position, and the Tykes enjoyed an upturn of form under new manager Paul Heckingbottom, finishing sixth and eventually winning 3-1 in the Playoff Final against Millwall.

Overall record: P51 W23 D10 L18. Points Per Game: 1.55 Win ratio: 46%


Bristol City (2016-2020)

Having been struggling in the Championship for much of the season, Steve Cotterill was relieved of his duties at Ashton Gate in early January 2016. Mark Pemberton took over for four games, implementing a 4-2-3-1 formation which helped take seven points from 12.

Upon his arrival, Johnson persevered with Pemberton’s tactics, implementing an attacking formation while sometimes switching to his preferred 4-4-2.

Johnson’s preference to play on the front foot saw him make a positive start to life at Ashton Gate, winning his opening two games 2-1 and 2-0 against Ipswich and MK Dons, respectively.

His approach to games rarely changed, and this brought about six wins, two draws and four losses in his opening 10 games, two of which were 4-0 defeats to then high-flying Hull City and Brighton.

In the final 15 games that season Johnson’s side took a total of 24 points from 45, scoring 29 and conceding 24.

There is a constant theme in Johnson’s career that he does begin to get the best out of the players he has at his disposal and uses many players within his squads to find a successful solution – something Jack Ross and, in particular, Phil Parkinson, have steadfastly failed to do.

Granada CF Vs Bristol City - Pre-Season Friendly
Johnson made a positive start to life at City
Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

The improvements continued for Johnson at the start of the 16/17 season and saw Bristol flex their muscles against the likes of Brighton, Leeds and Newcastle.

After a haul of 24 points from 45, Bristol found themselves in the play-off places in the Championship, beating the likes of Villa, Leeds, Fulham and Forest.

The team hit the rocks through the Christmas period, however, and a run of nine straight defeats saw Johnson go back to the drawing board.

He once again showed a willingness to change his approach, not be naïve or to settle for poor form in the hope that wins would magically return.

Bristol City did find a way of winning again, scoring plenty of goals in the process – but their achilles heel was an inability to stop conceding.

Johnson clearly has an eye for an offensive line up but maybe lacked defensive nous – puzzling with the likes of Nathan Baker, Aden Flint and Luke Ayling at his disposal.

City’s home form during the 16-17 was generally strong under Johnson, with 11 wins and four draws from 23, however their away form was poor, with only four wins and five draws from 23 games.

The following season, Johnson’s side really did flourish, including picking up four points against newly-relegated Sunderland along the way.

Johnson had rectified, for the most part, the team’s defensive frailties and saw his side in the play-off places for much of the season before running out of steam towards the end of the campaign and finishing 11th.

With 17 wins and only 13 losses from their 46 games, Bristol City really had turned a corner under Johnson – goals scored were up, goals conceded were down and their average points per game had also improved to 1.46.

Bristol City did have some real highs in the season as Johnson famously guided the Robins to the Carabao Cup semi-finals, beating Manchester United in the last eight before eventually being edged out over two legs by Manchester City.

Manchester City v Bristol City - Carabao Cup - Semi Final - First Leg - Etihad Stadium
Johnson made friends with Pep in the League Cup
Photo by Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images

Progress is progress and at the age of 36 Johnson really was finding his feet in management, demonstrated during the 18/19 season. He had found a philosophy that suited his players and it paid dividends for the Robins as they finished in eighth place – it should have been higher, but for a poor run of five games without a win at the end of the season.

Johnson was given the nickname of Streaky Johnson by the Robins faithful due to his team’s tendency to go on multiple game winning streaks and multiple game losing streaks – not necessarily ideal.

After a loss to Cardiff in July 2020, Bristol City were nine points from the play-off places and Johnson was sacked, despite being the longest-serving manager in the league, with the club feeling ‘change was needed’.

He has since been out of work but is looking to get back in to management, preferably in the Championship – but I am sure a club the stature of Sunderland, in League One, would be a challenge he’d very much be interested in.

Overall record: P217 W84 D53 L80. Points Per Match: 1.41 Win ratio: 39%


Verdict: An interesting outsider

Overall, Sunderland could do worse than appointing Lee Johnson. He has shown that with time he can improve the outcomes of teams who have a modest budget, yet do have high expectations in their own specific ways.

He managed to transform Bristol City from Championship strugglers to a club that now has the solid foundations to go to the next level (currently sixth in the Championship). Although I would consider him a rank outsider, Johnson is currently at 20/1 with the bookies, which is the same price as Kevin Phillips.

I feel it wouldn’t be a bad shout for Sunderland to sit him down, listen to his vision for the club and the strategies he would use to implement it.

Sunderland are screaming out for a young, dynamic manager who isn’t afraid to use the whole of his squad and implement a change in tactics and personnel until he finds the winning formula.

We need a man who can implement change, roll with the punches and takes risks when things aren’t going well.

Johnson has a profound methodology and a keen focus on technology. He looks at every aspect of the game and his squads to bring as much knowledge and innovation to the club in order to progress – something I feel may have been lacking under Parkinson.

He has an eye for talent and was instrumental in signing Tammy Abraham on loan for Bristol City, where he scored 10 championship goals – clearly, he has contacts in the game – and Sunderland will need him to exhaust every avenue if appointed to achieve promotion from League One.