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New Sunderland Manager Press Conference

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Editorial: LJ has simplified things for Sunderland’s players, who clearly enjoy playing for him

How hard can football management really be? Surely all players want is to be well prepared, treated like decent human beings, to be given responsibility & to look forward to coming in to work every day. Johno is nailing it.

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Sometimes I wonder if the collective football universe has a bit of a habit of over-complicating the way that football should be played, and the way that footballers should be manager. We’re a little bit obsessed - and I include myself in this, because I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it - with tinkering and testing out new systems when, in reality, how a manager treats his players and prepares them for games is the most important part of their job.

Lee Johnson’s actually made a canny fist of making things simple for his players, I think. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard interviews with Grant Leadbitter, Luke O’Nien and Aiden O’Brien where they’ve all talked up the job Johnson is doing.

Considering he never signed any of them, that’s a very pleasing sign.

In Leadbitter’s case, he talked with passion after the EFL Trophy final about how Johnson treats the players. My first thought when I heard it was that it’s as much of a dig at Phil Parkinson as it is a bit of praise for the current gaffer, but Leadbitter is a player who has seen it all and has played in his long career under some very good managers.

The fact he’s prepared to single out Johnson speaks volumes.

Sunderland v Lincoln City - Sky Bet League One Photo by Chris Vaughan - CameraSport via Getty Images

And when I listened last week to the latest episode of Luke O’Nien’s ‘Footballer’s Mindset Podcast’ (it’s really worth checking it out if you haven’t already, as he covers the entire Wembley experience, and how the manager prepared the players for the occasion) he spoke at length about how every single player in the side knows what their job is, and how they have instructions on what to do for any given situation.

Not only has Johnson prepared for every eventuality, but he’s somehow managed to do it in a way that’s not boring to the players. They're buying into him as much as the fans are.

Similarly, O’Brien’s interview with Nick Barnes on the BBC Newcastle post-match Podcast was another nod in Johnson’s direction, as like O’Nien, the Irish forward talked glowingly about the relationship he has not just with the manager, but Jamie McAllister. Again, I urge you all to listen to it for yourselves, but you can’t help but drink the Kool-Aid when you hear just how together everyone at that football club is right now.

It’s, quite simply, refreshing. Pardon the Kool-Aid flavoured pun.

And I’m sure these aren’t the only examples out there.

Sunderland Unveil New Signing Grant Leadbitter Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

I don’t want to do-down what Johnson has managed to achieve so far by saying all he’s done is simplify things, but really, all he has done is tap into the mindset of a footballer and understands how they want to be treated on a human level.

Restoring the most talented footballer at the club to the first-team fold was an obvious move, but one that told us from the start about how he wanted to go about his business. Teaching each player how they should behave on the pitch, showing them a way of playing that best suits their strongest characteristics, learning to trust his players to do their jobs properly, focusing on the most controllable aspects of their gameplan - there’s nothing revolutionary about any of that, but somewhere, in all of the mess we’ve been through in recent years at this club, that logical and clear way of thinking has been lost.

We’ve got a huge couple of weeks coming up, and everything we’ve been able to achieve up to this point feels like preparation for the real test.

Usually I’d be daunted, but I’m honestly not.

Bring it on, I say.

I trust this manager to do the right thing, I trust these players to carry out their jobs to the best of their abilities on the day, and if things go wrong, I expect they’ve got the right mindset to be able to bounce back and ensure we meet our objectives.

On This Day (9 June 2007): Midfielder turns down Sunderland return – and heads to Bolton instead


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