Hibs manager Lee Johnson opens up on SAS, Ian Gordon, style of play and calling Hearts boss Curly Toe

The phone starts blinking almost as soon as Lee Johnson places it on the table and the intermittent flashing heralds every missed call and message.

It is obvious that the Hibs manager is a man in demand.

Occasionally, he rewards the silent appeals with a quick glance but, for the majority of the interview, he resists the interruption.

On one level that seems easy as the Hibs boss, who describes his management style as “warm but demanding”, is a comfortable conversationalist, and he enjoys meeting people, while his enthusiasm for the job he has taken on spills out as he outlines plans and expectations.

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New Hibs manager Lee Johnson is settling into life in Edinburgh.New Hibs manager Lee Johnson is settling into life in Edinburgh.
New Hibs manager Lee Johnson is settling into life in Edinburgh.

But, with so much work ongoing behind the scenes, it is clear that time is precious and, while happy to chat, right now, Johnson is itching to check in with those trying to reach him and to press on with the task of strengthening his squad before the new season gets underway.

The players are already back in training, those he inherited, some he has already recruited and one or two he would rather move on.

That’s why the calls and texts have such a pull.

“It’s not like it’s my mum calling,” he explains when we finally wrap up the chat and he quickly scrolls through the call list and unopened messages. “So, let’s hope I’ve not just missed out on a centre-half! There’s 16 Whatsapps, and half a dozen missed calls just since we sat down.”

Lee Johnson, pictured with his father Gary.Lee Johnson, pictured with his father Gary.
Lee Johnson, pictured with his father Gary.

They are from the likes of Hibs’ Head of Recruitment, Ian Gordon, from agents and others helping him shape his squad. When he is not speaking to them, he is trawling through data – he has designed his own program to suss out a player’s football IQ, smiling as he describes it as “genius, even if I do say so myself” – and hours of footage, following up on tips or trying to unearth his own gems. He has a clear vision of how he sees his team playing next season and during a final interview that spanned more than six hours, the former Sunderland boss shared that with Hibs owner Ron Gordon and the rest of the recruitment committee.

Using statistics compiled from past seasons and individual performances, he knows what he is looking for but finding the type of players he wants in key positions is not straightforward. There is competition and high price tags and that means that there will be young players signed up and promoted from within, more foreign players, who offer greater value for money, as well as some shrewd domestic acquisitions, although, he says, the gamble there is that they may fear the likes of Celtic and Rangers more and, out to win, he doesn’t want that inferiority complex. BUt, what is true is that one or two will be “educated punts”. Others, he says, must be more sure-fire.

He is, however, enjoying working on recruitment with a man who has been misunderstood at best, and vilified at worst, according to the manager.

“I’ll be honest with you Ian is very, very good. I have maybe been surprised how good he is compared to the external perception. He works his nuts off, that's the first thing. He is really aligned with the style of player we need.” And while he is still fairly new to the role, “in 5-10 years, he could be one of the best in the business.

Johnson had a spell as a player with Hearts.Johnson had a spell as a player with Hearts.
Johnson had a spell as a player with Hearts.

“It is difficult for him because of who he is and I understand because I had that when I played for my dad.”

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Johnson played under dad Gary at Watford, Yeovil and Bristol City. And, at Ashton Gate, he played and managed under the stewardship of owner Stephen Lansdown and his son, and current chairman, Jon.

“The nepotism shout is really difficult because you are always having to prove yourself. But it’s unfair. Every tie we don’t win it will be resurrected but if we do win then it looks like it’s me. But, if you don’t have the relationship and communication from top to bottom then things slide really quickly and it is horrible.”

When we first caught up at his big unveiling, Johnson was open and relaxed, revealing different facets of a fun but enquiring personality but with the fixtures out, the new season a fast-approaching reality and plenty of graft still to be done, he has turned the dial slightly and is, understandably, in business mode.

Lee Johnson, pictured with Hibs owner Ron Gordon.Lee Johnson, pictured with Hibs owner Ron Gordon.
Lee Johnson, pictured with Hibs owner Ron Gordon.

Having beaten off the challenge of guys like Jon Dahl Tomasson to get the job, there is no doubting his drive and desire to make a success of things at Hibs and, with his infectious energy and meticulous approach, it is not difficult to see why he was given the opportunity.

Driven but far from one-dimensional, in May, conversation flowed effortlessly from his penchant for a bit of Robbie Williams on karaoke, to his love of Scottish banter, and history, as well as football. That side to him is still evident but, with so many plates spinning and calls incoming, while topics up for discussion are varied, they always, understandably, veer back to how he makes this job work.

Whether that is nicking some lines from Ted Lasso (“To be your mentor I’ve got to be your tormentor”) a programme he loves, or his desire to explore the history that is now on his doorstep, from house-hunting so he can accommodate the many people already expressing a desire to visit him in the Scottish capital, including his pal, comedian Mark Watson, to dealing with mental health, which he knows is no laughing matter, he is passionate about it all.

Get him talking about his vision for the club, the identity, methodology, and philosophy (“My dad keeps telling me to stop saying philosophy because it sounds crap”) and the 40-year-old will go into fascinating detail about tactics, individual players, pace, a solid defensive foundation, a can do attitude, and other key attributes but what it all adds up to is that his team will go for it. “It’s not a case of risk it and blitz it or of being steady Eddies. It has to be something in between.”

But the fans have to buy into it, too. “It might be a dodgy 1-0 where we have put our bodies on the line or it might be an expansive 4-0 where we have been brilliant. I want us to be aggressive with pressure but removing the fear from decision-making is key. Hopefully, our fans will recognise that and, when I spoke in my press conference about fans becoming part of the performance, that’s the sort of thing I mean.”

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And, winning two, losing one, is, he states, more profitable than an unbeaten run that includes three draws. It is usually also more exciting and entertaining.

Lee Johnson has defended Hibs' head of recruitment, Ian Gordon.Lee Johnson has defended Hibs' head of recruitment, Ian Gordon.
Lee Johnson has defended Hibs' head of recruitment, Ian Gordon.

Man-management is important - which is where Ted Lasso proves more than light-entertainment - but so too is a certain ruthlessness.

“You have to find the best way to communicate with them all. Which means you have to be a bit of a chameleon but you can’t be disingenuous.

“It is when there are attitude errors then that’s when I can get quite nasty, that’s when I show my teeth.

“I'm a warm personality but the minute you sabotage performance, I'm coming for you, no matter who it is, whether that's a player, the owner, tea lady, whoever.”

And, while sentiment does come into his thinking when it comes to team selection, it is simply a tool to focus the mind.

“Picking the team is easy. I always pick the team like my little girls’ life depends on it and that allows me to shut out all the crap. So, instead of listening to agents, or fans, or whoever, I sit down, put a bit of Paolo Nutini on and decide what I’m going with”.

A photo of him and daughter Izzy is a reminder of the recent family holiday but, unwilling to uproot her or disrupt her education, especially as management jobs offer no promise of longevity, she and his wife Nicola have remained down south while he is in Edinburgh on his own and football is all consuming.

He recognises the dangers of that.

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“I don’t think I will ever nail the work-life balance. But there are things that enable me to take my mind off football. That is where Edinburgh could be good for me.

“I do like history and I will go on all the tours, even the fun ones, like the dungeons and ghost tours. And, the Fringe, I really like. My mate Mark Watson is a comedian and he will come up and stay with me while he is working at the Fringe.

“Edinburgh is the kind of city people want to visit so I have a list of family and friends who want to come up and that is important to break the functionality.

“I also like golf but it has been difficult to find the time but it might be easier up here because there are not so many games and you don’t spend as much time traveling.”

That was one of the reasons he wanted to manage in Scotland, claiming his results have always tended to benefit from time to work with players during the week, especially the young players, who he says often have minds like goldfish and require repetition.

He is also on the hunt for a place to disappear when the team loses.

“Graham Taylor was the one who said: ‘Booze when you lose, stay in when you win’. So, I need to find a dark, dingy boozer where I can sit and have a Jack D and coke. Somewhere no-one cares. I’m not a big drinker but there are such emotional highs and lows and after a loss you can go into dark places in your mind and you need that release.”

He has sought help from more than the bottle when it comes to dealing with that, though.

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“I think I'm getting better at dealing with that. I have done a lot of work with the SAS actually because it is like post-traumatic stress when you lose a game like that.

“Early in my career it would take me 48-72 hours to get out of it and that’s too long. It kills family life and means you’re not what you need to be at the training ground. But the longer you are in the job the more you learn how to front it up.”

He has worked with experts in the NHS and the Red Arrows as well as the special forces to identify how to deal with it and not just mask it.

“Ok, losing a football game is not life or death like the SAS is but the stress of the situation triggers the same chemical reaction and you have to go through the process because that is often where the genius is, because you question absolutely everything, but you have to accelerate the process.

“You question whether you want to be married, whether you want to be in football, every decision you’ve made, everything everyone has said, everything. In normal walks of life that can develop into depression and you take time to deal with it. In football you have to come out of it quickly, newborn and refreshed, and that is where the SAS have helped me.”

A former player and a manager he has had several vantage points and as the son of a manager, he knows that the families feel the impact as well.

Which is why he enlists the wives and partners and even includes them in presentations so that they can all identify ways they can help and pull together to minimise everyone’s stress and reframe the player from victim to fighter.

“Because when the player is in the right frame of mind and playing well it benefits them all because it is not a long career and you need to make the most of it. But it is difficult. I’ll be honest, me and the wife never stopped rowing for a couple of years after we had a baby and then I lost my place in the team and I didn’t get a new contract and that then caused a lot of frustration in our relationship.

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“But then there are others like Craig Bellamy who pissed his missus off by sleeping in an oxygen tent because he was that focused!”

He who dares, wins, Johnson’s sacrifice now is being away from his family. They will visit but, in the meantime, finding a No 9 and a centre-half is what gives him sleepless nights, and working with his squad, who fly out to a pre-season training camp in Portugal tomorrow, fills the void.

Extremely focused, there are still moments of light and shade. When he was introduced to the media after taking the job he jokingly issued a warning to his friend and former team-mate Robbie Neilson, who is the Hearts manager and Johnson’s derby nemesis.

“Yeah, I told him I was coming for him. The media misheard me, though. They thought I’d called him Curly Top but it was Curly Toe. We used to call him that because he couldn’t kick the ball straight, he always curled it out!

“I texted him to explain and he said something like ‘looking forward to seeing you Cuban Heel’ He thought I always wore Cuban heels on a night out because of my height! Did I? I’m not saying,” he laughs. “But I am looking forward to seeing him.”

He won’t have to wait long after the fixture list scheduled the first capital derby among the second round of league fixtures, on August 6, when Hibs will play host.

Before that is friendlies, starting next week, then the Premier Sports Cup group games.

“There is still a lot of work to do but it all feels very good. The lads are engaged and I’m super-excited.”

Ted Lasso would be proud of the positivity.