Lee Johnson on being Hibs fans' second choice, Kenny Dalglish backing, and his message for Robbie Neilson

The new Hibs manager Lee Johnson knows the calibre of competition he was up against for the job and, compared to Champions League winners, he recognises that he wasn’t “a massive name” as a player.

But he has earned the backing of one of the biggest household names in Scottish football - Kenny Dalglish.

“I think I can bring top connections from down south and across the UK. The personal relationships I have with key clubs down south, big clubs, can, I think, add value.”

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A manager at just 31, he made the decision to eventually follow in the footsteps of his dad Gary Johnson [the current Torquay United boss] several years earlier. It wasn’t just his coaching badges he focused on as he prepared for the future, completing the A and Pro licences with the SFA, the 40-year-old, who is half Scottish thanks to his mum, also put in the legwork necessary to recruit a pretty impressive clutch of contacts.

“My dad’s been a manager since I was born really and, naturally, you gravitate to what your dad does. But, the contacts that I've made, they're not my dad's contacts. I've got some really big hitters in football who have been fantastic with me. Kenny Dalglish, Brian Marwood, Dan Ashworth are references on my CV because they're great people, but they're also top at what they do and the experience that they've got. I’ve spent years getting to know these guys, earning their trust and getting their guidance, and when it comes to decision making, I can phone these guys quickly. Kenny for example, is unbelievable. You could be fretting over a decision over five or six weeks but even before the end of the sentence, Kenny's got it sorted. To have the opportunity to bounce scenarios off those guys, is powerful.

“I always wanted to learn from the best, so I thought ‘who can I infiltrate’, I suppose. If you look at Kenny’s leadership and personality traits, he’s an unbelievable human being and it started with coffees and conversations. I remember I met him the first time in Glasgow actually and you could spend 20 minutes with that guy and learn two years worth of management. He is a busy man and a legend, but I spoke to him consistently, earning trust.

“You pick things up, simple as that. I think it was an interesting one, when it came to the Oldham job. I was like ‘Kenny, do you have any advice, I’m going in for my interview?’ He said ‘Lee, just be yourself’. But I heard that he rang the Oldham owner straight away and said, ‘I know you’re meeting Lee Johnson, blah, blah, blah, he’s the real deal’. It’s those things that you can’t buy. The gravitas of Kenny Dalglish.”

The youngest manager in the Football League when he embarked on his new career with Oldham, he has since learned a lot about himself and the job. Someone who wants to see his team play forward-thinking, aggressive football, which pressurises the opposition into errors, he has evolved in the past decade.

Lee Johnson is unveiled as the new Hibs manager at Easter Road. (Photo by Mark Scates / SNS Group)

“I went in as a gun slinger with a lot of ideas and actually a manager has a smaller percentage of effect than you think. Seriously, it’s about the people. It’s the intangible bits - the leadership, the making players feel a million dollars. That all comes down to it too - but there’s value to a reaction now which enables you to understand the quality of the 14 players or whatever you are putting out on a matchday.

“I think it’s interesting to see what managers are punching above their weight.”

Johnson promises the Hibs fans who have said they are far from enthused by his appointment that while he may not have had the playing career of a Jon Dahl Tomasson, he can offer them “blood, sweat, and tears”.

“That’s all I can do, be all in…at the end of the day supporters want the club to be successful, if they are seeing signs of that I think any manager can be appreciated.”

He has studied footage of the current crop of players. He has also attended games in recent weeks, going to great lengths to stay incognito, and has identified issues he thinks he needs to address.

At the recent Livingston match, hiding behind glasses and a mask, he spent the game surrounded by the home ultras, as he tried to stay away from prying eyes.

But he felt it was important as he looks to hit the ground running next season, and close the gap on former Hearts team-mate Robbie Neilson on the other side of the capital.

“I’m really looking forward to going up against Robbie. I’ve not heard from him yet but I was going to send him a message saying ‘I’m coming for you Curly Top!’

“I know the rivalry and it was a massive pull for me, to be honest. As a manager my derbies have been rubbish! My best one was Oldham v Rochdale. I wanted something like Newcastle. I wanted Bristol City v Bristol Rovers. But I know I’m going to get a proper derby here. I thrive off that.

“I want to win, I want to compete and I want to deliver back to the fanbase and prove my worth.

“I like to think that my experience but also my resilience - that I’m big and ugly enough to cope with big pressure - will help.

“I genuinely have a love of Scottish football because of the passion and the history that goes with it and it feels like being home because of the people - they’re much nicer up north than down south. But this is a massive opportunity.

“My idea of success is to be competitive at the top echelons of the league on a regular basis.

“I totally agree that the European places are up for grabs and we want to fight in cup finals.”


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