Johnson driving City upwards after last season's survival - Interview
Friday, 22nd Dec 2017 11:52 by Clive Whittingham
Last season Lee Johnson as under pressure during a long run of defeats, now his team is third and in the semi-finals of the League Cup despite losing its top scorer - the Exiled Robin explains how.
How and why have you gone from a season of struggle to a promotion push?
ER: I think a lot of the signs were there last season. We actually had two very good spells last season, from August to October, and from March to May - it was just the four months in between where we couldn't buy a win that was the problem. But I remember saying at the end of the season we'd shown our potential by thrashing Huddersfield 4-0, Fulham 4-0, winning at Brighton, leading 2-0 at Newcastle and more, so there were certainly plenty of green shoots.
It seems as if a 5-0 defeat at Preston in March was the turning point - Johnson stopped fiddling around with the team and formation, put his faith in players he felt he could trust and it's gone from there. Nathan Baker has been a great, solid addition at the back, Joe Bryan, Aden Flint and Korey Smith are finally reproducing their League One title-winning form at the higher level consistently, and we've been building a mini-squad of pacy, skilful attackers who now have the base behind them to show off their talents fully.
Without Tammy Abraham people wondered where the goals were going to come from, why hasn't it mattered?
ER: Yes we all did too. Two main factors, really. Firstly, Bobby Reid who'd played something like 150 games in midfield was switched to a striker in pre-season, which we all thought was an odd, temporary measure, but it's like he was born to play there. He's got ten goals and his terrier-like qualities and touch unsettle many of the back fours in this division. All credit to Johnson for that move.
But, apart from that, goals have started coming from throughout a team playing with more freedom and attacking spirit than before, helped by Wright, Flint and Baker keeping things tighter at the back. Flint, Bryan and Paterson have all contributed a few each, and even Marlon Pack got in on the action last weekend and he never scores! Some cynics would say it's because they all want their latest GIF to be shown off to the watching world!
We also keep going and look to be fitter than most teams. We've scored more goals in the last 15 minutes of games than anyone else, and never seem to settle for a draw. We were at Sheffield United recently, drawing 1-1 away against a fellow contender and in the 91st minute our centre-half pops up at the back post from open play to score the winner. Says it all.
Lee Johnson was under immense pressure during that terrible run last season, what's changed and what's the attitude towards him now from supporters?
ER: Well, results naturally. Ultimately for many fans that's all it's ever about, but thankfully the board saw what was being built - and also believe in everything else Johnson is doing off the pitch to grow the club. It's not just about match-day any more, it's about the infrastructure, developing the academy, adding the right technology to games and training to optimise performance....lots of buzz words fans don't often like, but it's working and the board are 100% behind it, and him. His attention to detail is incredible, an example being he's built a club-specific app that all the players use on a daily basis to analyse performance, opponents etc.
Ultimately though, all this stuff would be rubbished and ridiculed if you were third from bottom and not third from top...
Do you expect this push to be maintained or is it likely to fall back slightly in the second half of the season? You started last season well too...
ER: Will we finish second or third (Wolves will win the league)? Possibly not, but there doesn't look to be any way we'll fall away like we did last time. We've only lost four games in 32 (since that defeat at Preston I've mentioned) so we've got longevity and are clearly tough to get a result against - ironically two of those four defeats have been to Birmingham who have beaten barely anybody else. Our record against the other clubs in the top seven is four wins and two draws, so things are looking very promising indeed...
Stand out players and weak links in the side?
ER: Stand out players are everywhere. Wright, Flint and Baker at the back, Joe Bryan has been outstanding and this is likely to be his last season in the Championship, one way or another. Bobby Reid up-front, Josh Brownhill, Korey Smith & Marlon Pack swap around roles in midfield seamlessly, Jamie Paterson and Callum O'Dowda are dangerous out wide...it's been great to see such a team effort producing results.
But we've got six first-team squad members injured which means we've often got a 'winger' playing up-front with recent midfield convert Bobby Reid and a centre-back playing right-back in Bailey Wright. Not that it's looked weak particularly (we've won the last four games) but those sort of stop-gap situations rarely work well forever. The main issues we've had this season is in breaking sides down when they come to defend - we've drawn 0-0 at home with both Millwall and Burton so something else is needed, somewhere? Perhaps a different, more creative type of central midfielder but then you have to leave out some really solid performers. I guess it's a nice problem to have.
Likely to be some money in January to push on further? Who or what would you go for?
ER: Undoubtedly there will be money available if we want to spend it. We're very fortunate to have an owner who backs the judgement of Johnson and CEO Mark Ashton - who in turn make a big play on their processes and system around the transfer market, so they'll have had eyes on certain players for the last 6-12 months and will be picking who they want to go for. Our afore-mentioned lightness up-front could be solved by Hugill at Preston, who would be a likely target even if it might take £10m to prise him away. Liam Walsh from Everton looks to be a target and could solve the creative gap in the centre of midfield, and we will probably look to loan in a right full-back to cover Wright, who is cover himself. But in all likelihood there will be players incoming nowhere near our radars.
The Twitter @loftforwords, @theexiledrobin
Pictures – Action Images
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