There’s been a fair few occupants in the manager’s chair at Bristol City since I made my very first visit to Ashton Gate way back in December 1961 – the Robins walloped Notts County 6-0 by the way, and I was hooked.
Fred Ford was City’s boss back then, probably one of the better managers they’ve had, with his finest hour coming on April 24, 1965, when promotion to the Second Division (Championship) was confirmed. And Fred was unlucky not to take them up to the top flight the next season, just three points separating them from runners-up Southampton.
Of course, as the only manager in living memory to actually take them up to the top flight, Fred’s successor, Alan Dicks, has to be an odds-on bet for the best Bristol City manager award.
Another right up there with the finest is today’s Memory Lane guest, Gary Johnson, who brought success to the Gate with promotion to the second tier and came so very close to emulating Dicks’ achievement in getting City into the top flight. And I haven’t forgotten the superb job he did at Yeovil Town.
“Losing to Hull City in the play-off final was the most disappointing game of my life,” said Gary, when I met up with him at the recent Harry Dolman book launch. “For various reasons, it just wasn’t our day.” But more of that later.
Born in Hammersmith, Gary was an apprentice at Watford, signing as a professional at 18.
“Mike Keen was the manager at the time and I think I was one of Elton John’s first signings!” he explained.
Released without breaking into the first team, Gary tried his luck in Sweden, joining a Malmo side managed by a certain Bob Houghton.
“Roy Hodgson was out there as well, so there was a future Bristol City link way back then,” pointed out Gary. “I think I was one of the first English players to go out to Sweden and I stayed for just under a season, a great experience.”
Return to England
Returning to the United Kingdom, Gary played for Soham Town Rangers, Newmarket Town and Cambridge United, who were still non-League at the time.
“I’d built up a successful football coaching company, with soccer schools and so on. It went very well and was quite big at the time,” Johnson said.
Gary first dipped his toes into the piranha-filled waters of football management when he agreed to become player-manager at Newmarket Town in the Eastern Counties League. “I loved it. Lovely club, lovely people,” said Gary.
His success led to him being approached by ambitious Cambridge United, who persuaded him to become reserve team boss.
“I was assistant to John Beck, initially looking after the youth and reserve teams, then I also took on commercial manager, which meant my position was full time,” he said.
Cambridge United, having risen from non-League to the Football League, were a side on the up.
“We won a couple of promotions, got to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup and made the semi-finals of the play-offs for the top flight,” pointed out Gary. “It was funny, because when we were on that winning run, being a bit superstitious, I didn’t get a haircut – by the end of the run I looked like Max Wall! It was a tremendous achievement to get little Cambridge United that far.”
Gary had a short spell as interim manager, before being persuaded to take the reins at non-League Kettering Town. “They were very ambitious, with aspirations of getting into the Football League,” he said. “We fell just short the first year and then, the second year, the chairman ran out of money and wanted to go part time. As far as I was concerned, it was time to leave.”
After Kettering Gary became head of youth and then first-team coach under Graham Taylor at Watford, before he had an offer he couldn’t refuse, manager of the Latvian international side.
Latvian and Yeovil Town
“It was too good an opportunity to turn down,” he explained. “OK, they were never going to win the World Cup, but a number of excellent players came through and it was a fantastic two years.”
After returning home, Gary was about to go on holiday with wife Caron when he was invited to go and talk to Yeovil Town.
“We were about to go on a cruise,” explained Gary. “And, to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know where Yeovil was!” But Gary went, talked with chairman John Fry and the Board, liked what they had to say and agreed to take the job. “Then we went off on our cruise!” said Gary.
Still non-League back then, Yeovil won the FA Trophy and finished third in the Conference in Gary’s first season. The following year, the team, painstakingly built by Johnson, won the title by a country mile and scored over 100 goals.
The town was ecstatic. After years of ups and downs, Yeovil Town had finally achieved the dream of Football League status.
And the dream wasn’t over. After just missing out on the Division Three (League Two) play-offs by goal difference, their second season in the League saw them claim the title, scoring some 90 goals in the process.
Sportsmanship and Bristol City
It was during that season that Gary Johnson’s sense of fair play was demonstrated to the full. Entertaining Plymouth Argyle in a League Cup game at Huish Park, son Lee accidentally scored after attempting to play the ball back to the Argyle goalie Luke McCormick, who had kicked the ball out of play because an injured player needed attention. Unfortunately, McCormick was way off his line and Johnson, jnr’s, ‘pass back’ sailed into the net. The ref had no option but to signal a goal, but in an extraordinary display of good sportsmanship, Gary told his team to allow Argyle to walk the ball into the net from the kick-off to level the scores.
The game ultimately finished 3-2 in Yeovil’s favour, with goalscorer Johnson claiming all three Glovers goals, albeit, one of which was never intended.
Having demonstrated his managerial expertise at all levels of the game, Gary was now very much on the radar of a number of clubs. In the summer of 2005, the chance to be the gaffer at Derby County was turned down, but, closer to home, Bristol City were about to come calling.
The season had started badly for the Robins and, seven League games into the campaign, a 7-1 hammering at Swansea spelt the end of Brian Tinnion’s reign as manager. Few, if any, Football League managers can survive such a massive defeat.
“City were struggling and had just had that bad result at Swansea,” recalled Gary. “Brian Tinnion left and the club wanted me to take over. I was keen, Bristol City are, with no disrespect, a much bigger club.
“Yeovil agreed to let me go with City paying them compensation. Funny isn’t it? I was worth more as a manager than I ever was as a player!”
Looking to stop the rot, Gary soon put his own footprint on the job, weeding out players he thought weren’t doing it and making good use of the transfer market to bring in new faces, such as David Noble, Bas Savage and Liam Fontaine, to turn the side’s fortunes around.
It would get better for the Robins the following season, with promotion followed by that so near, yet so far push to the Premier League.