Far be it for me to intrude on private grief, but what the hell: it’s Bristol City (1982) Ltd I’m writing about. We’re watching, in my case from a safe distance, an unusual state of affairs. A football team that has been in free fall for many months and has found itself, with only a few games to go, in a relegation struggle. Only one thing happens there: the manager gets sacked. Not this time.
My loyal reader will know that I am not City’s number one supporter. They are not my team, I don’t look out for their results, I don’t really care about them at all. I don’t waste energy in hatred and neither does their failure give me pleasure. Schadenfreude has its place, for sure, but I try to reserve it for things that matter. However, City retaining a manager who has lost the fans, or at least many of them, is something almost unique in football.
Lee Johnson was the up and coming manager when he joined the City. He started off well at Ashton Gate but the good start didn’t last. In recent weeks, City have found themselves in a relegation struggle. They have lost or drawn so many games they should have drawn or won, almost always late on. They rarely get a complete dicking but losing has become a habit, a hard habit to break.
I expected City owner Steve Lansdown to axe the manager. Much as his reputation has been founded on giving his managers a chance, the reality is that when things go wrong, the manager gets his P45, maybe a few games later than other managers have received. It looks very different now. Lansdown has shown not the slightest inclination to dispense with his manager. In fact, he sanctioned the signings Johnson requested in the transfer window and it is clear he is going to allow Johnson to lead the club for the rest of the season, regardless of where it ends.
Look around City in the League table and everywhere there are clubs who have sacked their managers in recent weeks. It is, of course, a gamble either way. I don’t honestly know the maths but my view over many years that sacking the manager at a time of crisis rarely works and even if it does, the problems re-appear soon enough. Lansdown seems to have taken the long term option. He plainly believes in his young manager and is giving him a much longer period to turn the team around. He has made a judgement that he could sack Johnson and bring in a new manager who would be stuck with Johnson’s players and unless he was a proven firefighter, it might not change a thing. And anyway, who is available?
Guiding a club into the league below is not something most managers want on their CV so that will rule out a large number of candidates. Then you are in the realms of looking at managers who are not currently managers. And then you ask a simple question: what is the reason they are not in work? The likelihood is they failed somewhere else.
Not for a second am I suggesting Lansdown is a sporting genius. It is surely not a coincidence that fellow Bristol Sport franchise club Bristol Rugby have struggled all season. Either Lansdown has been too close to the action or, as seems likely, too far away. I have no inside or even outside information about the way both clubs are run but given the enormous resources at their disposal – Bristol Rugby are one of the wealthiest clubs in England – Lansdown is more like King Midas in reverse, as the Hollies so memorably put it.
Sticking with failure in the hope that it will bring success is an interesting concept. If Johnson saves the City, perhaps the strength he will have gained will transform both his and the club’s fortunes. If they go down, Lansdown will need to appoint a new manager to take over the weakened remnants of a relegated team in a lower league.
I have no feelings, no emotions when it comes to City. My interest in their fortunes is just that: interest and not much of it. Lansdown made his billion plus quid from sources other than football. Never has that been more obvious.