Born on this day in 1981 is football’s answer to David Brent, former Sunderland manager and expert in philosophy Lee Johnson.
Before coming to Wearside, Johnson had seen relative success with Bristol City. He went to Ashton Gate after spells with Oldham and Barnsley. At Bristol though, Johnson masterminded an EFL Cup run where they got all the way to the semis, defeating Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United along the way. It is testament to his excellent footballing philosophy that he could cause such a cupset.
He split opinion massively at Bristol, and it was there when he was first given the nickname of ‘Streaky Lee’. He revealed that after the signing of Matty Taylor from bitter rivals Bristol Rovers, he’d received death threats and was forced to moved house after his address was leaked online.
Despite this, he won the Championship Manager of the Month award for September 2017 after guiding the Robins to six undefeated games, scoring 13 times in the process. He became the longest-serving manager in the Championship until his exit in 2020, having been with the club since February 2016.
After five months out of a job, Johnson was appointed Sunderland manager- replacing the exciting, witty, fiery character that was Phil Parkinson. He was in the dugout on the afternoon despite only being announced on the morning; he was hardly to blame for that day’s 1-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic.
Fans immediately found videos of Johnson hosting PowerPoint presentations, using such technical jargon as POMO (Position of Maximum Opportunity). For a club that were used to straight-talking men such as Peter Reid and Mick McCarthy, this really was a left-field choice which signified the beginning of the Kristjaan Speakman era.
One of LJ’s first actions as Sunderland gaffer was to reinstate Aiden McGeady, the best player in League One who had been frozen out inexplicably by Parkinson. Even at about 50 years old, it was clear that Geads was still one of the best players to ever grace League One.
In his first half-season at Sunderland, he brought the first piece of silverware to the club since 1973. Sunderland had finally won at Wembley. Admittedly, it was the Papa John’s Trophy. Okay, it was behind closed doors. It was also against a sub-par Tranmere side who were in League Two. But it still felt like a memorable moment at the time, with everyone at home glued to their TV screens.
Johnson came to Sunderland with the club seventh in League One, and managed to salvage a promotion campaign and scrape into the play-offs. We fell at the first hurdle though, with a semi-final loss to Lincoln leading to a vocal minority calling for his head already. The gaffer was given a full summer and was backed in the transfer market though, bringing in the likes of Callum Doyle and Nathan Broadhead.
In the 2021/22 season, Johnson had shaped a young team that reflected his style of football and management. It was swashbuckling, all-out attack. It may look pleasing on the eye against clubs like Morecambe, who we smashed 5-0, but his refusal to adapt meant we couldn’t find any consistency.
We were humiliated away from home time and time again. Rotherham outfought us and won 5-1. Portsmouth dealt with the rain better than us and won 4-0. Sheffield Wednesday were more clinical and won 3-0. And Bolton was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A 6-0 hammering, and a deflated and soulless post-match interview, led to his sacking the following day.
The no-nonsense Alex Neil replaced him, and the rest is history. The one thing Johnson was proven right about was Defoe- one of the seeming reasons for his exit was his refusal to sign Jermain Defoe, who came through the door about five minutes after Johnson left.
Our new no-nonsense manager went 16 games unbeaten as we stormed through the play-offs and finally got out of League One, whilst Lee Johnson took his philosophy up to Scotland. He followed Jack Ross at Hibs, who seem to have their own philosophy of signing ex-Sunderland bosses.
Ultimately there were some high points under Lee Johnson, but winless runs meant we were never going to earn promotion. He does deserve credit for giving game time to young stars like Dan Neil and Elliot Embleton, although they were flogged throughout the course of the season.
In his first month at Hibs, he admitted to bending the rules in an attempt to sign striker Kevin Nisbet: “I probably illegally approached Kevin Nisbet four or five times! Kevin at his best he is a top player and one I've wanted to get hold of for a number of years."