How Lee Johnson Transformed Bristol City into Promotion Contenders and Giant Killers

"Relentless in the pursuit of excellence."

These are the words Bristol City's players will see as they walk down the tunnel at Ashton Gate on Tuesday (January 23) to face the mighty Manchester City, when excellence will be the least required if they are to reach the League Cup final on February 25.

They are the words manager Lee Johnson lives by. He became the youngest manager in English football when he took over at Oldham Athletic aged 31. Now he is at Bristol City, aiming for promotion to the Premier League.

Having beaten Watford, Stoke City, Crystal Palace and Manchester United on the way to the League Cup semi-final this season, Johnson has shown his team are more than capable of competing against Premier League opposition.

In the first leg on January 8, Bristol City narrowly missed out on a draw and proved that Manchester City's dominance can be challenged. The Robins' adventurous tactics impressed Guardiola so much so the two-time Champions League winner commended Johnson for providing better opposition than most in the Premier League. Pundits and critics, such as former England and Liverpool striker Michael Owen, advised teams from the top tier to take note of how attacking football could be effective against Manchester City.

The buoyant mood around Ashton Gate has been tempered in recent weeks with five consecutive defeats in all competitions, which have seen Bristol slip out of the Championship's top two. Yet Johnson's side remain promotion contenders, currently in the play-off positions and five points off Derby County in second. Thanks to a strong start this season, Johnson was named Championship Manager of the Month in September after going on an 11-match unbeaten run. But faith in the boss wasn't always this strong.

Lee Johnson and Pep Guardiola
Lee Johnson, left, and Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, January 9. Guardiola praised Johnson and Bristol City after the first leg of the League Cup semifinal. PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty

In January 2017, Johnson had to move house with his wife and eight-year-old daughter after receiving death threats following a poor run of results. From late October 2016 to early March 2017, Bristol City recorded just two wins from 22 league games, and fans were calling for Johnson's head. But the board stuck by him, and majority shareholder Steve Lansdown, the fourteenth richest club owner in England, kept the faith. In a season when 13 managers were sacked out of 24 Championship clubs, Lansdown's decision proved that stability can yield results, as Bristol finished three points clear of relegation.

Following that awful run, Johnson changed the backroom staff and restructured the club by building a new ethos—marginal gains, meticulous methodology and a versatile structure in which confident football is fundamental was implemented.

This included measuring the length of the grass before playing, using drones to monitor training, and Johnson learning French to communicate more effectively with his players. He is intent on using everything possible to better his team's chances of success, even creating an app to collate statistical information and communicate it effectively back to his charges.

From fans demanding his resignation less than a year ago, Johnson has turned the club around and the support has grown as the results have gone Bristol's way. Enhanced by a £45 million stadium redevelopment, the average crowds at Ashton Gate are amongst the biggest in the league. But the travelling support is also evidence of the appreciation for the positive style of football, breaking the away attendance record at the Etihad Stadium earlier this month when 7,860 fans made the 350-mile round trip.

The obsession to detail and constant desire for small advantages that has produced these results stems from the manager he most admires and strives to emulate: Pep Guardiola.

"The amount of energy he puts into the tactical side of the game, he's just relentless," said Johnson. "I'm not saying I'm on Guardiola's level but the thought process is the same, I'm trying to do everything I can to be the best I can be and Bristol City can be."

Lee Johnson and Pep Guardiola
Lee Johnson, left, and Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium, Manchester, England, January 9. Johnson's meticulous planning has transformed Bristol City in promotion contenders. Alex Livesey/Getty

This modern approach may stem from his age, but 14 years as a professional player also gave him a wealth of experience. He started at Arsenal's youth team in 1998 before representing the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion, Derby County, Chesterfield, Hearts and Kilmarnock. The majority of Johnson's career was spent at two clubs though—Yeovil Town and Bristol City.

At Yeovil, Johnson won promotion twice and was named player of the year three times. For Bristol City, he was part of the side that won promotion into the Championship in 2007 and came close to the Premier League a season later, losing the play-off final to Hull City. His father, Gary Johnson, who managed him at both West Country teams, was crucial to his success.

As the man who led them to the cusp of the Premier League ten years ago, Johnson Sr is steeped in Bristol City history. Now manager of Cheltenham Town, Gary, 62, has been in the backroom business for 30 year. While delighted by his son's quick progression, he is far from surprised.

"Lee was always an information sponge, even as a youngster," he told Newsweek. "He's had a front row seat with me, he's probably taken the best from me and the best from other managers he's been under and put that all together."

It is his son's honesty and personality, Gary says, that encourages Johnson's players to believe in his ideas. "I don't think he's an actor," Gary notes."If he's angry, he's angry, and if he's happy, he's happy.

"He trusts the boys he's got there now, which is a massive thing for a manager, and they obviously trust him because they're putting into practice exactly what he's asking them to do."

"The players have all bought into the philosophy, the psychology and the tactics of it. He's got 11 men that are not stars in themselves but they are team players, they've got a team energy, a team spirit."

So, what would Gary's wise words be ahead of the second leg? "Lee would never ask me for advice going into it, but if he did, the first thing is you've got to enjoy being a manager in that type of game," Gary said.

"Plenty of energy, play your game, and see if you can affect a top team.

"If they get their game right they will have a chance—albeit a slim chance—but they will have a chance of getting through the tie."

Whether Bristol produce another cup shock or not, Johnson's team have proved themselves worthy opponents to any Premier League team. The second leg of the semi-final at Ashton Gate will be Johnson's hardest test to date, but one thing can be assured—he will learn from whatever happens, build on the experience, and work doggedly to better Bristol City's chances of success. And, of course, he will be relentless in his pursuit of excellence and the Premier League.