Johnson's voyage from Suffolk to Wembley

GARY Johnson will lead out Bristol City at Wembley today looking to complete his voyage from the non-league to the Premier League and EADT chief football writer DEREK DAVIS talked to the former Newmarket Town manager about his incredible journey.

Derek Davis

GARY Johnson will lead out Bristol City at Wembley today looking to complete his voyage from the non-league to the Premier League and EADT chief football writer DEREK DAVIS talked to the former Newmarket Town manager about his incredible journey.

FOR Gary Johnson the seeds for Bristol City's success so far were sown at the home of horse racing some 20 years ago when he played and managed in Suffolk.

The lessons learned with the Jockey's at Cricket Field Road have stood him in good stead at Cambridge United, Latvia, Yeovil and now the Robins.

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Fulham-born Johnson was running a coaching school business when he was asked to help out at Newmarket and ended up playing and managing there. The opportunity gave him a knowledge that has seen him win promotion all the way through from the conference to League One with Yeovil and being on the verge of back to back promotions from League One to the Premier League with City.

Johnson took time out from the hectic play-off final preparations to tell me: “Newmarket started me off and I go back when I can. It is a great little club and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

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“It was more like spending time with your friends than just being team-mates.

“I learnt there about having a strong dressing room, how important that was and what that could bring.

“Enjoying the company meant you looked forward to training and match days.

“It is a long time since I left, but what I learned there has stuck with me and has followed me at every team I have managed.

“I have always looked to pick strong characters to play in my teams.

“At Newmarket some of lads worked in my coaching school so I got to know them as people as well as players and even though it was not as serious at that level, the lads appreciated the hard work that was needed and we had fun at the same time, even though we didn't win anything.”

Losing to Sudbury in the Suffolk Senior Cup was the nearest he came to silverware there but Johnson has more than made up for it since.

Just how strong his dressing room at Ashton Gate is was highlighted in November after a 6-0 thrashing by Ipswich Town at Portman Road. They looked anything but a side that would go top of the Championship and end up on the cusp of promotion.

It was the response of his players that convinced Johnson that City could go all the way when less than four weeks later City beat Town at home, and in fine style.

Johnson said: “It wasn't losing that worried me it was how we would respond. We had lost a centre-half through injury and had another sent off and Ipswich played very, very well that day and we were well-beaten.

“But it was the reaction in the dressing room that interested me and I got exactly what I wanted. The dressing room became even stronger and we knew we had to avenge that defeat, which we did.

“It was then that I thought we really had something and we could do something special.”

Something else born at Newmarket was his son Lee who will become the first player to be promoted at every level, and the Johnson's will be the first father and son team to achieve the feat - should Bristol deny Hull City their own bit of history today.

But dad insists nepotism plays no part in his son's success.

He said: “Loyalty plays a big part in any team being successful and a number of players have been with me over the years.

“Having your son in the team has its pluses and minuses.

“It is harder for him because he constantly ahs to prove himself better than everyone else because he is the manager's son.

“In professional sport the manager would not last long if he picked players for the wrong reasons and over such a long period of time.

“Take away the fact we are father and son, what Lee has done is remarkable.”

Understandably, as assistant to John Beck when Cambridge United were within a game of reaching the top flight only to miss out in the play-offs, Johnson has picked up a trick or two and he used his experience this week to settle his players ahead of the daunting trip to Wembley.

He revealed: “The biggest demotivation for players is all the hassle over tickets. So what we did was make sure we got them all sorted before we went on a little sunshine break after the semi-final.”

Visiting Wembley ahead of the game is now the norm and Johnson made sure his players were fully acquainted with the stadium he has been to in the past for the play-offs with Yeovil.

But the fear of the unknown does not faze Johnson who scoffs at those who worry that Bristol have come up to quickly and will struggle to cope in the top-flight.

“Let's get there and find out shall we? Only time will tell if it's too early and we will deal with that if and when we get there.

“We have already made plans in case and we have players lined up for if we get into the Premiership.”

Although settled in the west-country Johnson admits he still has a soft spot for this area, and many friends remain. Not only did he play

He said: “I always thought I would end up in East Anglia, either with Ipswich or Norwich.

“I'm fond of Ipswich and know people like Bryan Klug who is a fantastic coach. We used to kick lumps out of each other when he was at Stowmarket and me at Newmarket and I'm delighted he is doing well.”

Johnson actually played against the Blues once when he was part of a Trevor Brooking all-Star XI in Mick Lambert's testimonial that finished 6-5.

His Suffolk connection are string and if Johnson's Bristol win the richest game in football today, Newmarket can feel they have played a part in making history.

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