Hibs boss Lee Johnson opens up on health scare - 'I was curled up in a ball on my office floor in agony'

Lee Johnson giggles as he reflects on the final week of August, which culminated in the Hibs manager lying on a hospital operating table for four hours while his colleagues at East Mains thrashed out the terms of not one, not two, but three transfer deadline day deals.

“When I came round after the operation, I made three phone calls to find out what had gone on, and then I made the same three phone calls because I completely forgot I’d made them."

The 41-year-old laughs at the memory but hasn’t ignored the more serious side of his health scare. He has returned to work full time and is undertaking pre-match media duties for the first time for nearly a month.

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He is relieved to be back, and reckons the enforced break has done him a world of good.

‘The break has been good’

“Although I’ve still overseen and themed and helped design, just to have the reflection time to look at the club and not just the team has been good,” he explains.

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"I’ve had a lot of really good meetings this week; five hours with Ron [Gordon, executive chairman] on a zoom with Ben Kensell, Ian Gordon, and Derek White, and a technical board meeting with the academy for three hours. Really good, solid, sound strategy meetings.

“Sometimes when the games are thick and fast you can’t see the wood for the trees because you are in the mix, daily. So I’ve been drip-feeding myself back in terms of those strength levels.

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Lee Johnson returned to media duties for the first time in nearly a month as he previewed the visit of Aberdeen

“I was still in control; I was texting during the Kilmarnock game – although I was 45 seconds behind on the feed, so a bit late with my suggestions!"

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Some detail has been shared by assistant managers Jamie McAllister and Adam Owen about the nature of the surgery but Johnson is eager to start at the beginning and give a full debrief.

“Generally I’ve been in very good health. My dad had a quadruple heart bypass so I’ve always been on that in terms of blood pressure, cholesterol, that type of stuff,” he begins.

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“The one positive is that I lost 17lbs over the period. I was in the gym and losing weight, then I had a blow-out, six or seven pints and a curry, and that was what sent me under.

Johnson returned to the training ground to put his squad through its paces ahead of the resumption of Scottish Premiership action
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“It was a four-hour op. Normally it’s a one-hour op. I had a perforated and infected gallbladder and there were gallstones in there too; I had inflammatory levels of 103 and the maximum should be five… I should have been in A&E on the Monday or Tuesday.

"I’m in a much better place health-wise than I was before I went in.

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“Being a football manager is highly stressful and you often put yourself second. You have to be in good shape physically and mentally, and be ‘self-first’, not selfish.

“This was a livener to say, ‘you’re not invincible’. I’ve been managing for ten years; you tend to think you’ve been through a lot and can cope.

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Johnson shares a joke with Ryan Porteous on the training ground at HTC

“But if you don’t have your health, you’re no good to anyone.”

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Transfer deadline day

So how does a team needing to make signings operate on transfer deadline day if the manager is, well, being operated on himself?

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“Before I went to hospital I was in my office curled up in a ball on the floor because I was in agony. Someone would knock on the door and I’d act like I was all right and as soon as they’d gone I’d go back to curling up in a ball,” Johnson recalls.

“You just keep trying to do your job. I couldn’t have timed it any worse with that week, though."

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By all accounts Johnson was making mischief in hospital, where the rules on mobile phone use are notoriously strict.

Johnson with Hibs club chaplain Derek Lamont
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"I was taking calls as the anaesthetist was about to put me under, and trying to make decisions on Harry McKirdy,” he laughs.

“In one sense you want to say, ‘f*** off, I’m in agony here’ but in another sense you know it’s important

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“When you’ve got a leader who makes decisions and all of a sudden someone else has to, it’s not easy.

“Will Fish was a good example. I can’t remember if I did or didn’t sign him. Apparently I did, but I couldn’t remember because I’d just come out of theatre.

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“It was a bit crazy but the show must go on no matter what happens.”

Presumably Johnson was welcomed back to HTC with open arms and the well wishes of his playing squad?

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Martin Boyle said, ‘gaffer I’m superstitious, can you not come next week as well?’

“Lovely. I bring him back from the desert, give him everything he’s ever wanted, play him in every minute of every game, lose an organ, and he’s chucking that at me. It shows you their ruthless banter,” he replies with a wry smile.

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Aberdeen clash

Johnson will return to the dugout for Saturday’s visit of Aberdeen, a hotly-anticipated match between two teams seeking to put last season’s woes behind them and enjoy a better campaign.

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The Hibs boss is eager for his side to build on the win against Kilmarnock last time out after last weekend’s trip to Dundee United was postponed in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s passing.

“It’s been a decent period for us. I always want to play games; the team was ready and it was an opportunity to put points on the board,” Johnson adds.

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“Saturday is a different game but in another sense the build-up is like a cup match because a win validates all the good work against a strong rival.

“In any one game anything can happen. We’ve seen that in our favour with sendings off, and to our detriment with poor form, bad decision-making, or brilliant opposition goals.

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“In a game like this, with a relatively new group, we have to validate the work we are doing. We do that more than anything by getting the three points.”