Hibs next manager: Why Lee Johnson candidacy suggests hierarchy will adopt patience with next boss
Lee Johnson is not yet a certainty to be the next manager of Hibs but the Englishman is currently leading the pack after impressing the club’s board in his formal interview.
This came after a sit down with chief executive Ben Kensell and head of recruitment Ian Gordon. Others have still to be interviewed, but Johnson has now charmed key decision-makers at Easter Road on two occasions and appears to be the most likely candidate at this moment in time.
It would be an interesting selection by the club, and not just because he had a brief stint with Capital rivals Hearts as a player back in 2006.
Hired by Sunderland in 2020, Johnson was given a threefold remit by the new owners at the Stadium of Light: reduce the age of the playing squad, set out an attractive style of play, and develop younger players.
While there wasn’t a specific instruction around the age of the team, at least not publicly, this sounds a lot like what was expected of Shaun Maloney when he got the Hibs job – before he was fired 19 games later.
"It's interesting the previous manager didn't get a lot of time at Hibs, because one of Johnson’s key phrases is 'you've got to trust the process'. He wants to stick with things and see it through,” revealed James Copley of the Sunderland Echo, who witnessed Johnson’s time in the north east of England at close quarters.
"For me, Lee Johnson is not a short-term appointment. I think he's very much a manager who needs to build something. He's not the guy you hire for just a year or six months."
These words echo those of Bristol City blog One True Robin when asked by a Sunderland counterpart in December 2020 for their opinion of Johnson after four years at Ashton Gate:“Give him a chance... Patience is the key with him.”
Johnson even earned himself the nickname “Streaky” for his teams going on lengthy undefeated runs and then the opposite occurring not long after – much like the one-win-in-nine-league-games sequence which saw Jack Ross given his marching orders in December.
Either the Hibs hierarchy have failed to learn from their mistakes of the past or they’re committed this time to seeing a project through, taking the rough with the smooth in the hope of building a Hibs side capable of a sustained run in Scottish football’s European places. Perhaps there was something in Ross or Maloney they didn’t like and believe they have the correct man in their sights this time around.
In fairness, there’s more evidence to suggest Johnson will be a success when compared with Maloney’s arrival. Unlike his potential predecessor, the 40-year-old already has plenty of experience in management. He did very well to improve immediate fortunes at Oldham Athletic and Barnsley, which contributed to him returning to Bristol where he’d spent six years as a player (ironically after leaving Hearts).
The Robins would ultimately sack him after four years in charge, but it wasn’t a spell without success. He avoided relegation his first two years and then got the club up the top half of the English Championship. Furthermore, he did so with an exciting brand of football which One True Robin described as “fantastic, free flowing, quick and brilliant to watch”. While Maloney preached attacking play and set out his teams to try and replicate it, nobody at Easter Road in the last five months would describe what they were subjected to as “brilliant”.
Johnson is also a nice fit for Hibs in terms of his experience working with a transfer committee. Hibs have stressed the final say on signings is always that of the manager, but it’s still a positive to have someone in place amenable to working with others when it comes to recruitment. It’s a set-up similar to the one Johnson found at both Bristol and Sunderland.
No manager is without his flaws, however. Some of Johnson’s came to light during his last stop as he tried, and ultimately failed, to become the saviour taking the Black Cats out of League One.
"It was defensively that let Sunderland down,” said Copley. “He was sacked after a 6-0 thrashing against Bolton. He also had big losses away to Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham earlier in the season. Since Alex Neil has come in it's been more about defensive rigidity and he's managed to get more of a tune out of them.
"What I think stuck in the mind of Sunderland's owners was the exit to Lincoln City in the play-offs last term. They were two goals down from the first leg, managed to get that back at the Stadium of Light and then completely failed in the second half. So there was always this thing about Lee Johnson's sides defensively.”
Getting the fans onside will be key. His “history” with Hearts shouldn’t be an issue, though it will rankle with the support once the “agent Johnson” jibes start circulating from gloating Jambos on social media if the next campaign follows the pattern of the current one.
There are also some similarities with Maloney which may cause some concern. As Copley put it, Johnson’s answers could often “raised some eyebrows” but at least he’s not the type to tell the press his team played tremendously well when it’s clear to everyone in attendance that it was patently not the case.
"He's very honest, almost to a fault. He would try and answer everything and that would sometimes be to his detriment,” Copley added.
"He loves football and invests a lot of time in it. He's a deep thinker. He likes to talk about the game. I think sometimes he wants to sound intelligent about the game, which can sometimes lead to long-winded answers. But he's a very principled manager and a very principled man.”