Lee Johnson reflects on 365 days as Hibs boss as he reveals 'biggest regret' and next season's target

When Lee Johnson is informed that it is precisely 365 days since he was appointed manager of Hibs, his first reaction is one of surprise, followed by the mock-indignant query of: ‘Where’s the flowers, then?’ followed by a grin.
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It has not been the easiest 12 months on or off the pitch for Johnson and the Easter Road side. He knows he got things wrong in the early days of his tenure, but has tried to learn from his mistakes to the benefit of the club.

“The cups were disappointing this season. You always feel that Hibs have a chance in the cups, you win a couple of games and you are in the semis,” he says, looking back on the early exit from the League Cup and Scottish Cup.

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"Do I think I got it wrong? I could go back to my team selection in that first half at Falkirk. Bad decision. I probably tried to treat it like a pre-season game and give everyone a shot and we were 1-0 down at half-time. I changed the team, we pummelled them in the second half, but that was probably the reason we didn’t get through in the League Cup – well, apart from Derek mucking [Rocky Bushiri’s suspension] up!

Lee Johnson reflected on 12 months in post as Hibs boss as he previewed the visit of Rangers to Easter Road on SundayLee Johnson reflected on 12 months in post as Hibs boss as he previewed the visit of Rangers to Easter Road on Sunday
Lee Johnson reflected on 12 months in post as Hibs boss as he previewed the visit of Rangers to Easter Road on Sunday

“Going into next season I feel much sharper in terms of the way it works and the dynamics in Scotland. We hope we’re not in the early rounds [of the League Cup] this year because we’re in Europe. That remains to be seen but if we are, we are much better prepared and ready in terms of structure and going for pre-season and into those European games.”

Johnson wasn’t appointed until the end of the season but did attend a handful of Hibs games as the season wound down. He was in the crowd for the away defeats by Livingston and Dundee, heavily disguised to avoid detection as he cast an eye over the players, but he wonders if things might have been different if he had been brought in before the curtain came down on the previous campaign.

"Looking back now, I think maybe the club knew they wanted me a little bit earlier than they gave me the job. Dave [Gray] oversaw the last few games and it might have been ideal to get that new manager in tenure that little bit before. Then you could have a bit of an earlier look and summer prep. Maybe I could have been in the door a couple of weeks earlier and maybe that could have set us up better,” he muses.

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“Would it have been different had I started earlier? Well you know a bit more about the individuals, don’t you? The early games were trial games, in my mind. We had the pre-season trip away and the trial games, because don’t forget how early the season started. That bamboozled me, to be honest. If the League Cup was an opportunity for silverware, and it’s important for a club us, then we should have been in for a month before that, minimum. Then I’m looking at there being no fourth official on the side – what is this?

“The cups were a lesson for me, and that’s probably the biggest lesson in that year so far. I know we had a difficult game against Hearts, we want to beat our local rivals in a game at Easter Road. So probably my regrets are the cups in terms of me getting that first one wrong, and not winning the game against Hearts.”

Hibs may still be chasing European football this season, with three matches remaining, but Johnson is already looking ahead to this time next year, when he hopes to be close to securing qualification for continental group-stage football. The Capital club could manage it this summer but you suspect it would be a tall order.

“I’d really like to get into the European Group Stages and have an impact on that next season,” he continues. “I feel like this is a good, historic club that should be competing on European nights more often than they have done over the last ten years. The group stages are important because of the finances. We know the club is investing; we have a fantastic family ownership with the club’s best interests at heart. They want to do it in the right way as well, which I like and have bought into. So there’s a carrot there to go and be successful.”

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Johnson is also braced for some awkward conversations with his family on the subject of down time, given the quick turnaround between seasons.

"The wife is not happy,” he explains. “We normally get six weeks down in England but she asked how long we’ve got this year – er, 16 days! My daughter is doing her mock exams as well and that takes it down to about six days, so Center Parcs it is!”

Winger Chris Cadden, who signed for Hibs in January 2021 and has already experienced three permanent managers and one caretaker boss over two spells, is enjoying a sense of continuity, with Johnson having lasted at least three times as long as his predecessor.

“It’s great to have stability and since the manager came in he’s put down his philosophy and what he wants us to do,” he adds. “The boys have really bought into it. Because it was a young group it was always going to be a bit up and down but we are in a good place just now. There’s been a lot of lows and a few highs as well but to be in the fight for Europe is what we want. A club like Hibs should be in the fight for Europe at the end of every season. You should have big games and be fighting for third or fourth. We will enjoy the challenge.”