It feels like only yesterday that former Sunderland manager Jack Ross was lifting the green and white scarf above his head, speaking of his pride at taking over at one of Scotland’s most historic clubs.
Ross, a similar appointment to Johnson at Sunderland, had arrived at Stadium of Light with bags of potential, but departed the club little over a year after two heartbreaking Wembley defeats and a frustrating knack of being unable to kill off games.
Sunderland’s biggest failure was appointing someone even less inspiring than Ross in Phil Parkinson, before realising their mistake and opting for Johnson.
To fully understand Johnson’s time at Sunderland, I will paint a picture of how the club looked in December 2020.
An emotionally scared fan-base was drained under Parkinson, though his departure and subsequent news that 23-year-old billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus was in the midst of gaining majority control of the club had offered a flicker of hope.
Links to the recently sacked Danny Cowley came and went, and at 11am on the day of our home game against rock bottom Wigan, the club announced a manager with a seemingly more modern approach to management. It was 39-year-old Johnson.
Sadly for Johnson, his appointment five hours prior to the game failed to give the side a lift, as they went down to a rather unlucky 1-0 defeat.
Bristol City fans had spoken fairly positively about Johnson, his attractive style of play and forward-thinking philosophy. Rather worryingly though, this nickname of ‘Streaky Johnson’ continued to be mentioned in conversations. It didn’t dampen enthusiasm for Johnson’s appointment though.
Despite not being many fans’ first choice, the consensus was that he had kept Bristol City in and around the Championship play-offs for a number of seasons, was young and had plenty of time to grow and develop.
His post-match interview after the Wigan match was full of modern management speak, using phrases such as ‘pomo’ (Positions Of Maximum Opportunity), though he nailed almost every flaw the fans had seen in the team for months on end.
He had also reintroduced fan favourite Aiden McGeady following a year-long sabbatical after a fall out with the previous manager. On balance, he made a very good first impression.
A week later Johnson and Sunderland would thrash top of the table Lincoln City 4-0. Three up at half time, the months of dour, direct Parkinson-ball had been replaced by an aggressive press and vibrant, energetic football. That afternoon, Sunderland were really good to watch.
Despite a three-week stoppage due to a Covid outbreak, we began to find our rhythm and went on an impressive 12-game unbeaten streak even with several injuries to key centre backs. We entered April in third place, three points behind top-of-the-table Hull, with two games in hand. And then the next streak happened.
An almighty end-of-season crash ended all hopes of an automatic promotion, as we conspired to win just one of the next 10 games. We limped into the play-offs with blind hope, before being put out by Lincoln City thanks to a first leg display which left us far too much to do.
A sizeable portion of the fans had seen flaws in Johnson by this point. His inability to stop a rot meant his ‘Johnson-isms’ had become tiresome, cliche-ridden rants of a man who resembled David Brent in tone.
The bulk of these concerns were laughed at by many outside of the football club – ‘you can’t just keep sacking managers’ was trotted out on a reel, and thus, Johnson remained in charge ahead of the new season. A raft of senior pros were allowed to depart as exciting new young stars such as Manchester City’s Callum Doyle indicated a change in recruitment.
Sunderland started the season like a steam train, with just two defeats in 12. Those who had called for the manager to stay had been vindicated. The football was free flowing and attractive, and Johnson had found a way to get the best out of former Ross County man Ross Stewart, who was – and still is – scoring at will.
And then came the next streak. Out of absolutely nowhere, we lost three games on the bounce, conceding nine goals in the process. Teams had worked out how despairingly open our back line really was. Johnson’s press conferences had once again become tiresome, sentences were strung together with baffling management speak which alienated many in the fan-base.
Then Johnson’s Sunderland went on seven-game undefeated run which ended in our best performance of the season, a 5-0 home win over Sheffield Wednesday which placed us top of the league heading into 2022.
But that 5-0 win did not signal consistency for Johnson as, yet again, we went on another losing streak out of nowhere, culminating in a 6-0 defeat to Bolton – a result which triggered his departure from the club. His departure certainly sparked a marmite like reaction on Wearside, at least at the time.
Ultimately the warnings which were sent from fans of his previous clubs followed him like a bad smell and put pay to his time at the club.
I cannot claim to know Johnson as a man, nor the inner workings of his coaching and man management. However, as a fan, Johnson’s time at Sunderland frustrated me more than almost any other manager in my lifetime. I bemoaned Jack Ross for his inability to learn from his mistakes, but the ‘pomo’ era at the Stadium of Light was another beast entirely. Johnson came with such promise, but failed to deliver when the going got tough.
Ron Gordon and the Hibs board may benefit from the Johnson he could have been on Wearside, if he can cut the streaks and move away from the alienating management chat. Make no doubt about it, there is a good manager in there somewhere.
The truth is, until our most recent appointment of Alex Neil, I had often questioned if sacking Jack Ross was the correct decision. Perhaps some Hibs fans were the same. Should we have been more patient, I often wondered.
Now, as my team head into a League One play-off final against Wycombe this Saturday, I have to tell you – with sharp shooting, straight talking Neil at the helm, I go into a Wembley showcase with confidence for the first time in decades.
I cannot say the same would apply if it was Johnson, but hopefully – for Hibs fans’ sake – he proves me wrong.