BY MARK GODFREY
It’s been an eventful few months for Anthony Johnson. In April he and his long time management partner, Bernard Morley, celebrated guiding Salford City to promotion into the National League – just one step away from the promised land of the Football League.
What would ordinarily be an incredible feat – taking a club whose traditional home support numbered less than 150 five years ago but is now ten times that – is tempered by the well-publicised financial backing they’ve received in recent years from Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim and, more strikingly, five of Manchester United’s famous Class of ’92 – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil. Indeed, when the National League North title was secured, Giggs – head coach of the Wales national team and English football’s most decorated player – joined Salford’s squad to spray champagne all over the Moor Lane pitch in delight.
For Johnson and Morley, however, the party was brought to an abrupt end. Just a few weeks later, the pair surprisingly left the club having guided them to three promotions in four seasons. In an interview with The Non-League Paper on May 3, Johnson spoke excitedly about the prospect of taking on their next task with the Ammies: “We expect to win the National League. It’s all about winning and this club expects that. So there’s more pressure right there, but that’s what we want.” Less than a week later he and Morley were gone; ‘irreconcilable differences’ relating to personal terms, contract length and the performance of the team were cited as the reasons for the breakdown in the relationship between them and Salford’s high profile owners.
“Right from the day we took over at Salford we felt we would be with them all the way to the Football League – and I’m sure they’ll get there – and we still thought that after we won promotion. But to be honest, over the last six months the dynamics of the board started to change. There were certain things happening that made you think that perhaps things might be coming to an end. I think the best analogy would be when you’re young and you’ve got a girlfriend, after a while you just end up getting fed up with each other”, Johnson told The Football Pink.
“We weren’t yes men; we were passionate, but with the owners being who they are – some of the greatest players this country has ever produced – they wanted their own input into certain things so there were a lot of clashes. It didn’t make for a great relationship in the end. We’ve left on a high although it does bother me that we won’t be a part of it.”
As if having Manchester United legends as your bosses wasn’t high profile enough, Johnson and Morley featured prominently in the BBC documentary series Class of 92: Out of Their League that followed them closely through both their professional and personal lives. While Johnson freely admits to enjoying the experience, he feels it did reinforce perceptions about him and Morley that are sometimes a little unfair; “I loved it. How many managers of non-league clubs are followed round by the BBC cameras? We were doing a great job at Salford and it helped push that to a wider audience. On the flip side you get caught during your worst moments too, but that’s what a documentary is supposed to do.
“Are Bernard and I confrontational? Yes, we are. But it’s helped us get where we are today. We’re aggressive by nature, but when you have a pint with us after a game or get to know us you’ll see we’re normal people. But I won’t change who I am, and I’ll always stand up for myself. But I understand why people think a certain way about us and to be honest the documentary probably didn’t help. The season when we only lost 6 games they just showed us screaming and shouting all the time, so we’re perceived as bully boys, yet players love playing for us. At the time we had 6 or 7 who’d been with us for several years – so we can’t be that bad!” he continues defiantly.
After their shock departure from Salford City, Johnson and Morley were not short of offers and were soon back in work with National League North club Chester – the phoenix club risen from the ashes of Football League outfit, Chester City. The Blues suffered a woeful campaign and were relegated from the league above with several weeks to spare. Johnson is well aware of the task at hand if he and Morley are to return them to the fifth tier of English football at the first attempt.
“It’s a bigger job than Salford when you look at the ownership structure, the size of the fanbase and with it being a former League club. But these were the things that drew me and Bernard to Chester. It seemed a perfect fit at the perfect time.
“The minute we walked through the door and into a fans forum there were some doubters. We were telling them we were going to do this and do that, but they’re all just words in the end. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. First of all, we’ve got to change the mentality of the club – there was a lot of apathy around after the way they got relegated. We feel we can repeat the feat of last season (at Salford) and get promoted with Chester.”
So, does Johnson think that their recent achievements have been unfairly chalked up to the reported budget advantages they enjoyed with their previous employers?
“One hundred percent! During our tenure there, plenty of clubs had a bigger budget than we did – Darlington and York City for example, the latter had a budget of £1million. No one gives us credit for what we did; lots of managers have failed with a big budget. And we also had relative success at Ramsbottom United without any money and where the team dragged the club along because there was no infrastructure.”
So, rather than opening the new season on August 4th in the elevated surroundings of the National League, Johnson is preparing for a tough opening fixture with Spennymoor in a division he is very familiar with:
“We’re starting off against an excellent, well-established Spennymoor side with good players and a fantastic manager. It’s important for us to have the right mentality from the off. There is an imbalance in the squad which we’ve tried to address quickly but we’re a little bit behind, although we’ve had a good pre-season in terms of performances and results. Saturday is going to be something else though, in front of a big, expectant crowd.”
Johnson and Morley are well aware that Chester are prominent amongst the pre-season favourites for promotion but are equally as realistic – given their knowledge of the National League North – about their prospects in the face of a long campaign and ambitious opponents:
“The changes to the play-off system gives so many team an opportunity of going up, so unless you’re one of the few cut adrift fighting relegation, most of the division has something to play for all the way through the season. We’ve got to aim for the top 7 obviously and put a smile back on the faces of Chester fans, especially after what they went through last year. It’s a cliché, I know, but we have to make our home ground a fortress and at least win every other game to achieve what we want.”
It’s no coincidence that over the last two seasons, the top two clubs in that division have operated full-time squads and they dominate Johnson’s thinking in terms of Chester’s main rivals for promotion:
“York City, Stockport Country, Kidderminster Harriers are all going to be strong. After that there’s Alfreton under Billy Heath; Guiseley with Marcus Bignot; Brackley have been up there the last couple of years and have some momentum. Spennymoor can very easily make it into the picture and even a team like Blyth Spartans who play some brilliant football in the early parts of seasons. It’s about who can adapt best to the different conditions throughout the season. Being full-time is so much of an advantage because players can recover properly after games instead of having to go straight back into building houses or laying driveways and so on in their regular jobs.”
In terms of Johnson’s and Morley’s own unusual employment circumstances, a combination of proven success and the closeness of their relationship with one another means we’ll be seeing them together in the dugout for many years to come.
“I don’t see one of us working without the other, unless one of us just wanted to pack football in. I couldn’t just pack it in and go to work” Johnson admits.
“It’s our life, it’s all we’ve ever known and we’re best friends away from football, our families are too. We have an implicit trust in one another and that’s our greatest strength. I also don’t see why anyone looking to employ us would want to split us up given our record.
“As a rule, joint managers don’t work – there had been a similar situation at Ramsbottom before we took over and it was a catastrophe. But for us it’s such a simple process. I spend more time with Bernard than I do with my wife and kids – much to their annoyance. But if you’re going to be successful you have to live in each other’s pockets and build that bond. We’re very driven individuals and we push each other on.
“Are we a double act? Nothing’s ever talked about. We don’t sit down and have meetings and plan things out. We do have a big belief in delegation and let our trained coaching and medical staff take care of what they’re experts at. Bernard and I are good at overseeing these things and letting them get on with what they do best.”
Are they the 21st century equivalent of the Brian Clough and Peter Taylor partnership, where despite the unspoken symbiosis, an obvious hierarchy is at play?
“Any manager who’s successful needs a good right hand man. We don’t have that – we’ve got each other.”