Lee Johnson laughs at the domestic scene. “I’ve got one of those screens in my house where I can move the players like they do on (Sky Sports’) ‘Monday Night Football’,” he explains. “My missus is sat there watching ‘I’m a Celeb’ and I’m next to her moving the players about. I can do it with software called ‘Coach Paint’. I move the opposition in certain areas, put the lines on the screen, tag them, clip them. It’s crazy, really. I guess it’s an example of the obsession.”
The “obsession” is being a football manager; the manager of Bristol City, a “Premier League club in training” as Johnson constantly calls them who host one of the very biggest clubs, Manchester United, in the quarter-finals of the Carabao Cup at Ashton Gate. And they already have three Premier League scalps – Watford, Stoke City and Crystal Palace – on this cup run.
“Do you find it harder to be the challenger or the champion?” Johnson asks. “I just see when we play these Premier League teams we are difficult to play against and if there’s a chink in their armour we will find it because of our relentless nature.”
The 36-year-old is, himself, relentless. Johnson is a workaholic, who struggles, he admits to get the work-life balance, and a mix of “old-school” and very modern, a devotee of technology and how it can be used. For example, he points over my shoulder as we chat to one of the huge video screens that adorn the impressive, 27,000 all-seater stadium which the club’s owner Steve Lansdown has transformed at a cost of £45 million.
“I want one of those big screens at the training ground,” Johnson says. “So we can do live analysis. We can film it and put it up on the screen, which we can move around.”
Then there is the “app” which Johnson, regarded as one of English football’s brightest young managers, built for the players to have on their smartphones. “They wake up and have to fill it in,” he explains. “We video train with the ‘drones’, we have play-books. It’s just about that information, attention and making sure they are stimulated in everything they do. At first it was a cultural shift. We built the ‘app’ and some lads would look at it, some wouldn’t. And now they are all on it every day.”
It is, Johnson says, about the “buy-in”. “I would say I am quite old-school in my values with the demand on the players,” he explains. “I was probably the last of the old-school era that was built around fitness, running and beating the opponent mentally, physically. Going to depths.
“What they used to do, a little like the army, was to break you down to re-build you. The difference is that back in the day when I was doing it I was told to do it. Now you have to get that ‘buy-in’. I delivered a presentation at the start of the season and said ‘listen lads, my role is to be there for you and to make you the best you can be. Part of that is I’m going to have to push you which means you will be the fittest you have ever been and then play the best football you’ve ever played’. It’s about getting the buy-in and a lot of that is based on technology. They can see it; they want to see it.”
And there is more. Johnson spent 12 hours at the A+E department at a local hospital – to see how decisions are made under real life-and-death pressure – and has spoken to the SAS about how they operate. He is learning French, has a “thirst for learning”, he eventually wants to manage abroad and he recognises the multi-lingual nature of football.
“If I shouted the French translation of ‘press’ to (Senegalese striker) Famara Diedhiou he would look at me very strangely because that would translate as an ironing board press!” Johnson says.
I ask him whether it is also true that he measures the length of the grass before every away game. “I want to be open and honest with the media but I don’t want to sound gimmicky,” Johnson says. “Somebody spotted me doing that.” So is it true? “Yeah, and it’s not false but…” he says.
So why does he do it? “We like our grass at 23mm,” Johnson explains. “But if it’s at 27mm and it’s a ‘Desso’ (a mix of grass and artificial fibres) pitch, it’s a different roll of the ball. Like at Norwich where we put the ball in behind them early and it stuck.
“And I go back to the era when my dad was assistant manager to John Beck (at Cambridge United) and that was the extreme when they used to put sand in the corners. It’s just about understanding and giving the players the best chance.”
It is the first mention of Johnson’s father, Gary, the manager of League Two Cheltenham Town, who underwent a triple heart-bypass in March, and Johnson is also the one to raise the word “nepotism” – given the former midfielder played for his dad at Yeovil Town and Bristol City.
“I always had to fight the nepotism,” Johnson says. “I was lucky to have a successful career, I think, for my genetics – I blame my parents for that one – given the fact that I am 5ft 6in and not blessed with unbelievable speed! But it goes back to getting the most out of what I have. I don’t know… I just think that I always had to prove something.”
It leads to him working so hard. “We won’t be outworked,” he says of Bristol City, flying third in the Championship with four straight wins after flirting with relegation last season when Johnson felt compelled to move home because of some of the abuse he received.
“I remember as a player there was an era where people used to call it ‘busy’ – ‘don’t be busy’, they said. And I used to think ‘I can’t believe that culture is allowed in football’. Because there I am doing my extra, trying to get everything out of myself and I am getting called ‘busy’. So that is something that is banned here.”
Facing United – and Jose Mourinho – is a bonus and Johnson will pick the brains of the United manager just as he has done the likes of Brendan Rodgers and Kenny Dalglish throughout his career.
The prize is the Premier League with the added motivation that Johnson got so close when he played for Bristol City, losing out in the play-off final to Hull City in 2008, when his father was manager. Johnson spent the final two months of the season, though, struggling with a damaged ankle.
“I suppose the ignition and the fire that’s burning still comes from when you were a small child and you wanted to lift the World Cup as captain of England and when that becomes unrealistic you naturally go to the next thing and that then becomes lifting the World Cup as manager of England. It doesn’t mean I expect to get there but it means that I will fight to earn the right to be in the mix,” Johnson says.
“I think it’s an important part, given my history as a player, and that game in particular was tough because that was a chance to realise the dream. The bit that disappointed me about that season was my (ankle) injury. I was out for quite a few games and I was never really right after that injury and just before it was probably the peak of my career. After that the ankle gave me ‘gyp’ for the rest of my career. I lost a little bit.”
There is no chance Johnson will be overawed by Mourinho. “Trust me. it’s war, it’s a war in that technical area,” he says. “You have to make sure that everyone knows you are there and to be taken seriously. I think that’s probably the side of me that people who don’t know me don’t realise that I am nasty as well to get a win. I don’t know if that’s a strength or weakness but as a player I would do anything to get an extra yard or the extra mental edge, whether that be in the tunnel or outside the tunnel, and I am no different now. We are certainly up for it.”