Anthony Johnson – The Joint Manager: Interview

[Originally featured in Liquid Football Magazine Issue One – January 2016]

For the football manager, regularly starting at a new place of work is part and parcel of the profession. But when Anthony “Jonno” Johnson and Bernard Morley arrived at Salford City a year ago, it was far from just another job…

Until a couple of years ago, Salford were just your typical non-league club – working with a minimal budget and with nothing but realistic ambitions of just ticking along. But all that changed, following a takeover of the club by Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers.

The Class of ’92 aren’t the standard millionaires that just buy a football club as a vanity statement, or in the hope of converting it into profit; these are football-men with football-agendas.

When it comes to club football, they’ve been right to the top, played with and against the best in the world. And they’ve won it all. But Johnson and Morley refused to be daunted by that fact. “We’ve always said nobody could put any more pressure on us, than what we put ourselves under” said Jonno. “The owners have unbelievable ambitions for the club, but they are ambitions that, we as managers, believe we can achieve ourselves”.

As well as having to get used to working under the high-profile owners, the new managers would also have to find a way to work around a film crew, who were following Salford’s season for a BBC documentary. Every move that they made would be under the microscope, there was no hiding place, not even in the dressing room. The resulting documentary ‘The Class of ’92: Out of Their League’ was aired in October and was well-received by the viewing public. But the duo themselves, and their strict approach, were heavily criticised on social media.

“I think it showed exactly what the nature of the job was at the time, we didn’t have time to put long-term plans in place. We needed to hit the ground running and placed enormous pressure on the players from minute one. If people want to judge us from two minutes of shouting within a dressing room environment then that’s fine. What we did and how we did it was part of a plan we felt needed putting in place, to get us to the top of the league”.

On the likes of Twitter and Facebook, the pair were branded ‘thugs’ (amongst other things), but for ex-military man, Johnson that particular approach is simply in his psyche. “I suppose you could say that the military side comes out now and again. I think it helps with how disciplined we are as people. We have ways of doing things that we have concrete beliefs in, and so far over the last seven years it has stood us in good stead. I also think our team and work ethic are always at one hundred percent. The players and staff are under no illusions as to how hard we need to work in training and in games”

But whilst some viewers criticised them, their methods did get the desired results. On their arrival, the team were in poor form and were sliding out of the promotion race. Jonno and Morley had thirteen games to steer the side back in the right direction. “There was talk about the club not even making the playoffs when we took over. But we felt that, with the players we could bring in, we could go and win ninety percent of our games; which we would have needed to do to win the league and, thankfully, we did”

Salford City had gained promotion to the Evo-Stik Northern Premier League Premier Division. The sacking of Phil Power was heavily scrutinised at the time, but the owners’ decision to take the joint-manager approach had paid off. But it isn’t a method that is used too often. Many people within the game claim that it cannot work long-term. “Look at our CV, look at our win percentage over seven seasons” Jonno responds. “Ironically though, the season we took over as managers, we both played for joint-managers, and it was a disaster. We’re very lucky how close we are off the pitch. As are our families. Our daughters were born within two week of each other too”

The young management duo have high-ambitions. “The Football League is the one and only aim. We want to be full time professional managers. We have managed for quite a while now and have had relative success. I think if we continue to work as hard as we are our aims and hopes will be met”. But the position of the joint-manager is something that is very rarely seen outside of non-league. “It more often than not, doesn’t work. I always think that once the pressure takes over, joint managers start disagreeing with one another in front of the team. We’ve never done that, you’ve got to be extremely secure in the relationship and be able to trust one another implicitly, which is what me and Bernard do”.

However, in the high-pressured environment of football management, disagreements over team-selection, tactics or on signing new players must occur every now and then, it’s inevitable. “Very rarely, and in the confinements of our own privacy. We both watch and scout all players, and if one didn’t particularly rate a player then we wouldn’t sign them. All players that sign for us have been agreed upon prior to signing. And when it comes to selection, it’s a case of which players are on form”

Working towards the Football League is not something that the pair have the luxury to work on full-time though. Until they do reach their target, it’s a case of having to split the time up between football management, and other, everyday commitments, such as family and the day job. “It’s the single hardest thing. When we started managing, I was twenty six and Bernard was only twenty five. I remember being told that football management at non-league level was for older, more experienced men, or men who were single. We broke the mould on both accounts, but I think that’s because we both had understanding wives who knew how important it was to us. I have three children and Bernard has two. Of course, at times, the family and day job get put on the back burner, which puts strain on every part of your life. The fact that we’ve been relatively successful though proves that we have made the right decisions more often than not”.

Despite having a strong desire to break into professional football, for obvious reasons, Johnson has seen non-league increase in popularity in recent years.

“The price of professional football is a disgrace and it has been taken away from the working class man. Non-league provides people with a community based club were supporters can actively mingle and speak to the players. That’s what I adore about non-league, watching fans talk to players about the game and general life”.

Although the club enjoyed promotion last season, there is no time for complacency. Currently sat second (at time of writing) in the division, a jump into the National League North for 2016/17 is definitely on the cards. For The Class of ’92, Salford City, Anthony Johnson and Bernard Morley, the journey has just begun.