Lots of lessons for Lee Johnson – but does he ever learn?

One of the Sunderland manager's buzzwords is 'lessons' - but, as Graeme Atkinson explores, there is a wealth of evidence that those lessons have no effect on a manager who is almost ten years into his career

Lee Johnson’s managerial story begins in March 2013. He has just beaten 119 other applicants to secure the Oldham job. The initial mission statement for his first stint in charge?

Avoid relegation.

Undoubtedly, this was the footballing deep end. Not helped by being handed the sinking weight of a challenge left by Paul Dickov. Dickov vacated Boundary Park leaving the League One side two points from safety but with two games in hand.

For Johnson, then 31, the ask here was not insignificant. Given the time and the resources available perhaps it is fair to say it was huge.

To his credit, in respect of this particular challenge, we know he succeeded. Oldham finished 19th that year. Success, of course, is all relative. What constitutes a favourable outcome for one team does not necessarily match the ambitions of another. What may have been mission accomplished for the Latics, would be utterly apocalyptic for Sunderland.

Everyone has to start somewhere though. For any manager/head coach aiming to reach the top in football, the path can be erratic, but the overarching trajectory should always be upwards. Without wishing to sound trite, lessons need to be learned along the way, in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. For football clubs placed under their stewardship how else can longer-term success be achieved?

Unfortunately, and to this writer’s consternation, this is where the Lee Johnson chronicles reveal a reoccurring, worrying theme.

It was noted at the weekend, after repeating the same mistakes against Accrington as we did against Shrewsbury Johnson remarked that lessons needed to be learned.

Yet ‘lessons’ are not learned under Johnson.

Trawl back a little through his career ‘pages’ and when the storm clouds gather, it’s startling how frequent he makes the same “Lessons will be learned” statement. Perhaps that’s fair enough, after all, “Failure is success in progress’. What is most disconcerting though is the regularity with which this assurance then fails to result in a positive change of fortunes.

Take a look at quotes from his time at Bristol City following a poor run:

“I think the single biggest lesson was probably the simplicity needed to get across to the players.”
Johnson, May 2017

“That’s probably a lesson for me – I went with it, rather than saying ‘Hold on a minute, calm down a little bit.’”
Johnson, May 2017

“We have to learn our lessons and look forward.”
Johnson, December 2017

“The only things you learn from the past are the lessons that you learn from a loss”
Johnson, August 2019

“The biggest thing for the staff and the football club and the players, was that from the last international break, there’s been a lot of lessons learned.”
Johnson, October 2019

“We have not been good enough since the restart and we have to learn lessons from that”
Johnson, July 2020

Johnson was sacked by Bristol City in July 2020.

His dismissal followed four successive defeats and leaving them 12th in the Championship. It is clear then that for his last team nothing positive came out of his adversity. Johnson was unable to learn the lessons as opportunities to do so presented themselves.

The concern now is that Johnson is making those same remarks here at Sunderland, – that ‘lessons will be learned’ from the team’s failings. Like the Robins however, the Black Cats are seeing the same ‘streaky’ runs (apologies, there’s that word again), which for some, feels more likely to result in stagnation than progress.

Here are some of Johnson’s thoughts on the Black Cats’ troubles:

“We have to learn the lesson, but we’ve already had a couple of those lessons this season, such as the defeat at Portsmouth and then we’ve continued with the same pattern”
Johnson, 3rd November 2021

“We have to learn our lessons, and we have to learn them pretty quickly”
Johnson, 23rd November 2021.

“But if you look back at games like Shrewsbury, for example, or this one today where it is two points lost, then you have to learn your lessons.”
Johnson, 15th January 2022

Perhaps, even more worryingly, is the level of accuracy contained within a warning from the past. Like a prediction from Nostradamus, a Bristol City supporter set out a potted history of Johnson’s time with the club in 2020 on the Ready to Go message board, and it reads like an eerie premonition of what lay in store on Wearside.

Of course that was a different club, with different players and different expectations. Yet, what you may find difficult to argue with is many of the exact same recurring worrying details are now revealing themselves here at Sunderland.

We know what the common thread running through both teams is. Can we be confident that there will be a different outcome this time around?

Let’s not forget we have played some scintillating football this season and we are second in the league, albeit with teams having games in hand on us. Of course automatic promotion is still possible.

Yet, to achieve this it feels like Johnson has to do what thus far he has been unable to accomplish – help ensure his teams learn lessons from their mistakes.