Chester FC

Anthony Johnson’s near-ten-year joint-managership with Bernard Morley has had its splash of fame and waves of ferocious intensity, though the true constant is a brand of trust far from commonplace. A guardian of the game’s offbeat and undiluted difference-makers, ‘Jonno’ is yearning for more of the forward momentum that has filled the pair’s post-playing path to date, with the former Salford City bosses seven months in at Chester FC.

It is nine-and-a-half years since Chester City tumbled out of the Football League, with their liquidation and subsequent reform as Chester FC (in the eighth tier) coming in May 2010. Promotions and progression came in the years that followed, but relegation after a turbulent 2017/18 sees them bidding to climb out of the National League North this season. They remain, however, one of non-league’s most evocative footballing names, with over seven decades of Football League history clasped away in there.

The Blues’ joint-gaffer, Anthony ‘Jonno’ Johnson, does not need that explaining to him, growing up as a Bury fan and youth player who, like many others, associates Chester with loftier levels. One of the ever-intriguing aspects of the game is how certain clubs and individuals suddenly meet on their respective journeys, perhaps placing a new badge on the chest of a player or manager synonymous with another side.

Although many in non-league will remember Jonno and Bernard ‘Bern’ Morley’s early and emphatically successful managerial years at Ramsbottom United, a famous takeover, a TV series here and there, and three more promotions for their CVs, means that Salford City are the club most now link them to. Their three-and-a-half-year reign as Ammies bosses, which was tumultuous at times but always progressive, came to an end shortly after they led the club into this season’s Vanarama National League.

Plenty were curious as to where they would resume their voyage. A week later, they signed two-year deals with Chester, and Jonno recalls how the time between the two jobs had been decidedly new territory for the two of them.

“I think the difficulty was understanding what our next job was. Do we drop a level? Do we take the first job that comes up or do we wait?

“It’s a weird journey we’ve been on, because the first two clubs we’ve managed, apart from Bury, they’re the two most local clubs to my house! When we left Salford, our stock was at its highest, so we had a decision to make, because you go into the next job and have a few defeats and everyone’s saying ‘oh, it was just because of the money at Salford.’

“We couldn’t win at Salford – if we won the league, which we did, it’s because of money, and if we didn’t win the league it’s because we’re bad managers. When we got a phone call about the Chester job, we thought ‘yeah, let’s go and see what they say,’ and in a sense, it was the perfect situation, because they’d just been relegated, they nearly went out of business, so what can we bring to the table that they’d not had for a few years?

“We sat down with them and they told us ‘we don’t want to be relegated again,’ and me and Bernard nearly stood up and walked out. We said ‘look, we’re not trying to sound overambitious, or trying to oversell us wanting the job, but what we don’t talk about is consolidation; we want to win every game and we want to win the league.’

“We might have waited for a job at a higher level with more money, or it might never have come. People might have looked at joint-managers as a risk, you don’t know.

“We’ve only ever had two clubs in nine years, so I felt at that time, with family life and it only being an hour away, it was probably the perfect situation.”

Anthony Johnson (left) and Bernard Morley (right) unveiled as Chester FC’s new joint-managers this summer. Photo: Chester FC

With Jonno and Bern having appeared in the odds for the job at League Two Carlisle United, and even as second-favourites for Chesterfield, however much substance lay in such speculation, their achievements had clearly put them right in the conversation. As well as the deeper backstory, Jonno was of course aware of the more recent course of events at Chester, with a well-publicised and frankly desperate appeal for funds to keep the club going last season.

The necessary £50,000 (and then much more) was raised, and local entrepreneur Stuart Murphy’s pledge of £1million investment over the next three years, set to be predominantly geared towards infrastructure improvements to increase club sustainability, was approved in June. There is no elimination of challenges to hurdle, however, and certainly no mega-budget to rip through.

Jonno and Bern had seen from afar last season how a fellow young manager in Marcus Bignot had been unable to ‘catch the deluge in a paper cup,’ a la Crowded House (more of such references later). Four months into their debut season, the Blues are right in the promotion mix, but Jonno admits there was more to learn about the club when they arrived.

“When we came in, we were well aware that it was fan-owned; I understood the concept but I didn’t quite get how passionate every single owner of the club was. Every supporter of a club sees it as their own club, but I think when you are one person one vote, and you have a genuine say on the future of your football club, I think it makes it all the more family-orientated.

“That was the overriding thing I got from the club, because I know it’s a cliché in football, but it’s a sleeping giant. You want to be the person that grabs hold of it and takes it back to its former glories, and hope to see 3 or 4,000 people come back through the door, because the one thing we know is they’re actually there; it’s a big city, Chester.

“It’s got to be driven in the right way before they jump on it.”

Fresh optimism comes with so many managerial appointments. Even with those who have suffered misfortune elsewhere, supporters will largely look toward what could be possible for the new man at their club.

Heavy reshaping of the Chester squad led into a bright start, but suffice to say, a result on 11th August was the proverbial ton of bricks coming down on them. As has been proven in the time since, Jonno feels it was a day that should be viewed more in isolation, despite regrettably acknowledging Chester fans ‘will never forget it.’

“I think the most important thing to know about the start of the season was we got beat by Blyth 8-1, and it came off the back of us being top of the league after two games. We’d drawn with Spennymoor and beaten Curzon 3-0 away; they’re two great results when you look at the table now.

“Two clean sheets, and we go to Blyth who hadn’t won a game and get beat 8-1; there’s no science or understanding of why that happened, it was just an absolute horror show from the goalkeeper to the three subs and Bernard and I included. It’s just one of them days where for the first time in ten years of managing we didn’t have an answer to it, and I’d like to think Alun Armstrong at Blyth didn’t either.

“For all the tough times we went through at Salford and at Rammy, nothing could get you ready for that. Then off the back of that, we had the storm damage and get told we wouldn’t be playing at home for a few weeks.

“We play Telford who were flying, they get two early goals, and I honestly thought ‘this could be another six or seven here, and where does it stand you?’ Thankfully, we held on a bit and ended up getting beat 3-1.

“It almost felt like a watershed moment for this group, at the end of that Telford game, despite it only being four games in. We didn’t have to sit down with the lads and say ‘look, what’s going on?’ because it came off the back of absolutely nothing.

“With the 8-1, it made it seem like we’d been on this terrible run, and with the storm damage, it just seemed to exasperate it. Let’s not get away from it, the 8-1’s the worst result Chester have had for 60 years, and the worst result me and Bernard have had in management, but it was just a result, it was one game and it didn’t define the season.”

Up to 4th in the table, Chester started this month with a 3-1 win at home to a team Jonno and Bern enjoyed many a clash with at Ramsbottom and Salford – Darlington. Ex-Birmingham City prospect Akwasi Asante bagged a hat-trick on his debut, scoring again last time out in the 1-1 with Stockport County, and the 26-year-old Dutch-Ghanaian Tamworth loanee is a talent Jonno and Bern are out to reignite.

In the beginning, after they had eventually convinced Ramsbottom chairman Harry Williams to give them the job, development pathways, coaching badges, transitions and all the rest were not in the thoughts. It essentially went as far as kicking some life back into something to enjoy with their mates.

Jonno celebrates Salford City’s 2017/18 National League North title success. Photo: @amjonno

What was not missing, however, was desire, and Jonno says he feels hungrier than ever as 2018 winds down. As with a player on a crusade to reach the top, that means searching for every possible extra he can do, which also means a constant conflict so many in the game can identify with – separating your two lives.

Expectations last season at Salford left no real margin for error, the strain of which weighed heavily on Jonno and Bern, even given the fact their personal targets were not a smidgen less than the club’s. We may know Jonno as a manager, but he is also a husband and relatively young dad of three.

He details the grapple between football and everyday life, ultimately coming to the assertion that it essentially boils down to a case of all or nothing.

“Some mornings, I’ll purposely get up at 5 o’clock just so I can watch one of our games back, because I know at half 7 the kids are getting up. Then it’s going to school, I know I’ve got the dog to walk, I’ve got my jobs I’ve got to do, my normal stuff I’ve got to crack on with.

“It’s every single minute of every single day football consumes you. My belief is that, we’ve had five promotions in I think seven seasons, and that isn’t luck.

“You get that from doing stuff that other people aren’t prepared to do and going that extra mile, so when I come home, instead of sitting down watching Coronation Street, I’m watching games on the iPad. We play Darlington tomorrow so I’ve watched their last four games this week.

“We’ve both been with our wives for 15 years and they totally get what me and Bernard want out of our lives, in terms of a job, a career, if you wanna call it that. I’m very fortunate that I’m with a woman who understands that I need this buzz, that ‘every minute of every day’ feeling of wanting to not lose.

“Me saying that to you is just words, but it’s what you do actually in the background; them long-suffering nights of missing taking my daughter to Brownies, or my eldest to athletics, or my youngest to swimming. I’m 36, and when I started managing in 2009 my oldest was four, and he’s now 14.

“The other two weren’t even born, so it’s always been here, the football management side of it. I came out of work in March last year to go full-time with Salford, and in my line of work there’s other things that you have to do, so to carry on doing the (wagon) driving you have to complete certain modules, and I haven’t kept up with that, because to be a full-time manager I couldn’t do other stuff.

“I go to schools coaching and giving talks and other bits, so I have other income, I’m not sat at home watching Jeremy Kyle. I’m not on the breadline, but I didn’t want to go back to work driving, because it’s a 12-hour-a-day job, and you can’t commit to the football.

“Being part-time at Salford and Rammy, it was a bit different, because they’re round the corner from you. At Chester, we’ve just been having hospital visits, taking toys in for Christmas, so it’s a massive club and you’re all in; you can’t dip your toe in and out of this career, if you want to make something out of it.

“My belief and ambition is to get to the top of the game. It probably won’t happen, I understand that, but if I don’t put everything into it then what chance have I got?”

As many managers throughout the game do, Jonno and Bern have built a core of players they know they can depend on. They signed several from Rammy after they went to Salford, one of whom was midfielder Gary Stopforth, and he joined them at Chester this summer.

Midfielder Gary Stopforth links up again with Jonno and Bern as he joins Chester FC for 2018/19. Photo: Chester FC

The former Blackburn Rovers youngster brought his unique personality (shall we say?!) when he featured on Non-League Daily earlier this season, including assessing how he has changed as a player over the years with this standout quote: ‘I think I’ve got physically better but technically shitter.’ Asked if he thinks Stopforth is doing himself a disservice there, Jonno gave an overwhelmingly positive summary of the Burnley native…for the most part!

“He’s been our best player this season. He’s the player who, the year before me and Bernard started managing, we played with him at Clitheroe.

“Bern and Gaz were two central midfielders, 2008, and we had a great side, so you think 11 years later, we’re managing him still, it just shows the respect from both sides. He’s left Salford, went and played at Stockport, ended up playing in the Evo-Stik League, and it’s no disrespect to that level, but he’s far better than that.

“I think Chester fans when they saw us signing a 32-year-old lad from Colne, they probably thought ‘what is that about?’ but he has been absolutely phenomenal. He makes me laugh when he says that (about his technique), because he can’t pass the ball more than ten yards!

“But his energy, his off-the-ball stuff, and you talk about being technical, his first touch is as good as anybody you’ll see. He just epitomises everything that we believe a footballer should be.

“I’ve never seen a player have a physical output the way he does, and what he does, other players around him feel embarrassed, so they do the same thing; he’s an example-setter. We brought Scott Burton in about six years ago, when he was 23/24, and he got markedly better off the ball from playing with Gaz.

“He’s an absolute loose cannon, but I love him. We’ve got a young lad coming through at Chester now, Cain Noble, central midfielder, 17, and he’s very similar in what he does – what I am is loath to tell Gaz to mentor him!”

Among the narrative threads in the BBC and Sky Sports documentary series Jonno and Bern featured in with Salford City was their dressing-room dressing-downs they would dish out to players. To cram full seasons into relatively short documentaries means not everything goes in the final edit, and naturally, the times when all is moving along fairly swimmingly do not tend to make for the most spectacular viewing.

Jonno discusses balancing trusting players with having to ‘crack the whip’ at times through the years.

“When I look back, I’ve been personal towards players, and when I try to put context to why that happened, it’s because it tended to work at that stage. We were managing at 24/25, no experience, no coaching background; ‘there’s a football club, there you go, go and manage it.’

“I think what we realised early doors was ‘we’ve got a good side together here.’ Never thought we were good managers.

“Players are making mistakes, and you take it personally, and my first reaction was always to want to blame somebody. I’m the first to hold my hands up if we’ve made a mistake, but I always wanted to point fingers and blame.

“Alongside that, at one stage at Rammy, we had I think 13 players that were all non-contract who’d played over 100 games for the club. That’s unheard of, you’ll never get that again, but we went through the leagues with it.

“Alongside the screaming and shouting that I put on the lads, like Jordan Hulme, Steve Howson, Scott Burton, Gary Stopforth, these lads keep coming back. Why?

“Well when those lads are out of work, me and Bern take them to work with us. Jordan and a couple of other lads, I’ve had them taking tiles off the wall in my house, just to be able to help them out, and I think you build that implicit trust with people.

“I think those lads I mentioned get the major stick from me because I know they can take it; there’s other players in that changing room I wouldn’t dream of doing it to. That might be wrong, but I know that they’re prepared to take it for other players and still perform to the absolute highest they can.

“If we’re getting beat because lads aren’t working to their maximum, you’re damn right I’m gonna have a go, because why should me and Bernard, Derek (Egan) and our coaching staff, the supporters who work all week, come and watch you work at 50/60 percent? If it’s something like a bad pass, you’ll never hear me and Bern raise our voice.

“The last thing we say to our players is ‘go and enjoy yourself,’ but there’s that notoriety I suppose of what people have seen on the documentary. People forget, that first series where we went to Salford, we had 17 games and Gary Neville said ‘you won’t win promotion this season, you’re 5th in the league, don’t worry about it, it’ll happen next year.’

“We said ‘we’re gonna win the league.’ For 15 games, me and Bernard were operating at a level we hadn’t operated at before for ferocity, I suppose, and we wanted to get the absolute maximum out of them every game, and it worked.

“What you saw on that programme was needed at that particular time; if that camera was on our team now you wouldn’t see two percent of that.”

Jonno and Bern interviewed after Salford City’s National League North title win last season. (Salford City FC)

Last season, Jimmy Bullard brought his ‘You Know the Drill’ training-ground challenge to Salford for Soccer AM, smiling as he told afterwards how the camaraderie of the Ammies brought back memories of his time at Wigan Athletic: ‘Nutty lot, but serious lot. That’s how football should be.’

As Jonno will detail further in the Q&A to conclude this feature, he has a soft spot for the rough diamonds and the mavericks of the game. Such players can present more of a complex challenge to manage, but they may just unlock the door in that crucial moment of a match.

On the subject of understanding the person and player, Hoffenheim coach and RB Leipzig boss-in-waiting, Julian Nagelsmann, said he believes football to be ‘30% tactics, 70% social competence.’ A Bury youth when the Shakers were a second-tier team, Jonno left at 16 to join the Army for the next four years.

For plenty of us, 1998 strangely does not seem all that long ago, but the game (and society) today is not at all identical to then, in a wider sense. Social media, while a highway of information to take in and utilise, is not always such a positive, and compassion, reason and geniality are rarely the leading trends.

“…I had this delusional belief back in the day that I was like Jose Mourinho and I could play mind games!”

Stepping away from it can be like trying to haul yourself out of quicksand, so as an active part of Twitter, for example, how does Jonno approach taking the good, and at the same time, not being consumed by it all?

“I genuinely believe that to be on our players’ levels, you have to understand what makes them tick and what they’re going through in this day and age. We’ve got players at the moment whose year of birth is 2001; my son was born in 2005.

“They’re closer in age to my son than me, but in my mind, I’ve got to get to where they are, whether it be social media, or talking to my son about the computer games he plays that I know our younger players are going to play. I was at Bury as a 17/18-year-old with managers who were two generations older than me and it was a belt round your head that they believed sorted you out.

“Bernard’s a very good people person, and again, he’s got a teenage son. Your job isn’t just planning training sessions, it’s getting to understand what a 17-year-old forward coming out of the academy’s thinking, or what your centre-half who’s just had a kid is going through.

“When I joined Twitter in 2012 or 2013, I used it almost as a connection thing with players. I still rip my ex-players on there like Jordan Hulme, Gareth Seddon, Danny Webber, and that’s because we built a connection over the years and there’s a mutual understanding of why we do certain things.

“What you’ve got to be careful of is getting involved in something that can be a bit personal. I used it to great effect when I was at Rammy and we used to ramp pressure up on Darlington; it worked every time and their fans hated us.

“We get on brilliantly now but I had this delusional belief back in the day that I was like Jose Mourinho and I could play mind games! It worked, whereas you couldn’t do that now, because you’ve got to be more selective about what you put and who you’re putting it to.”

Jonno referenced a James (‘Sit Down’) lyric as he spoke of Salford further fuelling his desire to manage full-time for years to come – ‘if I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.’ Music forms one of the other cornerstones to his interests, interlinking with his studious side, and also the razor-sharp competitiveness!

“I’ve not really watched telly for years and years, but I have an iTunes account, it might be £9.99 a month, and I like to read about music. I’ve got 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die.

“Anything with reading and music, I love that, and Bernard and Derek’ll tell you that, and even (Salford City sporting director) Chris Casper to a point. If a song comes on in the car, I turn it into a big competition and I blitz people with who it is and what year!

“Other than that, I have my family and my football. I got a dog the day after the first game of the season, just to get me out of the house a bit more, but I live and breathe my family and my football, to be honest with you.”

At Chester, the heritage encompasses Ian Rush, Stuart Rimmer, Lee Dixon, Cyrille Regis, Roberto Martínez and numerous other noteworthy names. It is important to know that history and significance, and with Jonno and Bern well aware of it, they are set on finding the elusive pieces to set them up for a future to go with their past.

Social media, TV fame, five promotions – it has all been part of forming a profile of two unquestionably adept young managers. A profile exaggerated by some and not always the truest picture.

When you have so many wanting to delve into their story, a lot of the same ground will inevitably be trodden, so on that point, are there any questions Jonno could quite happily never answer again?

“Yes. ‘Would you ever think about going on your own?’

“That one gets asked a lot and there’s no real definitive answer. ‘How does joint-managers work? Who has the final say?’

“I’ve answered it seven million times, but I’m very fortunate that I manage with my best friend, so we have an implicit trust. He can do whatever he wants when I’m not there, because I know he’s got our team’s best interests at heart, and vice versa.”

You can read the second half of this interview, as Jonno takes on the Bosses’ Lounge Q&A here

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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