The next season, I took charge of County’s Under-18 side, and had three games as caretaker manager of the senior team thanks to Sven-Göran Eriksson. From that point, I couldn’t get enough. I worked my way through the coaching badges, and then had a spell working across all the academy age groups at Birmingham City; they had a lot of good young players at the time – Demarai Gray, Jack Butland, Nathan Redmond – and it was great to be able to share my experiences with them. After that, I moved to a job with the Cardiff Under-23 team, living away from the Midlands for the first time in my career.
I thought all those experiences – and getting all those qualifications – would eventually help me land a first-team job, but the opportunities just didn’t come. It was disheartening; I became despondent at times. So when Mel Morris offered me that role behind the scenes at Derby, I accepted and signed up for a Master’s degree in Sport Directorship at Manchester University in my spare time. The final coursework for that needs to be in by December.
“This is a different kettle of fish to coaching in youth football, or even in League One or League Two. It’s a chance to really invigorate and motivate a nation – to do something amazing for the country”
I guess that’s why that phone call from Guyana was so surreal. I had stopped looking for coaching jobs – but there I was, being offered the chance to manage a national team. When they told me I had the job, I nearly fell out of my chair. That doesn’t usually happen to Michael Johnson. It’s usually bar, post, along the goalline, but the ball doesn’t go in! It was a feeling of real satisfaction, knowing that all those years of travelling, all the networking, all the meetings and seminars, were worth it.
But there wasn’t time to bask in the glory of it all. There was a date circled on the calendar: a CONCACAF Nations League meeting with Barbados. It was a big challenge to get things together for that match. The players arrived on Sunday for a Thursday game, and most of them were jetlagged – so Monday was a write-off. We only had two days to get the information we wanted into them.
My first training session was a bit of a culture shock. The players all came out in different garments… you think: “Okay, this is where we’re at.” They play matches at an athletics stadium and cricket is the number-one sport; there’s no professional football league. I quickly understood that the level would be a bit lower. But that doesn’t mean you let your standards drop: I was determined to do the best with the resources available. We worked efficiently and cleverly to make sure the players were ready.