Anthony Johnson, Bernard Morley
Salford City, 2015-2018
Anthony Johnson (Jonno):
People believe we’re going to fail.
They see two cocky, arrogant, brash young managers and are desperate to see us fall flat on our faces.
Right from the beginning, we created a siege mentality where that couldn’t happen.
We generated this fierce loyalty. A bond that came down to a belief that no one can beat us.
Bernard Morley (Bern):
It took time to build, though.
The first game we ever managed at Ramsbottom, we got beat 5-0. At full-time, we looked at each other and just sort of sniggered.
We believed we could do it, though. And so did the chairman Harry Williams. Eventually.
I remember when we first went to see him about taking on the team. We walked in, with our shorts and trainers on. He was there, picking out weeds, and we said: “Harry, we want the job.”
He looked up from his weeds: “What?”
“We want the job.”
“Piss off, I’m busy. Leave me alone.”
But we were persistent with it. We kept going down once a week, and finally the penny dropped with him that we were serious. That we could do what we were telling him we could.
Rammy’s last league game of that season was against Bacup Borough on a Friday night. Rammy got beat 6-2, and after the final whistle I went straight to the bar with Harry.
As we sat down with our drinks, Harry leaned over, said congratulations and shook my hand.
“New managers. I’m going to give it to you.”
Before I could process what had just happened, Paul Williams, who was Rammy’s caretaker manager, came in. Perching himself down on his haunches next to Harry, he says: “So, what’s the plans for next season?”
Harry went: “There’s no plans, cock. You’re done. You’re finished. There’s the new manager with his mate.”
"I’d done thousands of warm-ups, but now I was in the hotseat and it was my responsibility, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing"
No talk of budgets. No talk of wages. It was just: the job’s yours if you want it.
At that point we weren’t thinking about getting on the coaching ladder, developing players or anything like that. It was about getting a group of pals together and seeing what we could do – and if we could have some fun.
It was only ever going to be fun if we were winning, though. And, once we did start winning, that’s when it changed us.
Jonno went on holiday the morning after the game at Bacup, but Rammy had a cup semi final the following week. So my first game in charge as a two was just me, on my own.
I’ve got to give a team talk. I’m 25 years old. I’ve got lads who have played in the Football League. I’ve got to pick a team – I’ve never done that before. Got to pick subs, leave people out.
I don’t know if I’ve made the right decision, here.
Even the warm-up was worrying me. I’d done thousands of warm-ups, but now that I was in the hotseat and it was my responsibility, I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.
When I stood up in front of the lads to give my team talk, they started to laugh. These were my mates. Lads I’d played with for years.
We ended up losing 1-0 that night, and I walked away thinking: I don’t know if this is me. Being the centre of attention. People questioning you. Questioning the team you picked, and why you got beat.
"When one or two lads wanted to go out for a beer on a Friday night, it became: 'No, you stay in on a Friday.' ”
It felt like too much too soon. But, looking back, it came at the right time, because we had time to reflect before the next season started. Time to go back 10 years in our heads and think about all the other managers and coaches we worked under – picking all the good bits out.
But we realised that the most important thing is to be who you are. Use other people’s strengths and weaknesses, but just try and be who you are as men and as managers – and you will learn.
We’ve learnt it ourselves. We’ve had to.
We got on the ladder with no coaching experience, no nothing.
But slowly we got our feet under the table. We attracted players to Ramsbottom who we used to play with, and drip-fed them into the team.
We started to win games.
That’s when our attitude changed. It went from a bit of fun and being with our pals to: hang on a minute, we’ve got a good side here.
We started wanting to push things on that bit further. So, when one or two lads wanted to go out for a beer on a Friday night, it became: “No, you stay in on a Friday.”
That season we finished fourth, which was a 10-year high for the club. In our second season we finished second, and the year after that we won it.
"I looked at Jonno, who doesn’t cry. And I’m thinking, I’m ready to burst out crying here"
Eventually, it reached a stage when we realised we’d hit our ceiling at the club. The budget couldn’t get any bigger, crowds were at their max. If something didn’t change, we knew the team was going to get broken up.
Without courting it, we were almost desperate for the next challenge to come along.
When Salford came knocking in January 2015, we’d already turned down a very good offer from Northwich Victoria that season. It just hadn’t felt right.
It was a big decision for us to leave Rammy.
The day after we found out about Salford’s approach, we went to see the chairman. Harry. All three of us sat around a table in his house, and he broke down. A 70-year-old man. In floods of tears.
I was an emotional person – I still am – and this was someone we looked up to. The man who’d given us our opportunity. Made us what we were. Crying.
I looked at Jonno, who doesn’t cry. And I saw him trying his best not to cry. I’m thinking, I’m ready to burst out crying here.
Harry turned to me: “What are you gonna do?”
“You’ll have to give me 24 hours.”
We had a game the next day, so I said I’d manage the team for that, no matter what. But in the back of my mind, I was done.
It wasn’t that we were going to get more money at Salford, because we didn’t. But the bigger picture was the chance of going full-time. If we did well, we were going to get closer to our dream.
Fortunately for me, Rammy’s game got called off on the Saturday morning, so I rang Harry: “I’m done, Harry. I’m done.”
We got the supporters down to explain that we were leaving, and to say goodbye. We had people looking us in the eye and crying: “Please don’t leave, we’ll give you more money.” It was horrible. Gut-wrenching.
Harry even offered to sign the club over to us.
There was no big fanfare the first time we went to Salford. Phil Neville and Scholesy came over, shook our hands and said: “Do you want to say something to the lads?”
So we went into the changing room. Bern slunk in behind me and there was a cameraman following us both, filming for the Class of 92 documentary.
"All the Salford lads were on the right-hand side. All the Rammy lads on the left. It was like they were getting ready to go to war"
I looked around and saw Danny Webber: played in the Premier League. Jason Jarrett: played in the Premier League. Paul Linwood and Gareth Seddon: top pros.
I had to say something.
“I’m not going to make you a better player, Danny, as an individual. But we will make you a better team. See you Tuesday.”
I walked out pretty pleased with myself: not a bad little speech, that.
Our first game was against Bamber Bridge the following weekend. By then we’d signed about eight players from Rammy.
When I walked in the changing room before the game, I saw all the Salford lads sitting on the right-hand side. All the Rammy lads on the left.
It was like they were getting ready to go to war.
Except for one: Danny Webber had sat himself right in the middle of the Rammy lads.
Wow, I thought. You get it. You understand what we’re trying to create here. It gives me goosebumps thinking about it now. That changed everything for me.
The documentary filming was another worry.
Those players didn’t know me and Bernard, so we had to hit the ground running to ensure they understood that we knew what we were doing. Otherwise, we were never going to get the respect.
"He’s a builder and I’m a wagon driver. We were thrust into it. But we’re big characters, and we’ve got thick skin"
I took everything that had got us to that point in our careers and moved it up a gear. I was like a sledgehammer, coming out with nonsense a lot of the time while Bernard was working his magic with lads, making sure they understood that I’m not actually a lunatic.
I knew that, while the camera was rolling, I was going to come across a right pillock. But I’d already made that decision.
One day, I came out with a line that left me sliding off the sofa in embarrassment when it came on the TV.
“We’re the alpha males.”
It was the most cringeworthy thing I’d ever heard in my life.
There was no training for that side of things. Bern’s a builder and I’m a wagon driver. We were thrust into it. But we’re big characters, and we’ve got thick skin. You’ve got to have that in this job, anyway.
A lot changed for us last year.
We became full-time managers. It gave us time to watch and analyse games more than we had been able to before.
It was a bit odd. You see yourself changing and you’re thinking, this is not you. You’re trying to be someone that you’re not. But it was what we had to be. What we had to do.
We made a lot of calls to other managers at a high level: “Can we come and watch you train?” We went in, shadowing people here and there. Trying to get as much experience as we could.
But then it actually starts. And you’re there with 22 players. A full-time team for the first time.
There was a lot going through our minds. We knew we had five owners who had been at the level they had. And that they’d be asking the lads: what’s the training like?
"You’ve not got a coaching background. You’ve come from the bottom level of non-league football. You’ve got no right to be here"
It was exciting but also daunting, because you know you’re being judged and questioned.
And that everybody on the outside is wanting you to fail.
Until then, we’d always been underdogs – as managers and as people.
We’d been doubted our whole careers and lives. People would think: you’ve not got a football background. You’ve not got a coaching background. You’ve come from the bottom level of non-league football. You’ve got no right to be here.
Last season, we weren’t the underdogs any more.
We had to create our own siege mentality within the changing room. And I don’t think that sat well with a lot of people – that we didn’t act like champions. We dug in hard. Put our own forcefield around ourselves.
There was no option. If we hadn’t won the league and got promoted, we’d have failed.
Who’s then going to employ two managers who have failed at their first opportunity to be full-time, and with this supposed ‘budget’ that we had? Everything was against us.
Even when we won the league, we only did it “because we’ve got money”. We couldn’t win.
When you’re at Salford City, you’ve always got to expect to compete.
After we won the league, the first thing one of the directors said when he presented us with the trophy was: “Don’t go and consolidate next year – go for it again.”
And we would have done, because that’s what we are. We never want to consolidate. I hate the word.
"If we didn’t have dreams and set our standards high, we’d always be in step seven with Ramsbottom United, having fun with our pals"
My body is conditioned to the pressure now. To the expectation.
Now that we’re not in that excitement, it’s asking me: "What’s going on Bern? You better get up and do something with me."
I feel a bit lost.
I said to Jonno the other day, I might go to the gym – and he laughed at me.
But my body is telling me to, because I’m not living what it’s used to living. I feel like I’ve lost weight. I haven’t, but I feel light.
I’ve got a Class of 92 book on my shelf. There’s a bit in it where Gary Neville talks about going around lots of different clubs just after he took on Salford. He says the one thing he remembers is Andy Pilley – the Fleetwood chairman – telling him that managers will plateau at a certain level.
I must have read that page 100 times, and each time I vow that we’ll never, ever plateau.
Consolidation. Plateauing. Feet under the table. It’s almost like people are waiting for you to do that so they can say: "Okay, you’ve found your level now."
We can’t allow people to think that about us. We’ve got to push, push, push.
Last season was massive for us because we did what we set out to achieve. But the club’s ambitions weren’t higher than mine and Bern’s.
We want to be at the best level we can be. That might be the champions of the National League North. It might be the Premier League champions in 15 or 20 years’ time. If we didn’t have dreams and set our standards high, we’d always be in step seven with Ramsbottom United, having fun with our pals.
As Bern says, we’re conditioned to the pressure now. To the anxiety. The adrenaline.
It’s not an illness, but the stuff you go through makes you wonder how managers put themselves through it. It’s not normal.
But when it’s not there, you feel like someone’s taken something off you.
I need it back on.
Author: Tony Hodson