Opportunity for Lee Johnson was the Real deal, says Paul Heckingbottom

Former Barnsley manager Lee Johnson returns to Oakwell tomorrow with Bristol City (Picture: Tony Johnson).
Former Barnsley manager Lee Johnson returns to Oakwell tomorrow with Bristol City (Picture: Tony Johnson).
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Barnsley fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst when Lee Johnson dropped the bombshell that he was quitting Barnsley to join his beloved Bristol City.

It happened back in February when the Reds had recovered from a painful eight-match losing streak in League One and were starting to climb the table.

The prospect of a trip to Wembley in the Football League Trophy was also in the offing.

But there was apprehension that Johnson’s exit would precipitate a crumbling of the foundations he had put in place.

But Academy boss Paul Heckingbottom stepped up, grasped the opportunity – and the rest, as they say, is history. Barnsley went to Wembley twice, winning the Trophy before, in May, beating Millwall in the play-offs to clinch a Championship return.

One of the first games Barnsley fans looked for when the fixtures were released in June was Johnson’s return.

But Heckingbottom believes that both Barnsley and Johnson have prospered after their parting of the ways.

“I think it will be indifferent,” said Heckingbottom, when asked about the reception he expects Oakwell fans to give Johnson.

“I bumped into a few people last night who were looking forward to seeing him.

“It’s part of football. He won’t be worrying. Once the whistle goes, he will be watching the players – I will be watching mine – and that will be it.

“He had good staff here, lots of backing from everyone, and we had some good times.

“Even in the bad times, when we went on that bad run, the fact all the staff stuck together was what got us out of it.

“With us ending up getting promoted I know the staff had a lot to do with it, how hard they all work. I know we always give credit to the players, but the staff in the backroom are fantastic.

“I would like to think Lee had a good time here, and he has gone on to work at a club who he loves.

“He said ‘this is my Real Madrid’ and it is. It’s the club who he played for, lived down there for a long time, his dad was here, so he had big connections with the club.

“It was his dream job, so you can’t blame him, he had worked hard to get there. He jumped at the chance to get it.

“You cannot have regrets, and you have to make the most of every opportunity.

“He saw an opportunity and went for it, he was over the moon, and that presented myself and the rest of the staff with another opportunity.

“We took that and got promoted, so nobody can be really upset with how things turned out.”

Johnson’s City currently occupy sixth place in the Championship, four points better off than Barnsley who are in 12th spot.

Heckingbottom has thrived in his new leadership role at his boyhood club, and admits he learned his craft working under previous managers Danny Wilson and Johnson.

“I have spoke to Lee a few times (since he left),” said Heckingbottom.

“I had gone from working with Danny Wilson, who had done a thousand games, looking at bits and pieces, and then Johno comes in who is the direct opposite. A fresh young manager, and I had probably been coaching longer than him, but what impressed me was his drive.

“He got his move to Bristol and that was no fluke; he worked his socks off to get it. That’s what impressed me about him.

“It will be a tough game, they have been in good form, and are a strong side.”