Despite having spent much of the last week with at least a small part of me curious as to what else could be out there, having kept one eye on what we knew was inevitably coming, the decision to let Lee Johnson go yesterday still left me feeling desperately empty.
Emptiness not necessarily because it wasn’t the right decision, but simply because this isn’t how it was supposed to end.
It didn’t follow the script.
When Johnson was appointed as Steve Cotterill’s successor at the beginning of February 2016, City were 22nd in the Championship and staring down the barrel of relegation - just months after being promoted from League One as champions.
After guiding the team comfortably to safety, it felt like a bit like a prodigal son had returned to finish a dynasty. His father, Gary, was at the helm the season City had come the closest to the pinnacle of English football (post-1992), reaching the play-off final at Wembley in 2008.
Thirty-four-year-old Lee inherited the “bounce around the ground” chant and a family club tradition had been restored, perfectly in line with owner Steve Lansdown’s vision to create an all-encompassing Bristol Sport image.
There was talk of ‘Europe in five years’, said with a dash of optimism admittedly as football is never as straightforward as it seems, but the club had a clear plan of progression outlined.
The progression followed too, until now. Subsequent league finishes of 17th, 11th and 8th came and Johnson ensured that he maintained a record of league improvement every year, but the next step proved too difficult to foot.
When you openly admit that you call yourself a “Premier League team in training”, you invite flak when it doesn’t quite work exactly the way you envisaged, and you’ve got be to strong enough to take it.
Johnson has done several rebuild jobs inside the one umbrella objective though, every year it feels like we lose our best players and as a supporter base, we’re quite liberal with that.
Jonathan Kodjia, Tammy Abraham, Joe Bryan, Aden Flint, Bobby Reid, Adam Webster and Josh Brownhill to name the biggest stars that have departed during Johnson’s tenure.
It’s a lot of talent to keep finding replacements for, year after year.
It was Johnson’s stroke of genius that ensured the Abraham-sized hole at the top of the pitch wouldn’t be telling and made the club a £10m transfer fee in the process after he moved struggling academy product and centre-midfielder Reid to an advanced striker role.
The 24/25-year-old bagged 19 goals in the ‘17/18 Championship, and a couple more in The Robins mammoth EFL Cup Semi-Final run too. His previous career-best total was four in a season.
In fact, Johnson’s faith in young players has proved instrumental for the club with the likes of academy-products Lloyd Kelly, Zak Vyner, Antoine Semenyo (and more) making names for themselves, along with the acquisition of loads of youngsters like Brownhill, Jay DaSilva and Liam Walsh setting the club in good stead - either financially through sales or showing the promise of a first-team star.
It is no secret how meticulous Johnson is in his nature, showing great consideration to every fine detail of the game – and he’s introduced a truly technological era at the club with virtual-reality apps that allow players to track and playback their training + match performances.
He will take us no further now and he will understand why, but I dread to think the amount late-night hours he put in to take our club to this position.
At the same time, Lansdown set out to modernise the club through the now-finished stadium re-development and planned sporting hub that will encompass all three of his sports teams, Football, Rugby and Basketball.
In truth, Johnson’s meticulous work ethic might have been costly for his own image, giving the impression that too much tinkering of the playing-squad meant after four years it looked as though he still had no idea what his best eleven was, from an outside perspective anyway.
Beating Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United with a 93rd-minute goal at Ashton Gate to reach the Semi-Final of a domestic trophy though, that’s a scenario a ten-year-old fan would devise in their head when they ‘hammer’ the ball into their makeshift back-garden goal from five yards – and Johnson made it a reality.
Of course, he captured the emotion of the 26,000 inside the stadium in a picture-perfect moment swinging that lucky ball-boy around in his arms in a release of pure, unadulterated joy, while Korey Smith wheeled away down the end of the pitch.
For the new generation of us City fans, that was our Brian Tinnion moment. As you’ll already know from the memory of that Liverpool game, it will never be forgotten.
To then see us put in a really decent shift against Man City in both legs, producing a 5-3 aggregate loss to a star-studded team led by one of the greatest managers to ever live in Pep Guardiola.
Granted, you never set out to lose a game of football, but that did our reputation no harm whatsoever. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say for a brief moment seeing Johnson and Guardiola engaged in conversation on the side-line looked quite fitting.
We’ve had some incredible memories on the pitch, and some equally good ones off it.
Even the little things, like Johnson’s awkward response to a bizarre media, question equating football performances to being better than sex or bringing Matty Taylor to the club for peanuts on deadline day - that gave us a good laugh over The Gas.
We’ve been here before though, feeling aggrieved that we’ve chucked away another promising position falling flat on our face during the race’s conclusion.
It would be naïve to suggest some of what we’ve seen is acceptable, three seasons in a row City have peaked too soon and not delivered when it matters.
From being 2nd at Christmas in ‘17/18, to finishing a measly 11th following that 2-1 home loss to Wolves and the subsequent self-implosion only winning four of the remaining 21 games.
The following year, our horrendous home performances during the run-in proved costly with dropped points to the likes of rock-bottom Ipswich, Wigan and the season-ender against “Frank Lampard’s Derby”.
It’s felt like too long that no one has truly enjoyed home games, with a seeming refusal to impose City’s own style on the opposition and instead ‘matching’ them.
With 20,000 in the ground every game, disappointing home form is the easiest way to cause disenchantment amongst your own fans and the consequences of this have been evident.
Now, Johnson departs following no wins in nine and four consecutive losses since the seasons restart – the final nail in the coffin being a 1-0 loss to Severnside rivals Cardiff City, just as the final nail had been for Neil Warnock after the reverse result in November.
It’s a funny old game, isn’t it?
Lee said it himself though, this is the first time he’s had a full squad of talented players fit and raring to go for it. And on this occasion, they’ve come up short in a more painful manner than ever before, slipping from one point out the top-six to an unassailable nine in just a fateful fortnight.
If it’s not really the right players and the right squad as we thought, then what percentage of the responsibility for that recruitment lies at Johnson’s door? We’ve invested at much higher levels, opening up the roof and smashing the transfer-fee record on a couple of occasions to bring top talent to BS3.
There’s been some mind-boggling man-management at times with the likes of Nicolas Eliasson and Kasey Palmer not getting many minutes, just to consider this season alone.
To be honest, he might have had his reasons. However, when you maintain a cryptic stance regarding answers, not putting yourself up to the Severnside derby press conference and instead opting to send a 23-year-old with a handful of first-team appearances, it usually doesn’t bode well.
He’s the manager for a reason and I don’t doubt he will be successful eventually, but with some of the bizarre tactical decisions made in the last few games the responsibility falls at the door of the gaffer if it doesn’t work.
This isn’t a case of calling for someone’s head and then changing tune when you see it rested on the silver platter, Johnson should be held in very high regard within the club despite the shortcomings.
Thousands of hours of unrivalled dedication have taken it to a platform from which it can really take off, he should be remembered as one of our most influential coaches of the modern era.
From being the longest-serving EFL manager at the time with a genuine love for our club, no one will be more bitterly disappointed at how this journey has ended than him.
The players need to take a hard look at what’s happened and prove that it was actually the boss who had to go, and not themselves.
From a Bristol City fan to you, Lee Johnson – thank you for the memories.
This article was written exclusively for golear.co.uk by Alfie House.