But while the top prize remains frustratingly out of reach, the Easter Road manager confesses there is a perverse joy in the struggle, and he wonders if there is ever a point where this season’s frontrunners Celtic find things too easy.
It is nearly 40 years since someone outside of the big two has won the top flight, when Aberdeen took the 1984/85 title. Since then the financial gap has widened and league dreams have moved further and further from reach for the majority. In fact, having to settle for a battle to be crowned best of the rest, it has often proved difficult to even hold onto the coattails of the second-placed side.
The largest void between the big two and the chasing pack was 34 points – when Hearts were distant observers as Alex McLeish and Martin O’Neill’s men contested first place – but this season could challenge that as the Glasgow sides plough on towards the finishing in unrelenting form. Sitting 28 points behind them, Hearts, followed by Aberdeen and Hibs are embroiled in a tussle for third spot but while there is frustration at how hard it is to compete with the duopoly, with Johnson claiming the divide is more apparent than he remembered as a player, during his days at Hearts and Kilmarnock, but he says he does enjoy the challenge of trying to reel the title contenders in.
“If some sheikh comes in and takes over one of the clubs, there is always that potential isn’t there?” said the manager, whose men take on Motherwell in Leith on Saturday in the hope of cranking up the pressure on the teams above them. “Historically the Old Firm have always whipped away the best players from the rest, which is always a clever tactic because not only are you enhancing yourself you're decreasing the quality of the opponents. I suppose the dreamer in me says we can but the realist in me knows how difficult it will be to infiltrate that. Certainly cups and individual games, the starting point is to make sure you are more competitive in those individual games and I do think we are showing signs of that, although against Rangers we were poor. I think that was more down to them being good and us being poor on the day.”
Johnson did feel there was an opportunity in the final game before the international break, when his men took the lead at Celtic Park but, down to 10 men and with several refereeing decisions called into question, his team eventually lost out 3-1. “As a player, I didn’t feel the gap was that big,” the 41-year-old said. “But now, it’s not just a gap in individuals, it's a gap in individuals fitting the gameplan and philosophy of play as well. But I do believe at any one time you have to give yourselves the best opportunity, that is why I was disappointed with the VAR calls at Celtic because it felt like the type of day that we were on point and they were maybe off it. I felt there was a genuine opportunity for a point at least.”
It is a situation that sees the majority of top tier teams kicking off every season well aware that the main prize sits out of their reach. That could be enough to demoralise some and can make recruitment more problematic but Johnson says he thrives on the challenge of some giant-killing.
“When I took the Hibs job I had a discussion with Kenny Dalglish about it,” revealed Johnson, “and he was like, ‘are you sure you want to go? Because that’s the reality’. I was like, ‘I could do this, do that’. But he is always right, Kenny Dalglish, it drives me up the wall.
“It is a factor but I really enjoy it here and enjoy – I suppose – the struggle. There is joy in that struggle. If I was Ange, I’m thinking to myself at what point does it get too easy, almost? I know that sounds bad, but you know generally if your boys are on it; listen – top manager, top club, top way or working, top philosophy but their challenge would feel like Europe and competing in the Champions League. So, it’s up to clubs like us to make sure that when we do turn up at Parkhead that they are frightened of us more than they are at the moment.”
Focusing on one-off games and head-to-heads, Johnson is realistic enough to accept that the financial gulf will always make it near impossible to maintain the upper hand throughout the course of an entire campaign. A wage cap or a more equitable distribution of wealth would help but the man who has experienced that disparity south of the border as well does not see any limitations being written into the Scottish football rulebook any time soon. “I can’t see that,” said Johnson. “In the English Championship it always felt tough when clubs were getting parachute payments because really the clubs that go down should go straight back up, that’s what it was weighted to.”
But the Leicester fairytale gives some cause to hope for the odd footballing miracle. “Who knows? This is football, it’s crazy and there are a lot of billionaires in the world that could throw money at things if they wanted to, Man City is an example. They were probably an ailing side in the Championship then taken over and look at the expansion, it’s not just expansion it’s knowledge. That could happen but I think in terms of the budget differentiation up here something drastic would have to change.”