'I didn't want to harm anyone, I just wanted to play'
Kildare v Dublin: In his first interview Kildare’s Seánie Johnson talks about his controversial transfer from Cavan.
This can’t be him. Not this guy. We’re supposed to be meeting the chap into whose hands the nuclear codes had fallen, the one who was going to flick a thumb and detonate the GAA from the inside. The man who Joe Brolly accused of nothing less than “the most conspicuous attack yet on the GAA ethos”.
But where’s the cloven hoof? No tail, Seánie? No trident? Seánie Johnston’s smile is a nervous one. He isn’t mad keen on the idea of doing this at all.
The irony of him being the GAA figure whose name most threatened the national ink reserves last year is that he actually labours under a pretty acute shyness.
Meeting the Kildare players for the first time last spring was, he says, “nearly my worst-case scenario, sitting in a room with people I didn’t know and having to try to make conversation.” If he lived out his days without seeing another headline that contained his name, those days would be no trial at all.
And on top of that, he knows you’re sick of it. You can’t be as sick of it as he is, he’ll guarantee you. But he knows everybody got bored and tired of it all a long time before it ended.
So he figures this will be it – get it done, get said what he has to get said and let the great world spin. Kildare play the Dubs tomorrow at the apex of the National League and all anyone will want to talk to him about is football. That’s the hope anyway.
“In the end, all I want is to be a better footballer,” he says. “It’s all I ever wanted. To me, I was never going to play for Cavan again. That wasn’t ever going to happen. It was made perfectly clear to me that it wasn’t an option. I didn’t want to harm anyone, I didn’t want to annoy people. I just wanted to play football.
“For anyone who felt that I caused them personal harm by what I did, I apologise. I don’t know who would feel like that or why they would but if they do, it was never my intention. I never set out to hurt anyone or make anyone sour, I’m just not that sort of person. I’m the other sort, if anything. If I thought there was a way to please everyone, I would. But no matter what I do, people will still give out about me. People are going to say what they’re going to say. I just want to get on with it.”
Even now, he’s mystified as to quite how he became such a bogeyman. He gets that people are tribal, he gets that people are protective of the GAA. How could he not? His father used to chide him for the time he put into kicking a ball, telling him there’d be no football questions on any exam he’d ever do.
He had the last laugh on that score – he’s a PE teacher now who coaches the kids in Breffni College just outside Cavan town. “We won our first Cavan title in 18 years last year and got to an Ulster final,” he beams. “It kept me some small bit sane.”
The point is, you don’t need to give Seánie Johnston any lectures on what the GAA is about. Agree with his transfer, disagree with his transfer. He won’t argue with you either way. But suggest that he’s a malignant force, a threat to the very fabric of the association and you’re talking about a man he hasn’t met.
“People were saying, ‘Look, you made the move, you have to take the consequences of it.’ But I couldn’t have seen all that coming down the line. Maybe it was naivety on my part but I didn’t expect to be and nor did I want to be someone who was going to be constantly in the papers.
“And I didn’t think that my family would have to put up with seeing articles about the threat that their son posed to the GAA. They’re great people but they were having to see this article saying something negative and the next one saying something more negative and all of this was about a person who was their son. They were going, ‘Well is this the person we know?’ And it wasn’t at all.”
He doesn’t want to come across like he’s crying. He isn’t. Don’t turn the page thinking he’s after your pity because that’s no way to live a life. One day last August, he checked his Twitter page to see dozens of posters riffing on English soccer’s transfer deadline day and got annoyed. Not at the barbs – “Sky Sports Newsflash: Seánie Johnston seen entering Anfield” and so on – more at himself.
“That’s pretty funny like, but I hated it at the time. And I was cross at myself. I remember looking at it and going, ‘This is funny. Why am I not finding it funny?’ But by that stage, everything felt like a weight on my shoulders. You’re spending a lot of time in your own company and you’re overthinking things.
“I would have always said through the whole thing that I was grand. But I obviously wasn’t grand. I was doing things I wouldn’t normally do, snapping at friends and family. They’d be going, ‘Are you alright? Do you want to talk about it?’
“And I would just be doing that male thing of going, ‘No, sure I’m grand, there’s no problem at all.’ It’s very hard to come out to your family or your girlfriend – who were all great throughout it – it’s very hard to come out and say, ‘Look, I’m struggling here. This is getting me down.’”
Kildare v Cavan
At several points he figured he wouldn’t play intercounty football again. And then when he did eventually get the go-ahead and thought he was in the clear, the gods had one last twist for him. Kildare were drawn to play Cavan in the qualifiers.
Remember how we laughed that day when we heard the draw? Remember what fun that was? Seánie Johnston’s parents left the country. Booked a flight and headed to Prague rather than be in a Cavan during a week like that.
As for the player himself, well at least he can be fairly certain the most complicated day of his life has been and gone.
“It was a surreal feeling. Just surreal. I was really, really nervous. Because apart from anything else, I had no football under my belt. I was going into that game thinking I was ready to go but I wasn’t. I really had no part to play in that game. I had no impact on it because I wasn’t ready to play in it. I made no sort of contribution and I may as well not have been involved.”
This was the unspoken aspect of it all. While Kildare were trying to get him out on the pitch and all eyes were on him as soon as he got there, there was a human being in the middle. And that human being was a footballer whose game was rusty as an old gate.
“Leave everything else to one side – I hadn’t played a game of intercounty football for the guts of a year. So I was training away, thinking I was going okay but the truth was I was a mile away from having enough football to be worth anything to Kildare last summer.
“But then you get on the pitch and you’re so anxious to do well. No matter much you tell yourself, ‘Look, just do what you can, just be natural,’ you feel that everybody’s talking about you and waiting on you. You don’t want to let people down, you don’t want to be a failure. You’re so eager that everything is done in a rush. You’re thinking, ‘I have to do something here or everybody will be wondering what the fuss is about’.”
At the end of that day in Breffni, he shook hands with the Cavan players and they with him. If there were hard feelings they weren’t on his side and he didn’t hear anything coming back to suggest they were on the other. Quite the opposite in fact.
“The main positive I took out of it all is that the people who were my best friends a year ago are still my best friends. That’s a huge thing to be able to say, to be able to point to fellas who will stand at your side.
“The likes of John McCutcheon, Mark McKeever, Cian Mackey, Dermot Sheridan, Ronan Flanagan. All those lads that I would have played with for years couldn’t have been more helpful to me. They’re just genuine people and I still chat to them regularly.
“They wished me well, just the same as I wished them well. Nothing changed between us. That’s not what friendship is built on.”
So here he is. Kildare’s number 13 for now and if he keeps up the 1-3 return he delivered last Sunday against Kerry, their number 13 for the foreseeable as well. Dublin tomorrow is another step along the road, another click on the odometer with last summer gradually disappearing from view.
“I don’t want to bring up old wounds and I want to move on into the future. But for all the people who were talking about my situation or my commute or how I lived my life, I was never saying anything about how anyone else lived theirs. I wouldn’t do that.
“People are going to live their life however they want to live it and all you can do as you meet people is try to make their life a bit better. Make them smile, make them laugh, open a door for them, anything at all. You might only meet them for a minute and you mightn’t see them again for ages. So why not try to do something positive?”
That’s some pretty tree-hugging hippie talk for a man who was going to bring down the association this time last year. And guess what?
The floodwaters of mercenary transfers haven’t breached the levees in the meantime. Johnston is a Kildare player and Croke Park still stands.
The GAA will survive.
That anyone thinks it won’t probably says more about them than it does about Seánie Johnston.
Seánie’s saga Key dates
October 2011: Johnston is left off the Cavan panel for 2012 by Val Andrews
December 2011: His application for an intercounty transfer to Kildare is turned down on the basis that as a Cavan schoolteacher, he neither lives nor works in Kildare.
January 2012: Cavan county board objects to his application for a club transfer to St Kevin’s of Straffan.
March: GAA refuses his transfer request on the basis that he was moving to play for a county for which he has no obvious allegiance. This is deemed to be contrary to the Association’s ethos.
April: Rule passed at Congress saying a player must play a club championship game in his new county to be eligible for the county team.
May: A new request is turned by a fresh CCCC panel. This decision is appealed to the CAC and Johnston wins on a technicality.
July 1: With no club football championship scheduled in Kildare until the end of the county’s summer, Johnston lines out for Coill Dubh, the hurling club affiliated to St Kevin’s. He is substituted after 90 seconds.
July 16: Makes debut off the bench in Kildare’s qualifier win over Cavan. Scores a point.