Sun finally shines on Ferbane and Johnson is a leading light
Cian Johnson is aiming to inspire his side to a first county title in 25 years on Sunday
Cian Johnson of Offaly and Wexford’s Martin O’Connor. Johnson played O’Byrne Cup and National League for Offaly seniors in his Leaving Cert year. Photograph: Tom Beary/Inpho
In Ferbane, the county final good-luck messages are still hanging from the windows and draped over the walls, even though the day of days was a fortnight ago. This is a hardship on precisely nobody. When you’ve waited 25 years for an Offaly title it would be almost weird to be in any hurry to put things back the way they were.
A winless 25 years is a long time in any clubs’ language. But even so, there are clubs and there are clubs. What you must understand is that in Ferbane they were used to a certain standard of living before it all turned to dust. They were royalty once.
When they last were crowned Offaly champions in 1994 it was their seventh county title in nine seasons. Out of those they had mined two Leinster final appearances, winning one and only losing the second after a replay to Parnells of Dublin.
It’s 33 years since Brendan Lowry – since reinvented as the father of a useful local golfer – supplied the rocket fuel that burned their path all the way to a Leinster title. They’re still the last Offaly club to win the province out.
So, yeah, that quarter-century passed as dog years. Which is why, on a grey October Wednesday, Cian Johnson pulls up a chair in his zipped-up green Ferbane tracksuit top and marvels at what it meant to men a lot older than him. On the pitch in Tullamore Sunday week ago, they stopped him one-by-one and all said the same thing.
“They were saying to us to enjoy it because they you don’t know when the next one is going to be. Twenty-five years was way too long for a club like Ferbane. All they kept saying to us was they never thought for a second that it would be 25 years before the club won it again.
“It went by in a bit of a blur, to be honest. I regret it a bit actually because it went so quickly. The game ended and next thing you knew it felt like it was the following Friday already. The week went past before you knew it. Even if we win another it won’t feel like the first one. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait another 25 years!”
Ferbane have been the coming men in Offaly for a while. Johnson played four years of minor football for them and won three county titles, only losing the fourth after a second replay. They’ve won the last three county under-20 titles as well. With all that underage momentum feeding through, it would have taken something like a particularly localised earthquake to keep them from senior success eventually.
At the heart of it Cian Johnson has long been touted as a name to keep an eye on. His 2-7 in the county minor final in 2017 went viral. Or GAA viral at least, which is plenty when you’re still throwing on a school uniform every day. He played O’Byrne Cup and National League for the Offaly seniors the following spring in his Leaving Cert year.
Indeed, if the name rings a bell it’s because he found himself in the middle of a row as that summer came around. Then Offaly manager Stephen Wallace wanted to include him in the senior panel for the championship but the Offaly County Board wouldn’t allow it, insisting that he stay with the under-20s and play in his own age group.
It was the first year of the GAA rule that said players eligible for the under-20 grade could not turn out at underage once they had played senior championship. While the likes of David Clifford and Sean O’Shea were ushered into the starting 15 for Kerry, Johnson was held back in Offaly. The county board told him he had 15 years to be an Offaly footballer but after playing throughout the spring the notion that he wasn’t one already was hard to take.
And that would have been that, ordinarily. Johnson was a few weeks short of sitting his Leaving Cert and outside of himself and a small group of people involved in Offaly football, it would barely have caused the slightest ripple on the pond. But they weren’t quite done yet.
“Ah, it was mad really,” Johnson says. “Stephen had the idea of putting me in touch with a journalist. He reckoned that once it got a bit of publicity, he’d be able to change the county board’s mind on it. But it just backfired completely. It didn’t work at all.
“I remember going out from school with my friends at lunchtime the day it happened. We walked up the town and went into the shop, and you could see all the papers on the shelf. I was with the lads and one of them picked up the paper and I was on the front of it. I was just going, ‘what the hell is happening?’ I couldn’t believe it went that far.”
It was a short but concentrated burst with fame. The interview in the Irish Independent only carried a couple of paragraphs of quotes but they were enough. In it he accused the Offaly County Board of preventing him from living his dream of playing senior championship. In the end it had no impact on his footballing situation. But his level of notoriety briefly went through the roof.
“I was always known around Ferbane for being good at football so you’d be used to seeing yourself in the local paper or whatever. But this was a different level. Even when I went down to Limerick this year to UL, I’d introduce myself and a few people said, ‘oh, yeah, I know who you are.’
“And I’m going, like, ‘I’m from Offaly, I’m not meant to be known, I’m not Con O’Callaghan.”
That all came from that situation.
“Ah, I was definitely annoyed that that was the stance the county board took on it. The first round of the championship was against Wicklow, and I was watching it going, ‘imagine I was able to come on for the last 10-15 minutes here, I could do something to change it.’
“The game ended in a draw, and we lost in extra time, and it was one of the worst days ever for me. I was just thinking, ‘I could have been worth a score.’ You don’t know if you would have made a difference but that’s the way you think.”
From the outside looking in it’s hard to find too much to fault the Offaly County Board, it must be said. In the 18 months since Johnson has kept developing at the pace everyone in Offaly had been hoping he would. He was the point of the spear for Ferbane throughout the championship, and his level of accuracy at the business end of their title run was off the charts.
In the quarter-final, semi-final and final he amassed 2-14 from play and didn’t kick a single wide.
The football people of Offaly might not have got an awful lot right in recent years but they do know what they have in Johnson. John Maughan spoke to him during the summer and informed him he would be sticking with the county board policy but told him not to panic. When Ferbane’s run comes to an end, he would join the Offaly panel.
It’s all learning, he knows that. He thinks about the things that Ferbane have copped on to over the years, the lessons they’ve picked up from the teams that were beating them. Like everyone else in Offaly they laboured away a mile back from Rhode for years. Now they’ve beaten them twice in the one championship. You don’t manage that if you haven’t learned along the way.
“Rhode are the team that everyone in Offaly wants to beat,” he says. “You would get the feeling nearly that they took it more serious than everyone else. We got beaten by them in last year’s final and there was even just little things we noticed then that they were doing and we weren’t. On the day of the final, they arrived on a bus and when they got off it they were wearing Rhode socks, shorts, tracksuit tops, everything.
“And then after the match they were wearing matching shirts, trousers and all that heading to the hotel. Whereas we turned up in our cars and wearing whatever we wanted, Liverpool jerseys, whatever. Then when we went to the hotel afterwards we were in our shorts or tracksuits or jeans. It sounds like something very small considering we got beaten by 11 points. But we changed it this year and did things the right way. It’s a mindset thing. The first year set us up for this year.”
We’ve drained a pot of tea apiece and it’s time to finish up. Outside the main street is bare in the mid-afternoon but all along it there are specks and spots of green, telling anyone passing through that Something Has Happened Here.
Ferbane is the sort of small, out-of-the-way Irish town that hugs a championship run to itself like lost toy. Johnson knows that whatever happens against Wicklow champions St Patrick’s in the Leinster championship, 2019 will last forever. Provincial heroics might have to wait a while.
“We’ve been setting out to win Offaly for the last four years. That’s all we know. None of us have Offaly medals, none of us have played in Leinster. So it’s a new competition, but it’s hard to get the heads around it. It’s hard to get back into it because we’ve won what we wanted to win. But then you see what Mullinalaghta did last year so anything’s possible.”