There will have been times during his career that Mikey Johnston might have concluded that if it wasn’t for bad luck he’d have no luck at all. He had been feeling that way again when Stephen Kenny took a trip to northern Portugal last month to watch the winger in action for Vitoria Guimareas in a derby game against Sporting Braga.
“And I didn’t even get a bloody minute,” he says, having been an unused substitute that night. “It was a wee bit in my head, he won’t pick me now.”
Mind you the Republic of Ireland manager might have reckoned that his latest recruit was well off out of a game that featured three red cards, supporters chucking abuse and seats at each other, and the police intervening to calm things down on and off the pitch.
But having talked to Kenny in the months before about switching his international allegiance from his native Scotland to Ireland, it was frustrating for Johnston that he did not get to see him perform in the flesh in the Primeira Liga fixture.
“Especially when he’d taken the trouble to come over,” he says. “It was disappointing, but we went out for breakfast together, had a chat next morning. He’d watched enough games, the team in the background were analysing my games, he’d seen enough to pick me – and now it’s down to me to repay him.”
The first instalment of that repayment came within a minute of him coming on for his debut against Latvia on Wednesday night, some trickery down the left, followed by a right foot shot that hit the post, the rebound turned home by Chiedozie Ogbene, resulting in the game’s winner. It was a promising cameo from a player who provided no shortage of them for Celtic after being given his debut as an 18-year-old by Brendan Rodgers back in 2017.
“Mikey is a big talent,” said Rodgers, who had high hopes for the product of the club’s youth system. “He has that special ability to go past people, that speed that takes him away, and he’s got confidence and a bit of charisma on the field. He doesn’t need an injection of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s got a lovely arrogance when he plays.”
But thereafte, the bad luck kicked in, Johnston blighted by a series of injuries – medial ligament, thigh, calf, hamstring, you name it – some of which required surgery, all of which severely hampered his progress.
So much so the club opted to loan him out to Vitoria last September in the hope that if he could stay injury-free he could get some game-time under his belt.
So far so good-ish, Johnston not yet establishing himself in Vitoria’s first team (currently fifth in the table), his 20 appearances divided between starting and coming on as a sub. But he’s enjoying the experience.
“It’s good, really good. I had a tough time with surgeries and injuries in the last couple of years, but for a full year – touch wood – I have been fine and managed to get myself back to full fitness. Vitoria has been a great platform for me, they are in a big, competitive league, I have had a lot of starts, a lot of games, a lot of consistency, which is what I needed.
“I’ve been doing stuff in the gym to get myself right. It’s been a time when I could get myself back feeling good, like a reset button. I have got myself in a place now where I feel I am ready to play international football.”
Having played for Scotland at underage level, up to and including their under-21s, rejecting advances from the Republic of Ireland along the way, Johnston finally answered Kenny’s call, his Derry grandparents making him eligible for the switch.
“It’s always been talked about, it’s in my family, in my blood. My mum and dad, we had a conversation, they said go for it if it’s what you want. I have some family in Derry, some in Donegal, some in Dublin as well. I have them all over the place, but Derry is the link. I have had texts off all my aunties and stuff from all over Ireland I didn’t know I even had.”
Any worries about a backlash like the one his boyhood hero Aiden McGeady experienced?
“I think times have changed,” he says. “I made this decision, people respect that or they don’t. I am my own man, and they’ll never know the reasons why I did it.”
Whether or not he returns to Celtic remains to be seen. “I don’t want to sit on the bench and not get games, I just want to feel important,” he says.
He’ll most likely start Monday’s game against France on the bench, but Stephen Kenny has a notion that Mikey Johnston could yet prove important for Ireland. The Glaswegian is intent on proving him right.