GAA Football

Seanie Johnston hoping to help Cavan end 20-year Ulster itch - starting against Monaghan

Seanie Johnston returned to the Cavan fold last year and helped them gain promotion to Division One
Neil Loughran

WHEN Seanie Johnston was first drafted into the Cavan fold as a skinny 17-year-old, he looked around the changing room and saw Larry Reilly sitting in one corner. Jason Reilly was nearby. Elsewhere sat men like Dermot McCabe, Anthony Forde, Mickey Graham.

The list goes on.

It was 2003. Just six years had passed since Cavan last conquered Ulster. Less than two years before he walked through the door, they were narrowly defeated in a provincial decider.

Armagh had just got their hands on Sam Maguire for the first time, Tyrone were about to land number one of three All-Irelands in the space of six years.

Ulster football was on the up and, as he looked at those in blue jerseys to his left and right, Johnston – imbued by the exuberance of youth – saw no reason why Cavan couldn’t ride the crest of the wave too.

Fast forward 14 years, and 1997 remains the last time the Anglo-Celt resided in the Breffni County. That 2001 loss to Tyrone was their last final appearance.

Now 32, Johnston knows the clock is ticking. As a teacher of PE, Biology and Accountancy at Breifne College, just out the road from Kingspan Breffni Park, he spends his days surrounded by young faces.

With a panel bolstered by successes at minor and U21 level since the turn of the decade, it’s the same inside the four walls of the Cavan dressing room too.

“2003 seems a long time ago alright,” he smiles. “Now I’m the old one – they let me know about it too!

“But it’s great, I’m so happy to still be involved with this group of players and I don’t say that lightly. Any bit of experience I can give to the younger lads coming through is something I’d be very eager to do.

“It’s something I was very appreciative of starting out with the older lads in the squad - it’s nice to hear positive words coming from someone who’s been there for a long time.”

And Johnston has been there for a long time, if not all the time.

The last 18 months have marked something of a second coming for the Cavan Gaels man following his messy transfer to Kildare in 2012.

When he arrived at last Friday’s press night, Johnston breezed through the door as though walking on air. School was officially out for summer, 11 weeks off all he could see on the horizon as the sun split the trees outside Breffni Park.

“I can’t hide my delight,” he laughed.

The smile fades temporarily when the subject turns to those years spent with the Lilywhites, during which he cruelly found himself pitted against his native county in the 2013 Qualifiers.

Johnston has largely kept his counsel since making a low-key return to the Cavan set-up in early 2016, the prodigal son announcing his arrival with a six-point haul in a League game against Meath – his first start in Breffni blue since 2011.

“Everything’s going fine,” he says when asked how his return had been received.

“I came back into a dressing room that was very strong, a lot of good leaders and boys who had come in on the back of U21 success, they’re a tight knit bunch.

“Our squad is very, very united, they’re a great bunch of lads and anyone in there would do anything in there for anyone in the group.”

Understandably given the passage of time, it’s not a subject Johnston cares to linger on. However, like the tightest of man-markers, it’s one he will struggle to escape.

“You try to look forward rather than look back. Everybody still asks about it. Everybody…” “But look, it’s fine. It’s not going to change now, it is what it is so you just have to look forward and see can you contribute in any positive way.”

Johnston’s experience proved crucial as Cavan gained promotion to Division One in his first year back, but the transition to the top flight proved every bit as difficult as had been anticipated.

Without London-based full-forward David Givney, they struggled for scores and posted the lowest return of any of the eight counties plying their trade in Division One.

Despite an upturn in fortunes towards the end of the League campaign – they defeated All-Ireland finalists Mayo in Castlebar and drew with Kerry at home – relegation duly followed.

Sunday’s Ulster Championship opponents Monaghan, meanwhile, only missed out on a League final date on scoring difference, and have been widely tipped to carry their good form into the summer months.

Cavan are generally on offer at around 2/1 to beat their Farney neighbours and, considering they have home advantage, a few canny punters might fancy a few quid on Mattie McGleenan’s men upsetting the odds.

But having played with several of the Monaghan players at college level and in the Railway Cup, and lost to the Farneymen in the 2013 and 2015 Championships, Johnston knows all too well the size of the challenge faced.

“It’s a big game, there’s no point in playing it down.

“They can probably count themselves unlucky not to get to the League final, so I think the Championship and Cavan v Monaghan probably takes on a life of its own. They’re very close and the rivalry is very big, so it’s going to be a tight game.”

This July marks 20 years since Martin McHugh stood in the middle of a St Tiernach’s Park moshpit after leading Cavan to the promised land, with fans bouncing off him on every side at the final whistle.

A 13-year-old Seanie Johnston was there that day and remembers bursting with pride as Stephen King held the Anglo-Celt aloft. What he wouldn’t give to experience something similar before the curtain comes down on his own inter-county playing days.

“I remember it well, but it’s a long time ago and we haven’t been in a final since ’01.

“We would’ve had a fair few heartaches in semi-finals and so on, especially in the last few years.

There’s plenty writing Cavan off – there’s nothing we can do about it.

“Monaghan are huge favourites for this game, that’s not me trying to ramp up pressure on them, it’s just the reality of the situation. It’s not rocket science when you look at what they’ve achieved in recent years.

“But there’s a huge belief in those younger lads in our squad that they can really compete and win. This is a big year for us.”

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