GAA Football

Black eyes and split lips - the making of Kickham's Creggan brothers Ricky and Marty Johnston

Marty and Ricky Johnston have played football together – done everything together – for as long as they can remember. On Sunday they'll form the defensive spine of first ever Creggan team to play in the Ulster Club SFC. The brothers spoke to Brendan Crossan...

Ricky Johnston will be reacquainted with Conor Turbitt of Clann Eireann on Sunday Picture: Seamus Loughran

WHEN the final whistle sounded, there was a wonderful madness in the air at Corrigan Park. After 67 years, Kickham's Creggan had finally climbed the summit.

“Those four or five seconds after the final whistle, you wish you could bottle that feeling for a life-time,” says club and county full-back Ricky Johnston.

“All the things you've done over the years it's been building towards that moment. It was just amazing to finally do it.”

There were moments, beautiful, crazy moments, that will be forever lost in the delirium of the day at the Whiterock Road venue.

Marty Johnston remembers only snatches at the end.

The younger Johnston brother by 20 months had been black-carded in the closing stages of last month's county final, but the time of his enforced departure was immaterial.

Creggan had already inflicted sufficient damage to first-time finalists and underdogs St Mary's Aghagallon.

Marty had shrugged off a series of injuries and managed to string together three awesome performances at the business end of the championship against St John's, Cargin and now Aghagallon.

In the post-match mayhem, he sought out Ricky – two brothers “joined at the hip” since they were no age – and not forgetting their younger sibling Lee who'd recently graduated to Creggan's senior ranks.

All those childhood battles in the front garden, the black eyes and split lips, all in pursuit of yet another imaginary All-Ireland, the resilient spirit that patch of grass nurtured in both of them, the fall-outs, the reconciliations – two kids who were moulded by the caring hands of Richard and Mary and who grew up to be two fine young men and were now county champions.

“I always wanted to go to Ricky's age group when we were young," Marty says. "I wanted to play U12s or whatever he was playing. We've always done everything together whether it's football or outside of football.

“We used to play in the garden with some of the McCanns and the Burkes – there were no prisoners taken, nobody held back.

“I think those games stood me in good stead for later years. Ricky probably won a few early on and it probably took me a few years to get my own back on him! (laughing)

The pair are two very different footballers but equally crucial to the Kickham's wheel. Ricky has been Antrim's undisputed full-back for the last number of years while Marty, a ball-playing centre-back, would have plenty more county appearances to his name had it not been for a series of injuries.

So, what are each other's strengths?

Feeling slightly embarrassed at being asked to publicly critique each other's game, Ricky says of Marty: “People say Marty is the footballer. Growing up with him we complemented each other quite well.

“To narrow it down, it's Marty's reading of the game, whether that's intercepting a ball in the tackle or kick passing into the forwards, he's exceptional at it. Overall, it's his reading of the game more than anything else.”

And Marty on Ricky?

“I know people would say this because he's my brother but Ricky's definitely one of the best players I ever played with. He's put on every key man for county and club and he's kept the majority of them scoreless.

“His mind-set is, if you win a game and he's conceded a point, it eats him up. He'd go out the next day and he'll try to rectify it. The standards he holds himself to is probably his best attribute.”

Ricky adds: “Having a brother close in age and getting to play football with him through the age groups was unreal but at home in the garden when we were young, it was nothing short of madness. We never really went easy on each other. There were some fall-outs. I got hurt on many occasions but we got up and went again and I think that's what made us into who we are today. Getting to share that with members of your family makes it extra special.”

Kickham's Creggan ran through the brothers' veins from an early age.

“Growing up, football is all you knew,” the elder brother says.

“I was in with Creggan from an early age, I suppose I just went to the club but at U14 you never really thought too much of it.

“But going into minors it became your ambition to win at that level and the same at U21. Even senior the past 10 years it was your ambition to get to the top. I've always been driven to win, like anybody who plays sport. But it was at U16 and minor level, that's when I realised how much I really did enjoy it.”

As Ricky Johnston strode to the Devenish stage last Saturday night to collect his Antrim club Allstar award, there wasn't one person in the room who could have objected.

A paragon of consistency for club and county, Ricky accepts his younger brother's analysis of his exacting standards on the edge of the square.

“I'd be hard on myself at times,” he admits. “At full-back there is no room for error. Sometimes if you make one mistake you mightn't see the ball again for a while. If someone gets a point off me I don't let it affect me during a game. I always think about the next ball and what I can do differently, whether that's winning it out in front or making a tackle.

“If I get four hands in in a game – four turnovers – and somebody kicks a couple of points, nobody is going to talk about the four turnovers. That's the reality of playing full-back.”

Marty's appearances for club and county have been more fleeting. He didn't start the 2018 county final against Cargin having not fully recovered from a bad knee injury he sustained while playing out in Australia and, more recently, he was plagued by Osteitis Pubis – inflammation of the pelvis.

When Lenny Harbinson's Antrim side were flying high and looking good for promotion, just before the global pandemic derailed them, Marty Johnston had fought his way back to fitness.

He played the first half in a Division Four League game against Limerick in Portglenone before having to come off.

“We were unbelievable against Limerick that day,” Marty says.

“On a personal level, I was in agony and had to come off. I lay in the changing room at half-time. I thought to myself, I've done six months of rehab and I play 35 minutes of football and I'm in agony.

“I was thinking about what I have to do to get back playing football. Even this year, I didn't really train going into the St John's game [quarter-final] – and that's where Gerardy McNulty [Creggan manager] has been excellent.

“I did my ankle ligaments and I was going to get an operation but it was left that long because of COVID the doctors said it would cause more trauma to the ankle if they were to operate.

“So, the start of this year was almost a write-off. I played a couple of league games and ended up tearing my hamstring. I just had a nightmare with injuries but the boys at the club managed me so well.

“In the past, you always wanted to play and people wanted you to play but you think back: was it the right thing? I trained very little between the championship games this season because the management team wanted me to be right. Injuries are as much a mental battle as anything.”

Laborious groin strengthening and stretching exercises have become part of Marty's pre-training and pre-match routine – but he hasn't shut the door on making a return to county colours when Creggan's extended campaign ends.

“The easy answer to that question is – yes, I'd love to go back and play for Antrim,” he says.

“But there's a lot goes into it. I've a family now, but if I feel I've something to offer I would want to go back and play for Antrim. The set-up looks brilliant and it's something I'd definitely want to be involved in and challenge myself.”

For now, though, the Johnston brothers and the Kickham's are about to embark on a new challenge: the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship and a novel face-off with surprise Armagh champions Clann Eireann.

It's 67 years since Creggan last won a senior Antrim title and 58 years since their Lurgan opponents last annexed the coveted Gerry Fagan Cup from under the noses of Crossmaglen Rangers in a dramatic decider on November 14.

Given the exuberant celebrations that followed in both camps, it's probably just as well Creggan and Clann Eireann had a three-week break as opposed to two.

Whoever is mentally prepared better will win Sunday's Ulster Club quarter-final clash.

With ‘home' advantage [Corrigan Park], the best defence in Antrim by a considerable distance as well as being armed with the confidence of having beaten Cargin, the new county champions won't fear Clann Eireann.

That said, the Lurgan men have serious firepower that has been spearheaded superbly by county ace Conor Turbitt.

“We're trying to get our mind-set right as much as possible,” says Ricky.

“I've always looked at other teams playing in the Ulster Championship and looked on with jealousy to be honest. You want to test yourself against the best teams and the best players from other counties, so getting an opportunity to do that I'm every bit as driven to make an impact.

“I'm hoping Creggan can do that. We have the talent, we have the team, we have the mentality but we can't take Clann Eireann for granted. They've beaten Crossmaglen who are an exceptional team, so they'll be coming in with their tails up. It'll be a really good battle but one I'm looking forward to.”

Marty mentions the “self-belief” and “calmness” that has enveloped the Creggan ranks this season. They didn't blink when defending champions Cargin hit them with two first-half goals and they kept Aghagallon's livewire forwards well under wraps throughout the decider and won quite comfortably.

“No stone goes unturned,” Marty says.

“After the St John's game all the key points we'd have to improve on were pulled out by the management team. Those boys are watching game after game. I mean, Gerardy is watching so much, he tells us what's happened in games and what we have to do. And if you know him, that's not going to change for the Ulster Club.

“On the Monday after the final, he had his eye on the next game.”

Sunday will be new terrain for the Kickham's. But with the imposing Johnston brothers forming the defensive spine, anything is possible.

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