GAA Football

I still want to play for Down: Kilcoo ace Jerome Johnston

 Kilcoo GAC footballer Jerome Johnston Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile 

JEROME Johnston still hasn’t ruled out returning to the Down fold this season after a year away – but urged the GAA to declare a proper closed season to help players.

Speaking ahead of Sunday’s AIB Ulster SF Club Championship decider with Fermanagh champions Derrygonnelly, the 28-year-old Kilcoo attacker explained why he stepped away from the county panel in 2021.

“I love playing for Down, but last year was difficult with COVID and the birth of our wee man was coming,” he said.

“I wasn’t vaccinated and Sheryl wasn’t able to get vaccinated, so that was a major driving force to stay away and prevent bringing those things home.

“I was very cautious with that right up to the birth. I love putting on the Kilcoo jersey - I love putting on the Down jersey as well. That’s no secret. It’s definitely something I want to do [to play for Down again], that’s being honest with you.”

Johnston is playing some of the best football of his trophy-laden career, having bagged two majors against Cavan champions Ramor United in the provincial quarter-final before hitting the game-winning goal against Derry champions Glen in the semi-finals.

A new management team of James McCartan and Aidan O’Rourke may give the Mournemen the kick they need heading into 2022 – but their chances would be greatly enhanced by a weighty Kilcoo contingent.

But Johnston feels the GAA calendar doesn’t help matters and believes more changes are required to the split season.

“The split season is good but I think it was Conor McManus that said after one of the games that there is a split season but you’ve also an Ulster Club Championship that is actually six or seven weeks later than it actually used to be.

“So the split season that takes longer to finish probably isn’t the answer either. From the second week of December to the third week in January, the GAA needs a complete close down for everyone – all competitions should be done and dusted at that stage.

“The purpose of a split season surely has to be that the players are getting the chance of a closed window. At the minute there is not because you can see clubs still going, the McKenna Cup is going...

“Because it’s constantly going, sometimes you’re going [to the county team] but you’re not giving your best mentally, you’re fatigued. I know from my own point of view you were going all the time but you weren’t really giving it your best.

“You were going, just to go, rather than going because you were mad eager. I think definitely COVID [in 2020] when there was that split season - when one finished and the other started; that definitely made it a lot easier. You had dates and there was no crossover at all.”

With his sole focus on trying to retain the provincial silverware (there was no Ulster Club series in 2020 due to COVID), Johnston said the Kilcoo squad kept busy over the Christmas period and trained on St Stephen’s Day and every “two or three days” after that in preparation for Sunday’s final with Derrygonnelly.

He also heaped praise on the former Derry and Donegal manager Mickey Moran for taking the Magpies to the next level since arriving in late 2018.

“Before Mickey came in and we were going down the stretch [in games] we were maybe rushing things. We just hadn’t got over the line [in Ulster] ...

“We felt we were training very hard before Mickey and the boys came in but they just brought it to another level. Obviously he has experience and has been with numerous teams, he’s got the know-how, but one of the key things was how hard he makes us train was something I don’t think anybody was expecting.

“In 2019, it was a slog, it was tough going, but we felt that year we’d trained really hard but obviously Corofin trained harder than us in the finish up [in the All-Ireland final]. He really instilled hard work is the key ingredient.

“But watching Derrygonnelly playing Clann Eireann [in the semei-finals] they looked super fit and they played the game with 14 men for over 30 minutes, so obviously their fitness levels are in a really good place as well. I’m not saying that fitness will win the game - but whoever is fitter, it will give them a great chance.”

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GAA Football