Time Out: Why Jerome Johnston sr had to go with his gut

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Even apart from his three sons playing for Kilcoo, Jerome Johnston sr is so embedded into the fabric of Kilcoo's success story that it is unthinkable for him to manage another team against the Magpies. Picture by Hugh Russell
Even apart from his three sons playing for Kilcoo, Jerome Johnston sr is so embedded into the fabric of Kilcoo's success story that it is unthinkable for him to manage another team against the Magpies. Picture by Hugh Russell

AS he stepped away from the team cool-down over at the terrace side of the Athletic Grounds on Saturday night, dust starting to settle on a huge night in Ballybay’s history, Jerome Johnston sr was polite but unequivocal.

“Well,” he said, piercing blue eyes peering out from beneath his baseball cap, before nodding in the direction of joint manager Mark Doran, “that man’ll be doing the talking…”

Speaking to the media, and the inevitable questions headed his way, would come in time. First, though, the pair convened close to the centre of the field where Ballybay had earlier laid waste to a fancied Crossmaglen side – the meeting before the meeting, as everyone knows, is always the most important.

After sharing a few ecstatic moments with the players, Doran walked into the corridor between the changing rooms, presumably leaving Johnston sr to deliver the bad, and fairly uncomfortable news that he wouldn’t – to his mind, couldn’t - be involved in their quarter-final showdown against his beloved Kilcoo.

It is a topic that has commanded debate not only in recent days, but ever since the Ulster Championship draw set Ballybay on a potential collision course with a Magpies side that contains Johnston sr’s three sons - Jerome jr, Ryan and Shealan.

From around 8.30pm on Saturday night, it must have been difficult to separate the dream from the nightmare. Johnston sr and Doran had come up with the perfect tactics, getting their match-ups bang on, to take down a Crossmaglen side who started as 2/7 favourites.

For most of the final quarter, the result appeared a foregone conclusion. The Monaghan champions had worked so hard to get here, earning a first crack at Ulster in a decade, the Paul Finlay fairytale after missing out 10 years ago, and now a maiden win on the provincial stage that has only left them hungry for more.

A penny for Johnston sr’s thoughts then as reality suddenly began to bite. No matter your opinion, and everybody has one, you wouldn’t envy any man that predicament.

Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, Johnston sr – who first got involved with Ballybay at the tail end of 2020 - said the outcome was already pre-ordained in the event of such an unlikely situation arising.

“Before I even met with Ballybay, it was made clear I couldn’t coach against Kilcoo,” he said, “I’ve had messages from both sets of players, messages that I value so much I cannot even explain. But how could I manage against my own children?”

For Jerome Johnston sr, this is just one aspect in which his situation differs from other high-profile instances in the recent past. Ryan and Shealan both still live at home. Jerome jr is a few doors down. They are an extremely tight unit.

Nephews Ceilum Doherty and the Branagan brothers - Aidan, Aaron, Darryl, Niall and Eugene – are a stone’s throw away. Although, as Johnston sr revealed in an interview ahead of Kilcoo’s All-Ireland final date with Kilmacud Croke’s back in February, sometimes the strength of those family ties could be tested.

“They’d all go out into the garden when they were wee boys, oh my God there was some rows. You couldn’t have spoke to one another for weeks.

“There was nights they’d have come home after a game, maybe even a training game, and I’d have gone mad at them, saying ‘I’m telling you now, see the next night? Don’t you be soft’. This is a Branagan they’re talking about! ‘See the next chance you get? You lift him, because he done you dirty there’.

“Then I’d go round to the Branagans’ to see their side of the story - ‘well boys… how’d the training go?’ Nothing. You knew when you got the silent treatment, there was revenge in the works.

“I used to hear phone calls in the house ‘don’t you worry, we’ll get them’, then two nights later they’d be playing against Bryansford or Burren, maybe a row broke out and the whole lot of them’s in together, beating for each other.”

It’s an anecdote that probably best sums up not just the Johnstons and the Branagans, but Kilcoo as a whole. Nothing, and nobody, comes before the club.

Jerome Johnston sr was one of those who helped instil that pride of parish at a time when the Magpies hovered between Division Two and Three, having spent so much time seething after seeing friends from St Malachy’s High School decked out in Bryansford and Castlewellan gear.

“They had identity,” he recalled, “we had nothing.”

Alongside a handful of others, he got involved in coaching the club’s underage during the late 1980s, and gradually the ball began to roll. Kilcoo’s class of 1992 came up short in an East Down final that year but went on to secure a first all-county championship four years later.

A minor title followed in 1998, back-to-back U21 crowns in 2000 and 2001, before in 2003 Kilcoo defeated Castlewellan in that year’s league final. Johnston sr’s days on the edge of the square were coming to a close, but another journey was already under way.

After the promised land of a first Down championship had been reached, others soon followed. But that still wasn’t enough, and Johnston sr got involved again when a minor team including the likes of Ceilum Doherty, Dylan Ward, Eugene Branagan and Miceal Rooney began to falter.

“They were in a bad place. One evening I was up at the shed and I heard this commotion going on at the field, I went over and Kilcoo had 12 men left. Discipline was terrible, they couldn’t get the numbers out, half of them didn’t want to play.

“Like everything else, I overstepped the mark, fell out with the managers, so I got involved. As the wife says, ‘that’s you again, sticking your nose in’. But by this time we were starting to win senior championships, and I never wanted to lose what we had.”

Now Kilcoo are winning Ulster and All-Ireland titles, he still doesn’t want to jeopardise what they have. It is impossible not to have huge sympathy for the Ballybay players who have heeded every word in pursuit of success this season, but similarly it would take a cold heart not to understand the nuances of the dilemma faced.

Of the 28-man panel that travels to Clones on Sunday, few if any will not have benefitted from his guiding hand at some stage. Even removing his sons from the equation for a second, you are talking about a man whose fingerprints can be found on every part of their success story during recent decades.

In such a unique situation, it is impossible to satisfy everybody’s idea of loyalty and which way it should work. For Jerome Johnston sr, therefore, the only choice was to go with his gut.