independent

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Martin Breheny: Amateur Johnston vilified yet nobody questions loyalty of 'heroic figure' Sexton

THIS is the story of two Jonnys, one from Dublin city, the other from Cavan town. Dublin Jonny is Jonathon Sexton, out-half for Leinster and Ireland; Cavan Jonny is Seanie Johnston, Gaelic footballer formerly with his native county and Cavan Gaels and now with Kildare and St Kevin's.

At the age of 27, Cavan Jonny learned in late 2011 that after eight years in a county senior jersey, he was no longer wanted. That was rather surprising, given his stature as Cavan's top forward over previous seasons. The parting of the ways was, according to local legend, down to that great catch-all, 'personality differences'.

In order to pursue his inter-county career, Johnston sought a transfer to Kildare, sparking off a major controversy which raged for several months last year. Residency is a defining issue in inter-county transfers and the GAA were, shall we say, suspicious of Johnston's bone fides concerning his new arrangements with Kildare.

Eventually, the transfer was approved and Johnston joined Kildare and St Kevin's, but not before he had shipped heavy criticism from many and varied quarters. He was portrayed as an opportunist, working to wriggle through the GAA's inter-county transfer rules, while walking out on the club that had nurtured him since he was a kid.

It was all very emotive and, frankly, deeply unfair. The reality was that his native county no longer wanted him and in order to pursue an inter-county career – surely a reasonable ambition – he had to leave his home club and move elsewhere.

Most relevant of all, Johnston was an amateur, playing purely for personal fulfilment, but that didn't insulate him from bitter criticism, some emanating from senior GAA figures.

A year on, Dublin Jonny, also aged 27, is facing a career choice too. Unlike Cavan Jonny, who had to leave home in order to play at the highest level, Dublin Jonny can stay local and, in the process, earn up to €500,000 a year in basic pay from the IRFU. However, if he heads for France, his earnings could reach €750,000 per annum. That's according to inspired leaks.

What to do? That's one for Dublin Jonny and his advisors. Still, it's a pretty nice dilemma and, no doubt, they will have fun dealing with it.

Now here's the interesting thing. Even if Dublin Jonny spurns a €10,000-per-week (there's also tax benefits for remaining in Ireland) deal to stay with Leinster, he can expect widespread support.

Instead, the IRFU would be crucified for allowing one of their finest talents to depart, even if there has to be a point when wage ceilings must apply.

Dublin Jonny certainly won't be vilified for quitting the province and the structures that helped make him what he is. Nor will his loyalty be questioned. Instead, it will be a case of "business is business." Dublin Jonny, now on €750,000 in France, would still be regarded as a heroic figure back home, a professional merely doing what's right for him. Fair enough.

Yet Cavan Jonny, an amateur, stood accused of treachery last year, because he wanted to play at the highest level, an opportunity denied him at home.

Now, the contrast between Dublin Jonny and Cavan Jonny is irrelevant in rugby circles, but should jangle a few bells in GAA-land.

Nobody is advocating a free-for-all transfer system where players are allowed to cross county boundaries at will, but, in situations where it happens through a particular set of circumstances, the player(s) involved should not be treated as pariahs.

Betrayal

In a broader context, the GAA world expects ridiculously high standards of its players, including their off-pitch behaviour. If a GAA player is seen sipping a glass of lager any time during the season, it's regarded as a betrayal of club and/or county.

Yet, when professional rugby and soccer players have a blow-out, it's seen as a necessary part of letting off steam. Again, the problem here rests with attitudes within the GAA to the perceived responsibilities of its top players. They are expected to train like professionals, without enjoying anything like the same amount of rest time; their entire lives are supposed to revolve around an amateur game; their every off-field move is scrutinised and, as Johnston discovered last year, the wrath of righteousness will descend if you're deemed (irrespective of the facts) to be disloyal.

Meanwhile, no such censure will apply to Sexton if he quits Leinster. That's the difference between Cavan Jonny and Dublin Jonny when they play with a different-shaped ball.

Hickey void decisive in '05 Cats demise

Prior to the 2005 All-Ireland hurling semi-final, Kilkenny had conceded only one goal in their previous six championship games. Noel Hickey had been at full-back for five of them.

Then, on a crazy August afternoon in Croke Park, Kilkenny were hit for five goals in 57 minutes by Galway, en route to a three-point defeat in what was their biggest goal giveaway in a semi-final since 1929.

Defensively, Kilkenny were chaotic and Galway, for whom Niall Healy scored 3-0, gleefully filled their sacks. They later lost the final to Cork.

The big question is whether the 2005 championship would have taken a different turn if Hickey had been around for the full campaign? Probably.

Indeed, if Hickey were playing, it's likely that Kilkenny would not only have beaten Galway, but Cork in the final too.

In that case, they would have clinched the five-in-a-row in 2009. It's a measure of Hickey's consistency through a decade of unprecedented success for Kilkenny that his absence in 2005 was probably just as influential in deciding the destination of the All-Ireland title as his presence had been over several other seasons.

Offaly's green shoots to be tested by lilies

GREEN shoots are always welcome, not least in Offaly football, which has endured a horrendous run since they reached the Leinster final in 2006.

Without any win in the Leinster senior championship since 2007, they dropped into Division 4 last year, a season in which they won only two of 11 games (v Westmeath, O'Byrne Cup and v Cavan, NFL) in all competitions.

Under new manager Emmet McDonnell (right), they have already won three O'Byrne Cup games this year, chiselling out their third victory after being four points behind against Westmeath at half-time last Sunday.

The pick-up should swell the crowd for Offaly's clash with Kildare in Tullamore next Sunday and will also provide a genuine pointer to the real status of the Faithful flourish.

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