Thursday 23 November 2017

All sides diminished by absurd transfer mess

Seanie Johnston's move to Kildare is a more complex issue than it first appears, writes Dermot Crowe

ON Tuesday, the Seanie Johnston affair may finally draw to a close when the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) reconsiders the case in light of the Central Appeals Committee (CAC) decision to uphold an appeal by the player against an earlier refusal to grant him his transfer request to Kildare.

The CCCC may decide to allow the transfer, as it has been advised by CAC, or it may dig in its heels over concerns about residency and ethos violations. The spectre of the DRA has been constant throughout the whole process and if the matter remains unresolved then that is the likely final arbiter.

If the issue is distilled back down to a player wanting to play football and being allowed the means to exercise that right then it would appear the GAA has done Johnston a great disservice up to now, frustrating him at every turn. And ultimately it would seem that it was not entitled to do so under rule. But that would be a simplistic and selective view. It is a great deal more complex than that and everyone associated with the affair has been diminished by it.

Sympathy for Johnston's initial predicament is not easily drummed up. The question is apt: how much of Johnston's Cavan exile was of his own making? His gifts as a player are beyond dispute but he could be a difficult player to manage as more than Val Andrews discovered. The line bandied about by Johnston and frequently peddled by Kildare that Cavan didn't want him was too glib -- of course Cavan wanted him, just not under any circumstances. Who in their right mind would not want Johnston provided he was committed.

In any event, the irreconcilable issue he had with Andrews -- their working relationship had disintegrated -- no longer applied once Andrews left the post. This did not lead to a review of the situation as you might have expected if Johnston's initial premise for leaving Cavan was to be believed. Did he want county football then, you might ask, or did he want county football with Kildare?

The issue of residency is pertinent in Johnston's case and the ethos principle cannot be ignored either as otherwise we may burn every county jersey in the land and start again with allotments or numbers defining one participant from the next. There has been a furore over Johnston because in the hearts and minds of GAA people concerned about its connotations and implications there had to be. There are some things worth making a song and dance about.

In terms of residency and ethos, there are obvious misgivings and the CCCC up to now has still not been satisfied on either score. Residency had been arranged to facilitate the transfer's passage which aroused suspicion from the outset. Here was a player living over 80 miles from his home town and place of work, in a county where he had no affiliation.

At an early meeting of the CCCC, the Kildare county secretary told sceptical committee members that one reason for Johnston choosing Kildare was the presence of a fitness and conditioning trainer with whom he had worked previously in Cavan and also knew through mutual DCU associations. In fairness, it was presented as a contributory factor, not necessarily the governing one, but it is hardly pride of the parish territory. It shows how much Kildare were clutching at straws in trying to find some vaguely natural connection between a player living, working and, for most of his life, playing in Cavan, and their own county.

Had Johnston had a job in Kildare and set up home then the case would not have met with nearly as much resistance and antipathy either publicly or at committee level. This had all the hallmarks of a player being opportunistic, and a county too. The valued GAA principles of allegiance and loyalty to a place were put to one side. Johnston was "not wanted" so in steps an altruistic foster parent willing to give him a home.

But Johnston wasn't an orphaned child, just an estranged one, and there was room -- as in any dispute -- for reconciliation and him finding a way back into Cavan's plans. Greater conflicts have been resolved than Seanie Johnston and the Cavan football team; you don't have to look too far north of Cavan for evidence of that. But once Kildare entered the frame the die seemed cast. He abandoned Cavan, not the other way around, and his club was sacrificed too. He traded it all.

On the Sunday Game a week ago, all three match analysts disapproved of the Johnston transfer bid. It was not so much that the panellists felt it would be illegal -- a case could be made to support the transfer -- but they obviously felt it contravened one of the most basic GAA ideals relating to allegiance and a sense of place and belonging or community.

Johnston says he is living in Straffan but his new club, St Kevin's in Staplestown, is over eight miles away. This would be like Eamonn O'Hara announcing he was seeking a club transfer to Arva in Cavan in order to play county with the Breffni men because he fell out with the county manager. O'Hara would continue to work in Sligo and would not play with Arva but Killeshandra. Absurd.

O'Hara is no shrinking violet on or off the field and has had his troubles with managers too. He had an issue with Mickey Moran because he felt he was being unfairly singled out after a bad performance. But he rose above it. Some years ago, before he experienced the rare joy of winning a provincial title, he spoke about life as a Sligo player. Nothing would match winning a Connacht with Sligo -- 20 All-Irelands with another county wouldn't -- so there were no regrets about his birthplace. And eventually he lived his dream. He won a Connacht medal.

This year the same issue was discussed with a player from an even lower caste, the retired Wicklow hurler Don Hyland. He was approached to play a higher level by another county during his career. "I didn't entertain them at all," he said. "I couldn't understand why lads would leave their own clubs. I wouldn't get the same buzz out of it. I couldn't see myself not going into a Carnew or a Wicklow dressing room. I would have to be loyal to the lads who coached me at underage level and I think other lads should be loyal as well."

Mercifully, for those who believe in those aspirations, a great many other players out there at all levels share the same sentiments. There are no guarantees Johnston will play for Kildare this season, even if the CCCC consents to the transfer. Kildare face Offaly in two weeks and he has surely missed that deadline given that he first needs to play local club championship under a new rule introduced at Congress.

If he does play for Kildare then he will begin under a burden of expectation and public scrutiny that has to be considered unhealthy for any player. Kildare, a county keen to win a Leinster championship at least this year, having invested massive time and money into the project, have had to endure a prolonged circus and PR fiasco. They have been cast in a poor and predatory light. Bringing lads in from outside is never likely to win you popularity.

Nor does the GAA cover itself in glory. The length of time it has taken to deal with the issue is disquieting. The rules themselves are unclear, though there was some tightening of rules relating to transfers at Congress. The player's appeal was upheld because one rule states that a transfer will be allowed if there is no formal objection within ten days. Cavan had not formally objected to his transfer, although they had made their reservations clear to the CCCC on the basis of the residency issue.

The fact that the CAC is chaired by Liam Keane, with a DRA background, adds credibility to the finding. It would be a surprise if the CCCC did not now grant the transfer but there is also a rule on residency being a requirement of successful transfer applications, creating an apparent contradiction.

Kildare look to have acquired one of Cavan's best footballers of the last ten years to add more teeth and precision to their attack. Meanwhile, Cavan, on the back of underage success, are seeking to re-establish the county as a force in the province in his likely absence. "It's a mess," said one leading GAA official during the week. Percy French would have got a song out of it for sure.

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