Colm Keys: Johnson - a star in the making but too young for his county
Offaly rule prevents rising star from making senior debut, committing him to U-20s instead
The new year was only a few days old when a new name went up in lights on a cold Wednesday night in Parnell Park.
A routine O'Byrne Cup second-round game between Offaly and what was effectively a third-string Dublin team (Brian Howard, Colm Basquel and Shane Carthy were still among those to feature) radiated for the performance of the visitors' corner-forward, 18-year-old Cian Johnson who scored six points from play, including a nerveless late equaliser.
Locally, Johnson had been making waves for some time as an All-Ireland 'B' colleges winner and a three-time Offaly minor championship winner with Ferbane-Belmount. In last year's minor final he scored 2-7 and comparisons with Niall McNamee have been inevitable.
When he followed up with four points against Longford in the opening round of Offaly's Division 3 NFL campaign, a game they lost heavily, it stood to reason that the county could look forward to watching an exciting prospect as the season unfolded.
He played in four subsequent games, missing two because of his involvement in the Leinster colleges championship with Gallen CS where he is sitting his Leaving Cert in a few weeks time. But that's where his competitive involvement with the county senior squad effectively ended.
This is because of an internal Offaly rule - framed last September and re-affirmed at their most recent County Board meeting - that players eligible for the new U-20 grade cannot play senior championship football. Under general rule, any player who is selected on a 26-man senior championship squad is ineligible to play in an U-20 match in the same year.
With the Leinster U-20 Championship not starting until after Offaly's opening SFC game on Sunday, or even after a potential quarter-final against Dublin in Tullamore on May 27 and not finishing until June 16 at the earliest, the business of the senior squad could be wrapped up by then.
It has left Johnson bitterly disappointed that he won't be able to feature for the team he has spent the last six months preparing with and is being denied what has been a lifetime ambition. He knows, at some stage in the future, he will probably get his chance but feels with injury, loss of form and potential travel he can never be certain of anything.
Senior team manager Stephen Wallace has made it abundantly clear that he is part of their plans but the county board is sticking rigidly to that September decision.
"When I was on all the developments squads, that's (making the Offaly senior team) what I was being told by all the coaches. That's what all the work is for, that's the end goal. I nearly have made it. I'm very disappointed," he said. "The rule leaves it up to individual counties to decide for themselves, to allow the respective managements to decide.
"Down in Kerry David Clifford and Sean O'Shea are U-20 but Kerry are prioritising the senior team and they're allowed play senior championship because they're good enough and they've come to an agreement. It was a big commitment for me to take on. I'm doing the Leaving Cert and I wanted to play so much for the seniors. I've been balancing school work and playing for Offaly.
"The training schedule for the senior team meant I wasn't with the U-20 team all year. I've only played two challenge matches with the U-20s. I've been training three to four times a week with the seniors, I've played all the O'Byrne Cup games, five out of seven league games."
Johnson says he is keen to dispel any perception that he doesn't want play with the U-20s, he just wants to play with the seniors more, now that the opportunity has presented itself at a young age. "I wasn't sure if I was in Stephen's plans or not but I kept pushing anyway. If Stephen had told me that I wasn't in his plans for the championship, I wouldn't have had a problem going back and playing with the U-20s.
"People are getting the wrong impression that I don't want to play for the U-20s. That's not the case. It's just want to test myself at the highest level more," he pointed out.
"I don't think I'm too good for them (U-20s), that's not what's happening. Stephen made it clear to me that he wants me to play against Wicklow, that turned my head completely. "As far as I know, Offaly are the only county that have decided to bring in their own rule that if you are U-20, you must play U-20."
Johnson would love to make his debut against Wicklow on Sunday but even more tantalising is the prospect, if they win that game, of playing Dublin in Tullamore two weeks later, a chance he doesn't know if he'll get again.
"The motivation of that to play the likes of them in front of a home crowd," he reasoned. "This is just affecting me. In Wexford there are 10 or 11 lads crossing over between U-20s and the seniors. If that was the case here I'd understand that they don't want to take away from the 20s, but this is one player."
Offaly chairman Tommy Byrne said the decision was taken last September to let managements know well in advance and so it wouldn't be about any one individual.
"We believe that all players should play with their own age group. That decision was made on principle. It's a development issue. Let them develop with their own age group. How many Cian Johnsons has there been, a year in there setting the world on fire, then never heard tell of again. They're often too young. With physique and the way it's gone, players sometimes are not strong enough."
When the issue was revisited last week at the request of Wallace Byrne said the decision was still "unanimous."
"This won't be reversed. This is finished with. That's the way it is in this case unless the clubs make a different decision for next year. But the decision for this year is made. The clubs in the county, who are the County Board, had their say on this twice and have made the decision."
When it was put to Byrne (who was chairman back then too) that McNamee played for Offaly seniors in 2003 while still a minor, he pointed out that it took McNamee time to find his feet too. And as for Kerry's release of Clifford and O'Shea Byrne said that was entirely "their decision."
To some, Offaly's stance will draw admiration for its intention to be patient with a talented player like Johnson. But the old adage, that if a player is 'good enough, he's old enough' seems relevant here, especially in a county where this kind of talent doesn't come along too often.