Joe Brolly

An unlikely transfer of loyalties

The Sean Johnston debacle shows where the GPA semi-professional ethos will take the GAA

WHEN Down’s legendary forward and current manager Wee James McCartan applied for a transfer from his club Tullylish to Burren in the 90s, the county was thrown into uproar. As the crisis mounted, a panel was convened by the County Board to investigate whether Burren parish was in fact his permanent residence.

The rule specifies that a player can only play for a given club if his permanent residence is in the locality. The address provided by James was Lazy Hill, Burren, Co Down. When the  deputation from the Board went to check it out for themselves, they found a rundown caravan parked in a field.


“It wasn’t in great condition” was one official’s description. Alas, like old Mother Hubbard’s, the cupboards and fridge were bare, sparking concerns in Down that their All-Star corner forward was surviving on a diet of fast food and Chinese carry-outs.

To allay their concerns, the officials were shown a set of ambitious plans to build an imposing residence on the site.

To this day, Lazy Hill is a green field. As for the tumbledown caravan, it is gone. I like to think that the makers of Father Ted spotted it on a random trip through the Mourne county and snapped it up at a bargain price, then used it in the celebrated episode where Ted and the lads go on holiday.

“Is that Seaneen Reilly back from the disco with some heroin?”

I had assumed it was crushed in a breaker’s yard years ago, but suddenly, the transfer caravan has resurfaced, this time in Staplestown, County Kildare. Last Wednesday, the 2.35pm race at Down Royal was the Sean Graham Bookmakers Maiden Hurdle. When the name of horse number eight was announced, a ripple of laughter went round the meeting.

The horse that caused the mirth was Kildare Blow-in, with a competitive record of seven starts, no wins, a third and two seconds. The talk quickly turned to Seanie Johnston.
The first team he ever kicked a ball for was Cavan Gaels. Based in Cavan town, they are the county’s powerhouse and Seanie is one of their key men.

The reigning county champions have won eight titles in ten years. In the 2011 season, Seanie was the county’s captain. A Cavan man to the core? Think again. Suddenly, he wants to play for Kildare, but he can only do that if his permanent residence is there.

The problem arose when Seanie, along with two other graduates of DCU – a semi-professional third level Gaelic football institute that tends to churn out players with a semi-professional attitude – were told at the turn of the year by county manager Val Andrews that they were surplus to requirements. One minute, Sean was the county’s captain and premier forward. The next, he was out.

Management felt they were being undermined in the dressing room and Andrews and his assistants would no longer tolerate it. The general expectation was that Seanie would knuckle down with his club, then be back in the county fray come April, this time on Andrews’ terms.

However, no sooner had the news of Sean being dropped from the Cavan squad hit the street, than he was being linked with Kildare. Kieran McGeeney is a man on a mission, with the resources to fund that mission. He is desperate to finish first. He is fed up with second or third.

The über-professional training regime he presides over has created a super fit team. But they lack a high grade scoring forward. Without that, they will keep finishing outside the places.

Year in, year out they have nearly got there. A poacher that can hit a few inspired points or a timely goal is all they lack. After Sean was dropped from the Cavan squad, he went to Australia and hooked up with ex Cavan footballer Nicholas Walsh, who plies his trade as a fitness coach with Aussie Rules franchise Greater Western Sydney. Walsh promptly gave an interview where he said he would fully understand it if Seanie wished to play for a new county.

For some reason, everyone was talking about Kildare. McGeeney soon proclaimed that Seanie would be welcomed with open arms. A cynic might suspect it was all being carefully choreographed. Not me of course.

As if by magic, St Kevin’s in Staplestown materialised as his new Kildare club. It is plainly coincidental that Niall Carew, McGeeney’s right hand man is a St Kevin’s club man. As we reached for the maps and the route-finders, we discovered Staplestown is a forbidding 82 miles from Cavan town.

This week, when a photograph was released of Seanie training with the junior club he hopes to join, I almost vomited.

The problem is that for the transfer to be valid, Seanie must prove that it is his permanent residence. Yet he is a secondary teacher at Breffni College, Cavan’s Vocational School. And Declan Woods, the Cavan PRO, explaining last week why the County Board has declined to sign the transfer request, said simply, “Seanie lives in Cavan town.”

Shane Supple, the goalie for St Brigid’s in Dublin, revealed this week that he had been approached last year by Kildare’s management and asked to join them. Shane was a professional soccer keeper who left Ipswich because he had become disenchanted with professional sport. “My heart is in Gaelic football and in my club,” he said at the time.

Needless to say, he gave Kildare’s scouts short shrift.

The values of the GAA are being openly bastardised in the county. Kieran McGeeney has said he will welcome  Seanie with open arms and treat him like any other Kildare man.

Only he’s not a Kildare man. Kildare need a striker, or a goalie, or a defender, so like any soccer club, they find out who is available then import him. It is a professional ethos that threatens to destroy the GAA.

As Tyrone legend Philip Jordan tweeted in January, “Seanie Johnston looking to transfer to Kildare? That’s what we have to look forward to if the GPA get their real long-term goal of a pro GAA.”

St Kevin’s and the Kildare board are equally culpable, signing the transfer form stating that Seanie’s permanent residence is in the parish. This shows scant regard for the whole notion of the GAA on many different levels.

Spare a thought for the corner forward who has played for the club all his life and will be dropped without hesitation when the stranger with no link to the village arrives fresh from his long journey south. Think of the introductions in the dressing room.

“This is Seanie lads, as you all know he is living in the town now [big laugh] so we’ll be seeing a lot more of him [bigger laugh] as he’s here to stay [enormous laugh].”

The Cavan Board is sticking to its guns on this one and they are right to. As for Seanie, he is a foolish young man who should have listened to Philip Jordan’s advice.

“What makes the GAA great is the pride players have in their club and county, as well as the pride club people have in one of their own. Sean’s motivation should be to earn back his place in the Cavan squad.”

As for ‘Kildare Blow In’, he trailed in at the back of the field in Down Royal. I like to think this is an omen for Seanie and his new best friends.