Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Antrim defender Martin Johnson has best of both worlds

Creggan's new hurler Martin Johnson in his more familiar role as an Antrim footballer

This time of year holds equal amount of anticipation for those engaged in playing inter-county Gaelic games.

Dread comes with the kind of strains and stresses of winter training, soon giving way to the excitement of new beginnings as league campaigns approach. For Antrim football defender Martin Johnson, though, he has another avenue to pursue as he lines out for the hurlers of Creggan Kickhams in their All-Ireland Junior semi-final against Fullen Gaels.

While the debate about the viability of dual players will always be a concern, Johnson praises the flexibility that his county manager, Liam Bradley, and club manager Thomas McCann have afforded him.

"You can't do everything for everybody so it's been difficult, but both managers have been understanding," says Johnson, operating at wing-back in the Championship campaign so far.

"Coming closer to the game, even in a few friendlies there, I was let go to play in them, now I am training all week with the hurlers, getting our last wee bits of preparation done. I have been involved with both as much as I can."

He even sees the benefits in keeping players mentally fresh in switching back and forward between codes, joking: "Especially when you are having a stinker in one and you can go away to the other! You are still doing something but you are also getting a break from the monotony."

Johnson was first brought onto the Saffrons football training panel as a schoolboy by Bradley in 2011 and it is clear that he rates him highly, along with his brother Rickey. That same year, he won the Mageean Cup (Ulster College's Championship) before they captured the All-Ireland O'Keefe Cup. Alongside him on that school's team were current inter-county hurlers Michael Warnock, Karl McKaigue, Brian Óg McGilligan of Derry, and his Creggan team-mate Odhran McCann.

"Growing up and coming through school I didn't have much of a preference," he says of juggling the two sports.

"I played both and I loved playing both. I suppose as the years went on I just became more involved in football. But the last while I have definitely been enjoying the hurling the way it's been going."

In recent years, the club have been flagged up as a hurling force, with the likes of Conor McCann breaking onto the county squad.

Some years ago they opened up impressive facilities and began hosting Antrim training sessions in both codes, aided by their all-weather 3G pitch.

Back in February 2010 they began hosting the Ulster under-21 club Championship, another factor in raising the profile of the club, while this year they have been nominated as the club to host Antrim's home football games in the National League, a source of local pride for Johnson.

"Being from Creggan and playing for the county, it's a nice thing to just go up to your home club to play in a county game. Especially when all the local supporters are more inclined to get along to the game," he explains.

"Getting new facilities, hosting that tournament and how having the county games there, it's definitely a big bonus to the club." At the minute, both Antrim squads are training at Jordanstown and taking advantage of the facilities there, with Johnson praising the optimism in the football squad since Liam Bradley's return, saying: "It's definitely on an up at the minute. It's a lot different than last year. I just think everybody is buying into what we are doing and everybody is pushing the same way. That's basically it. It makes all the difference."

And while the football side of things is ticking along nicely, Creggan hurlers are in uncharted waters. In 2011 they reached the Ulster junior final only to lose to Burt of Donegal. In this campaign, comfortable wins over St Agnes' and Con Magee's were followed by a win over Cushendun in the county final.

They went from there to one-point wins over Kilclief and Coleraine in their path through Ulster, and a red card in the last 10 minutes to a Craobh Rua player aided them in carving out a three-point win when they sealed their provincial title.

Creggan's opponents for this weekend have pedalled a nice line in poor-mouthery in recent days. Their manager Stan Murray-Hession claims that most of his side that won the British Championship – beating John Mitchells in the final 0-16 to 0-14 – were over working in construction on short-term jobs.

Just before Christmas they managed to overcome Ballinamere of Offaly – and bear in mind the strong record of Leinster sides in winning five of the last 10 All-Irelands at this level – in the quarter-final, but Murray-Hession says they are without 10 of that starting XV.

It's the great unknown for Creggan but they, and Johnson, are delighted to be there.

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