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Fans' forgiveness may be earned but it can be tough

By Declan Bogue

Published 01/06/2016

Changing codes: Seanie Johnston has gone from Cavan footballer to Kildare hurler and footballer and back again
Changing codes: Seanie Johnston has gone from Cavan footballer to Kildare hurler and footballer and back again

Americans love a good comeback story. Generalising a bit? Maybe. But think back to the example of Michael Vick.

A first-round draft pick for Atlanta Falcons from Virginia Tech in 2001, the Quarterback was found guilty in 2007 of promoting, funding and facilitating a dog fighting ring on his property. He had also engaged in hanging and drowning under-performing dogs.

Sickening stuff.

But after serving jail time, he was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles. His first appearance arrived against New York Jets.

Some time after, he recalled: "The standing ovation that I got, the welcome, the reception, it kind of made me feel so comfortable at that point in my life because of what I was going through, and the anxiety of playing in your first game in two years and not knowing what to expect from the crowd."

If American fans are willing to forgive social taboos, it is interesting to note the attitude of fans over sporting taboos.

In 2013, then Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson stated that Wayne Rooney had put in a transfer request to leave the club.

As a professional athlete, some resented the England star's desire to monetise his talents, comically clinging to the notion of loyalty.

On the day United were presented with their 2013-2014 Premier League winners medals, Ferguson could hardly bring himself to look at Rooney.

Happily, a new contract of £300,000 per week settled the issue. Phew! Was there any rancour from the fans when Ferguson made his claim that Rooney wanted away?

Club legend Bryan Robson answered: "If he starts the season, scores a few goals and enjoys his football, the fans will forgive him, if there's anything to forgive him for."

In the very intensely-local GAA world, one of the biggest 'scandals' in recent times was Seanie Johnston's transfer from the Cavan football side to Kildare, who were managed at the time by Kieran McGeeney.

Proof was sought that he lived at an address in Kildare, even though he was a teacher in Cavan town at the time. Letters to his address went unreturned.

A number of obstacles were thrown in Johnston's way, but he was determined to line out in Lilywhite. The saga reached a low point when he played his first-ever hurling match for Coill Dubh in a Kildare Championship match against Eire Óg to satisfy the last remaining loophole.

To get a sense of how crazy the situation became, the 'Seanie Johnston rule' - although not called that in the Official Guide - is an actual thing.

Once qualified, the stars aligned and Kildare were drawn to meet Cavan in a 2012 All-Ireland football qualifier. Sending him on as a substitute that evening was McGeeney forcing him to burn the boats. When you think about it, Johnston must have felt sick that evening at the thought of heading into Breffni Park and taking a left into the away dressing rooms rather than a right into the home ones.

Nevertheless, he pointed a free that evening against his own. The boos were audible from the Cavan support and booing a player is something very rare in the GAA.

But Johnston is now back in blue and appears to be playing with and displaying maturity and humility. At 31-years-old now, you would hope so. He never had to don sackcloth and ashes, but there were certainly times when he had to bite his lip. Asked about Johnston's switch in 2012, Terry Hyland said: "Good luck to Seanie, he's a good footballer but he's not an All-Star."

After 66 minutes of Cavan's Ulster quarter-final win over Armagh last Sunday, Gerard Smith of Lavey replaced Johnston, who had seven points to his name.

Johnston hadn't been involved in animal cruelty or playing hardball to get a new deal. But in the world of #OneLifeOneClub GAA, he perhaps committed the ultimate sin.

It wasn't a standing ovation, but the applause from the Cavan fans was genuine and wholehearted.

And you know what? It felt good.

Belfast Telegraph

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