'The Boy Who Would Be King' – Rising Offaly footballer Cian Johnson gives us exclusive interview
In 'The Man Who Would be King,' Rudyard Kipling writes, "If I want a crown I must go and hunt it for myself,” words pertinent to the story of young Offaly sharpshooter Cian Johnson.
The teenager has been saddled with hype, labelled the heir to Niall McNamee's throne in the Offaly full-forward line from an early age. Such attention is unsolicited, and yet the Ferbane youngster seems grounded and focused in spite of the hysteria that has followed him all the way to the Offaly senior football dressing room.
In the film based on Kipling's story, Michael Caine's character says to a man being chased by a large mob, "Mount the mule and ride. There's a chance you'll make it." The future of Cian Johnson is quite a bit more certain, more so because of that prudent sensibility than the sorcery in his boot laces, and yet his career is destined to be played out against that fervourous backdrop of expectation – the pressure to make it.
Giving an in-depth interview to the Offaly Express this week, Cian spoke of such hype and lofty comparisons with cutting honesty. “I think some of the comments comparing me to Niall McNamee are unfair. Niall was a fantastic player but he’s Niall McNamee.”
“I’m determined to be the best footballer that Cian Johnson can be, and I want to be judged on that, and not compared to other players, especially this early. Having said that, if I was looking at a lad racking up the scores I did in underage football, I’d probably be hyping him up myself, so it works both ways,” he admitted.
“Every time I turn on my phone these days there’s something different on it about me, but I just have to keep my head down and keep working hard. I can’t be side-tracked by what someone in a newspaper writes about me because they’d be the first person to run me into the ground if I have a bad game,” Cian added.
He went on to say that “it is nice to get a bit of recognition for the hard work you put in,” but speaking with the attitude of a man well beyond his years, he considered the fact that he has two options when it comes to being lauded for his impressive feats on the pitch to date.
“I can sit back and say look what this lad said about me, aren’t I great?; I play for the Offaly seniors and I’m only 18, or I can get my head down and work hard, keep improving on my weaknesses every night in training, keep asking questions of myself and keep learning.”
Cian is far more enamoured with the latter, and insists, “I’ll become a better player for it.” “I’ve seen enough lads from my own club, county and around Ireland who were great players when they were my age but for whatever reason, it didn’t work out for them. I’m determined not to be one of them and I will give myself every chance to be the best footballer I can possibly be."
Cian started playing football at the age of five as a slight participant at Ferbane's U6 set-up. Cian's promise was immediate, and he says, “I just fell in love with it and I wasn’t too bad either which helped.”
He was indeed 'not too bad' and has been part of development squads at Offaly level since he was an U13 player. He admits that he was earmarked as a talent very early on. “I would’ve always been doing the scoring for Ferbane and Offaly from a young age. I wasn’t one of these late developers you hear about like Brian Fenton,” he said.
Cian was an all-round sportsman and still manages to fit in a bit of hurling for his club. “I used to play soccer too up until two years ago. I played with Shelbourne and Athlone Town, and I really enjoyed it, but it wasn’t possible to keep two managers happy. Gaelic football was always going to win out when it came down to it,” he told us.
And so his sole attention turned to the GAA pitches of Offaly, Leinster and the entire country. His lofty ambitions are matched by the players he looked up to as a child. “When I was growing up in Offaly every young lad was out with a ball pretending to be Niall McNamee - that’s how good he was. Further afield, I’ve always looked up to the Gooch, Colm Cooper, just because of the way he played the game and the way he conducted himself on and off the field - he was a real class act.”
Mirroring the mentality of those players and other high achievers of that ilk, Cian says, “football is number one in my life and everything else follows after.” This singular ambition to be the best he can be has both served to ground him and prepare him for a career where every blade of grass covered is in the name of achieving, be it for his school, club or county.
Nevertheless, against that undeniable drive to win, his rise through the ranks at all levels has been out of the ordinary. He won three minor county titles with Ferbane, and still counts his third and last in October 2017 as one of his stand-out achievements. “A lot of people wrote us off before the final with Edenderry but we won 4-16 to 0-9. I scored 2-7 and was captain so that was a nice way to finish my minor career.”
He also claimed an U21 title with Ferbane, and captured an All-Ireland B Colleges title with his school, Gallen CS, in 2016. “Getting to play in Croke Park with all my best friends from school, scoring 1-4 and getting man of the match was pretty special,” he said of the moment he still marks as his favourite in his GAA career to date.
His progression continued right through to late last year when he received a phone call from Stephen Wallace, who had not long been installed as the Offaly senior football manager.
“When I got that call from Stephen I was kind of pinching myself for a minute to be honest,” the 18-year-old said. “I knew I’d make it some day, maybe not this early, but I showed good form with my school and club, which must have caught the eye,” he recalled.
So there he was, a Leaving Cert student still in a school uniform, walking into the Offaly dressing room to fulfill his dream. “It was a bit daunting at the start. I was looking around the dressing room at lads I’ve been watching from the stand since I was a young lad, but they’ve been brilliant to me so it was easy to settle in.”
His acclimatisation to senior football was swift as he scored 1-3 on his debut in the O'Byrne Cup against Wexford. He followed that a matter of days later with a 0-6 haul, including some pressurised late scores, to earn Offaly a draw against Dublin. He has featured in Offaly's early Allianz League games, but is being given time away to represent his school.
To the eye of the casual spectator, Cian appears to play with complete freedom, but his quiet confidence is not youthful naivety, it is a mental process through which Johnson plays his football – a philosophy he believes allows him to perform to a high level.
“I have to keep playing the way I have been and doing the things that got me into this position. If I start changing what I do or responding to pressure then I’ll be in trouble. I never get worked up about anything - I know I’m a good footballer; I know I have the tools to perform every day I go out. I have great belief in myself and my own ability. I believe that pressure is for tyres only,” he quipped.
The prospect of playing finals and meeting teams like Dublin at any level is one that excites Johnson, rather than stunting his performance through fear. “I never get nervous before any game. I just get excited - I don’t see any point in getting nervous because you’ll just work yourself up and start doing things you wouldn’t normally do.”
“I believe in myself no matter what. I know I have the skill to trouble anyone, any day I go out - all the pressure is on the person marking me. When I go onto the pitch I let the shackles off and express myself. Every time I go out is a chance to show how good I am and to just enjoy my football."
His ability and belief are unfathomable in their stature at such a young age, but Cian has noticed the step up in physical requirements to play senior inter-county football. “At minor level I’d have been one of the bigger lads on the team and I could walk through lads, but at senior level, it’s the opposite. You're playing against grown men who have been in the gym for years, so you have to be clever about it and stay out of traffic at times,” he explained.
Cian is also playing far more football than most lads his age, and admits that “it is tough to fit everything into the seven days of the week between club, county and schools.” His youthful exuberance and love of the game pose a risk of player burnout, but this risk is one he is all too aware of.
“When you are young you are mad for ball and you want to be playing games, but sometimes you have to listen to your body and be sensible about it too. In fairness to Stephen Wallace, he’s always been in contact with me to balance my work load as best we can and given me time off whenever I’ve needed it, so I can’t complain.”
Cian is considered a top prospect, and although he has already had offers from different colleges around the country, he is still considering what the future might hold for his career and his football.
“I’m not too sure what I’ll do after school at the minute. I’m playing so much I haven’t had much time to sit down and think about it, but I'd maybe like to be a teacher because it would suit my lifestyle.”
“I watched the Sigerson Cup final the other day and it looks like a great competition. I’d love to play in it and getting to play with other county players seems like a good experience too,” he explained.
The young man is balancing many plates, but his arrival to the Offaly set-up has been broadly welcomed, and with Stephen Wallace warding him off booze and women and promising to “mind him,” most feel he is in good hands. He, as a footballer first, is simply ecstatic to be involved so early on in his playing career.
“It’s been brilliant. All the lads have been great to me. I knew a few of them already which helped and Stephen has been top class. We had a positive start to the year with the O’Byrne Cup, and although our first few league games haven’t gone to plan, we are learning all the time and we will turn the corner soon,” he stated.
Speaking about the realistic targets of Offaly football and the possibility of going through his career without winning anything at county level, Cian simply said, “there’s no better feeling in the world than putting on the Offaly tri-colour and running out onto the field,” describing it as “a privilege.”
He said that there are perhaps 25 counties who contemplate the same future, and pointed to the “huge debate around what motivates players from smaller counties to play considering the chances of winning something are low and you get little thanks for it.”
However, he was defiant in stressing that, “Offaly is a proud football county with huge tradition which many other counties don’t have. Lads here just love their football and love representing their county.”
Focusing on progress and getting to the top table again, Cian said that, “first we need to start moving up the divisions to Division 2. You’ll only get better by playing better opposition and learning that way.”
“In terms of championship it’s very hard in Leinster at the minute with Dublin being so good, and they are an incredible team that seem to be so far ahead of everyone else, but if the draw suits us in a given year, getting to a Leinster final would be a target and maybe trying to break into the Super 8s in the coming years.”
“We have to aim high and set targets like this and have something to work towards or we will always be in the same position,” he added passionately.
Speaking about the state of Offaly football generally, he noted his positive experience with the development squads all the way up, stating that “there are some great people working with passion in Offaly, just wanting to get the county back to where it was.”
In hindsight, he said, “the one thing I wish I was taught from a younger age was kicking off both feet. A young lad shouldn’t come through years of development squads without someone pushing him to practice off both sides of the body.”
“Unfortunately for me I didn’t get that but hopefully people will learn from that,” he continued. Cian also thinks the facilities now at the disposal of Offaly football with the opening of the Faithful Fields centre of excellence is a “top class development,” adding, “we have no excuse in Offaly now.”
The allure of the county scene has not dimmed Cian Johnson's club ambitions. The underage set-up in Ferbane has prospered in recent times with an U21 and three minor titles in the trophy cabinet, and Cian is hopeful that this success will eventually translate into a senior title.
“That’s the plan anyway. We’ve had huge success at underage all the way up along and we’ve got some unbelievable talent, but we are well aware that underage success doesn’t necessarily translate to senior, so we need to keep our heads down and keep getting better.”
“There’s a lot of good GAA people in Ferbane who are dying to see the Dowling back in Ferbane but Rhode are still the team to beat; they’ve been the kingpins of Offaly football over the last while and deservingly so. Tullamore, Edenderry and Clara will all be coming strong too, so it’s going to be very tough but it's a challenge we are looking forward to,” he commented.
For now, the summer beckons for Cian Johnson, one in which his services will be coveted from all quarters. If he is named in the matchday panel for the senior team, he says he will be “automatically ruled out of playing U20 football,” and admits that this issue “has to be sorted out.”
Nevertheless, his sights are set on big targets and he concluded, “a home championship debut against Wicklow in Tullamore sounds great.”
The words of the great Rudyard Kipling come to mind: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, and blaming it on you...If you can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run, yours is the Earth and everything that's in it, and—which is more—you'll be a man, my son.”
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