“The first time I seen him play was the county final against Clane, it was as good an exhibition from a forward as I’d seen. It would’ve graced any final at any stage, level or grade.” He is known by his deeds but his reputation trails around the county like a tragic story. Mick O’Dwyer saw the best of Johnny McDonald during Naas’ county final victory in 1990, the day O’Dwyer began to change the face of Kildare football. Johnny was going to be part of his plans but… “the thing about Johnny was he’d go missing.” O’Dwyer couldn’t count on him, Kildare couldn’t count on him and ten years after he left the Kildare panel for good. In 2007, Mark Millham posed the questions while Robert Mulhern rewrote the stories, the myths and the drinking tales of the king of controversy.
JOHNNY McDonald indicates with a nod, to a picture on the wall of his kitchen, cigarette in one hand, mug of coffee in the other, beside him a clatter of Carroll’s lie finished in the ashtray. “I scored 2-4 from play that day,” he declares. “One of my best games for Kildare against Westmeath, got man of the match that day.” He looks toward the black and white photo, all action but hanging there alone. Pictured is an urgent looking Johnny, ball in hand, bound for goal. It’s another big day but that’s all you can tell, that and how little he’s changed. The stand is a blur of faces but Johnny has their attention. He liked it that way too. A showman. A performer playing to the crowd but delivering to that crowd too. It was one of the good days for McDonald. There should have been more? Like the day he took Cavan for ten points in a league match in a dazzle of white for Kildare.
Like the County Final back in 1990, against Clane when he announced himself as one of the top marksmen in the country. In front of football’s favourite scholar – Mick O’Dwyer. Johnny is 25 yards out with his back to goal. Already he’s taken the Clane defence for four points from play, and he blindly swings over his fifth while falling under the attention of new marker Michael Cunniffe. It’s a wonder point and St Conleth’s shakes under the elation of its execution – 12,000 blue and white supporters stuck in the moment. O’Dwyer watches on from the stands, he’s enjoying it now and so is Johnny.
“I was a young lad I had no inhibitions,” recalls Johnny. “I was fairly fit doin’ the farming all summer but I remember being bollixed at the end of it all ‘cos it was a really hot day. It wasn’t like blood, thunder, roaring and shouting, everyone kinda knew what we had to do. I remember feeling elated. I remember seeing Paddy Sheridan stuffing the match ball under his jersey at the end. It’s the best memory I have because I never won anything with Kildare. I was never there for any of the Leinsters or anything so I can’t compare it.”
It was an emotional year for the, then, great white hope. Only months earlier Johnny had endured his worst day.
“The 21 April 1990 it was, we got beaten in an under 21 championship match and I got sent off for being drunk. It was an evening game over in Suncroft, my father died the same night, he was at the match. I was absolutely devastated, I never got the chance to talk to him that day. I was in McTiernans the night before, me and Richie Walshe. We hooked up with these two quare ones and ended up in Dublin, out all night. We went to the Phoenix Park Races the next day, there was free drink, there was a harp promotion on actually.
“Declan McGovern didn’t start me, sure I was in under the shower for the opening ten minutes and I didn’t think he was going to play me, but then we conceded 2-2 in the opening 10 minutes. He wouldn’t have been the type of father who would have gone around mouthing about me, as in my skills and playing for Kildare, but he was there that day and he loved his football. He would have been a major influence on me, always tried to keep me in check. He would’ve been majorly disappointed. You have to live with that and it affects you, course it does.”
Venezuela, August 1997. Johnny stands short sleeved and languageless outside the arrivals door of Caracas International Airport. He’s clutching a piece of paper, on it is written a Spanish name. It reads ‘Loceeo Los Arcos’ – ‘The School of Circles’. Johnny shows it to a taxi driver. He knows it. They depart to another chapter. The previous summer he taught English as a foreign language to visiting students in Naas. He enjoyed it, the students did too and with exams passed the return invite was extended.
“Course I was apprehensive about it, big time” he says. “Wouldn’t you be? Venezuela is a mad place to go. It turned out well for me in the end though; it was a good thing for me. I needed to get away. We’d first mass every morning, we had to be in at half six because school started at half seven, five days a week. I’d get up about quarter to six, six o’clock. I was only 20 minutes walk from the place. Bout 80 degrees every morning, 100 degrees sometimes, no rain or anything like that, it was lovely, you’d wear a red shirt and a white tie. You had to, everybody had the same uniform.
“It was lonely sometimes, at night-time it was lonely, sure the telly was in Spanish, but I did enjoy it. It was one of those schools, what do you call it, an Opus Dei school, so it was only lads, no girls even employed there. That’s the way they do it over there. It was probably one of the top schools in Caracas, big time. It was hard work though, some of them wouldn’t want to learn English, they’d be like screw you. There were two lads in particular, brothers, they wanted to do everything but learn and they were smart. Hard to deal with, I couldn’t really deal with them, It was hard work, but one of the best things I’ve ever done”
And the irony isn’t left behind. Johnny the disciplinarian? “Yeah never thought of the analogy, didn’t change me though. Sure there were no Irish people over there, it was a case of having to leave the wild days behind me. When the time came though I was ready to go home, sure it was April by that stage.”
With memories of the previous summer not yet a distant memory, rejoining Kildare wasn’t an option, anyway it was too late. Johnny spent three days at home and was gone again, this time to Chicago and St Brendan’s. Kildare had yet to start their march to the All-Ireland final but this time the exile was to be a permanent one. Johnny was gone. Finished. It was a done deal from the moment he decided to take the job in South America. He couldn’t have known what lay ahead for Kildare. He was left only to remember what lay behind.
“I first met O’Dwyer in September 1990,” he says. “A week after we won the championship with Naas. I turned up to the trial with no boots, had to get a loan of a pair of boots actually, off James Finlay, they were size 11 and I’m a size nine. We were all at a civic reception the night before in the Town Hall in Naas – for winning the championship. I sort of figured they’d understand, I mean one trial match wasn’t going to make much odds. I thought I’d done enough anyway in the county final. We went straight into training after that and that was a major culture shock. Training over in Clane one of the first nights, Micko told us to do 16 laps, I think I hid for three of them. The lights weren’t great over there, so after about nine laps I hopped in behind the hoardings, up the back of the pitch. No one else did it, it was the first session, they were probably too afraid.
“When Micko took over everyone who was asked to go turned up, and half an hour before training started, 35 people at every session. It was his aura; you were in awe of the man when you went over to train. Micko’s training was monotonous, but that type of training builds great team spirit and if you’re doing that type of training you get bulkier and bigger. It was what Kildare needed at the time. You know if you do 30 laps with guys, you’ve suffered together. We came from being beaten by Wicklow to contesting a league final. Okay we were beaten by Louth in the first round of the championship that year, but we still ended up getting to two Leinster Finals. I got on great with him I have to say, he knew what I was like, he knew I was a bit of a Jack the lad, but he could overlook it at times. In the end though he couldn’t because I’d gone off the rails altogether.”
The day Johnny left for Venezuela he was due in court on a drink driving charge, his solicitor represented him. It was one more reason to leave. There were a few more from that summer too. “I remember meself and Glenn Ryan were getting treatment in Newry before the second Meath game. We were being put under water in a diving bell, apparently the pressure speeds up the healing process. During the treatment, I went out with a friend of mine, we ended up out all night acting the bollix. The next day a Friday, Glenn came to collect me and I didn’t turn up. I think I made some cock and bull excuse. I went up to Dublin then that Saturday night, drinking in Blackrock, went up to meet this girl. I was in two pubs in Blackrock and then I went to Club 92.”
A few days later Pat McCarthy rang him, told him he was gone off the panel. He knew exactly where Johnny had been, could even name the places. To this day Johnny doesn’t know how he found out. “I never spoke to O’Dwyer about it, there was no point in pleading my case because I would be seen as the boy who cried wolf. I know people were disappointed in me, I know Pat McCarthy was disappointed in me. Some of the senior players approached the management team and asked for me to be dropped. It hurt at the time but again I knew I’d done wrong. It’s funny because all the drinking I did, I never missed training and I never faked an injury to avoid training. But looking back they were totally right.”
For the Naas man old habits died hard.
Ballybofey, December 1995, the National League. Johnny McDonald sits alone on a cold concrete bench. It’s a crisp, cold winter’s day and Johnny is freezing. He didn’t bring his jacket you see. Didn’t think he’d need it. “I was supposed to be playing against Donegal. I was only meant to be going from the bus to the dressing rooms and then back again.” Didn’t work out like that for McDonald, not for the first time, it won’t be the last. Johnny’s participation ended the night before. He accepts it now, he accepted it then too. Johnny is many things both good and bad but he was always honest, often against himself. Johnny had done wrong and he apologised. . . .for what he’d done, but not for who he is.
“They were right to do what they did,” he offers. “It was an unwritten rule that you didn’t drink before matches, full stop. But a lot of bullshit went with it, wrong stories and stuff. Like people still think it was under Micko but it was actually under Dermot Early. We were staying in a hotel called Jackson’s, I was there for the meeting the night before. I went for a meal at eight, but after that there was nothing to do. I decided to head out for a stroll around Ballybofey. I actually came back about 11 believe it or not and three or four of the lads were there in the nightclub. JJ Walsh and Christy Howard, the selectors came down then bout half 12 and said it’s time to go to bed. I said right, I had to go to the jacks, ended up hiding in there for a while.
“They stayed on for a bit but they couldn’t see me. Anyway I hooked up with a quare one and went back to her place and didn’t arrive back in the hotel until about half four in the morning. The night porter said to me, ‘Jesus your in trouble, them other two lads, the two selectors, they were up waiting on you till four o’ clock, they couldn’t stay up any longer.’ I made a point of getting up early the next morning. I was nearly one of the first lads up. I didn’t feel too bad because I didn’t actually drink too much, sure I was off busy with a quare one. I could sense it was coming though, the three of them were very much in deep conversation.”
“We were watching a video of the Tipperary under 21 football final, you know the famous one with the mad commentary. At half time in the video, Dermot Early called me out. Called me into the hall and told me I was gone. ‘I don’t want you togging out today, I don’t want you in the dressing room, you won’t be travelling back on the team bus’. I had to go to the pub after the game to try and get a lift home, I ended up getting a lift with Daithi Malone from Raheens”
Johnny was in temporary exile – again. Some breaks were longer than others, but he always had football in him, so often the absences were short lived. His problem wasn’t the football, it was everything else that went with it. Johnny had developed bad habits. He remembers the days pre-Micko, travelling to Kilcock in 1988 to play a challenge for Kildare. They lacked attitude, were going nowhere and Johnny was heading in the wrong direction.
“We were training under Pat Fiztgerald then, the attendances were terrible, I mean no-one turned up for Kildare training then. There could be eight people at a session. I mean it wasn’t just down to him, there was an attitude in the county too. We thought the match was at one o’clock but it wasn’t until half two so we had two hours to spare, me and another player went into the Harbour, had two pints each, then togged out, it wasn’t right no, but that was the attitude at the time.”
There were times too when he was accused in the wrong. A high profile bust up with Davy Dalton springs to mind. Johnny knows the stories but sometimes he doesn’t see himself. Stories blur with mistruths and the passing of time.
“I had been in the Johnstown Inn playing pool with a few friends and I genuinely wasn’t drinking. Two young lads who knew Davy spotted me and they obviously went back and told Davy they’d seen me. We were going for a kick about on the Saturday over in Newbridge, I was running out onto the pitch where the dressing rooms are and Davy came out of nowhere, grabbed me by the neck and drove me through the gate where the players’ entrance is. I didn’t know what he was going on about, ‘you were drinking, you were drinking.’ Or something like that. I think Glenn Ryan came over and broke it up. But that was blown out of proportion too, sure me and Davy used to kick the bollix out of each other regularly in training. I mean Davy was a tough man.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t care, I loved football, I’m still playing now. When I was with Kildare I played for Naas whenever I could. I suppose when I was 22, 23, 24 I probably thought I could do it all, live that kind of lifestyle and get away with it especially in league matches with the club. I would’ve thought ‘a fuck it sure no matter who I’m marking I’ll be better than them’ because I was a county player, but you still wouldn’t be playing to your potential.”
He recognises the conflict caused by his lifestyle then, but it was down to choice more than anything. Choosing wrong places at the wrong time and with the wrong motivations for a county footballer, at the very least. “I liked people, I liked the pub, I mean where are you supposed to go to meet a girl? The library or a walking club, feic off with your walking club. I could’ve been more discrete but I always played to the crowd, had to be out in the middle of the floor. I didn’t see meself as having a drinking problem, I just enjoyed being out. Raymond Conlon, a high profile Kildare supporter, was worried about my drinking. He asked me to go and meet a friend of his in the Ambassador Hotel. I thought about it but I didn’t go in the end.
Downtown Chicago, September 1998. Johnny is thousands of miles away from Kildare but still in the eye of the storm, his own storm. “I couldn’t watch the final, I stayed in my apartment. It’s a regret of course it is, not being there stayed with me for a long time. I feel like I could’ve contributed something, even as a sub, I’m not saying I would’ve made a difference in the winning of the match though but maybe something.” And there was some comfort in being away from it all too. “Sure if I was in Ireland that time I probably would’ve got abuse like I did after the Meath games in 1997. I fell off my stool that night in Chicago, I had so much to drink.”
And now Johnny’s on the high stool again. This time though he sits in the kitchen of his home in Two-Mile-House. Johnny reaches across for his box of fags, another Carroll’s is in for a hiding. He knows what you’re thinking. You think he smokes a lot! Old habits and all of that? “Smoking since I was 14,” he clarifies. “I know there are consequences but I don’t think about them. I’ve always been a short-term type of person, wouldn’t look too far ahead, spent a lot of time thinking about things like missing the All-Ireland. Don’t give it too much thought anymore. What’s the point? Can’t change it. Life goes on.”
And has that life been eventful? He’s embraced it all, both the good and the bad. Lived by the sword for much of it. On many’s an occasion he’s faced the consequences of that sword too. At times it’s fallen hard, but that happens, when you’re living like Johnny lived. There were aftershocks of course, but he’s no quarrel with the repercussions; Johnny made the calls, rightly or wrongly. Football was a big part of his life, it still is. Football gave him an identity, but never was he completely defined by it. A few old pictures round the house, but certainly no shrine on view here.
A passion yes, but never a complete vocation. He lived and played, didn’t play to live. “I loved football,” he insists. “I still do, but I liked to be out there, doing things away from football. I’ve a few business interests, the farming, I’m a selector with the club in Naas. It’s busy, I was always busy though and I like a pint now and again too! If I go out a few nights in a row I don’t see that as having a problem. There’s a balance. Things were probably always balanced in their own way, but people wouldn’t see it like that because I was playing with Kildare, but that’s the way I was and that’s probably the way I’ll continue to be.”
And like everything with Johnny the when’s and the where’s will fill themselves in. Impulsive, engaging, affable, controversial. One thing’s for sure he’ll be in the middle of it somewhere and it won’t be boring.
By Robert Mulhern and Mark Millham. First appeared in the Kildare Nationalist in December 2007