The former Cavan footballer finally made his long-awaited debut for Kieran McGeeney’s side on his old stomping ground yesterday, and a good thing he did, because it gave what was otherwise a non-event an air of drama and excitement.
The Leinster side made the trip north looking to atone for their puzzling performance and defeat to Meath in the provincial semi-final, but departed knowing little more about themselves, such was the paucity of Cavan’s challenge.
Thirteen points up at the interval, they extended that gap to 17 by the game’s end, by which stage the fixture itself had assumed the status of subplot to a storyline that persuaded almost all the 14,558 spectators to stick around until the last kick.
Rumours circulated prior to throw-in that Johnston was going to be pitched in at the start, but the gathering was made wait 62 minutes before the man at the centre of the GAA’s most debated transfer in modern times was sent on.
It was, in a sense, a lose-lose situation for the former Cavan Gaels clubman, who can’t have enjoyed the sight of his native county being spanked in such a fashion, but his brief cameo here should allow a semblance of normality back into his life.
Johnston was clearly nervous, McGeeney said as much afterwards, and while he declined a request to share his thoughts with the media afterwards, he was much more talkative to teammates as he waited to board the bus.
At one point, he drew in a large breath before exhaling deeply as he spoke.
To say Kildare’s arrival at Breffni Park was keenly anticipated would hardly do it justice. A banner in Maghera proclaimed ‘Our Lillies are all home grown’. One steward removed his bib and jacket to reveal his Cavan jersey as the visitors’ coach pulled in.
The day promised much, but Cavan couldn’t deliver.
For five minutes they suggested they could be capable of providing a serious test of Kildare’s credentials but they were soon floundering.
Terry Hyland has had just three months to work with his young Cavan side, Kieran McGeeney has been five years with Kildare and that showed as the Leinster side reeled in an early two-point deficit with ease before purring away over the horizon.
Having struggled to get their hands on any ball in the opening exchanges, Kildare began to bully the middle third. Alan Smith landed the first point of his 1-5 tally in a man-of-the-match display to get them off the mark.
They were already pulling clear by the time they managed the first of three goals from Mikey Conway. It was a goal of the season contender that passed through half-a-dozen pairs of hands and traversed the length of the pitch after 20 minutes.
The lopsided nature of the final scoreline may reduce its claims once September comes and goes but Cavan actually had Kildare pinned back at the time with a full-court press that necessitated a pass back to goalkeeper Shane Connolly at one point.
That the move began with a point attempt dropping into the Kildare custodian’s hands is just as significant. Cavan kicked 15 wides on the day and came up short on at least three other occasions. At this level, that is not good enough.
Kildare have known the damage which errant shots can do in the past but 53 minutes swung by before they registered their first here and only two more would follow before Marty Duffy brought proceedings to a halt.
Their forwards, interweaving and running off the shoulder, were superb throughout and Johnston may spend a lot more time on the bench this summer if they continue to gel in that manner next week.
In truth, it was difficult to find much fault with anyone in a white shirt. The large Kildare contingent certainly agreed and let their team know with a standing ovation at half-time.
The one bright spark for the hosts was full-forward Eugene Keating who scored 1-1 and gave Peter Kelly an uncomfortable afternoon. The three-pointer was claimed shortly after half-time and given added gloss by a pair of accompanying points.
Suddenly, the gap was back down to a single-digit margin but there was to be no repeat of their heroics against Fermanagh in the previous round, when three goals in eight minutes turned that tie on its head.
Kildare simply carried on regardless, ticking over point after point and a goal from Smith to add to those from Conway and Emmet Bolton in the opening period before Johnston squeezed the last drop of icing onto the cake. No doubt it was bittersweet.
Scorers for Cavan: E Keating (1-1); N McDermott (0-3 frees); J Brady (0-3 frees); G McKiernan (0-2).
Scorers for Kildare: A Smith (1-5); E O’Flaherty (0-8, 7 frees); M Conway (1-4, 0-2 frees); E Bolton (1-0); J Doyle (0-1); S Johnston (0-1 free); D Earley (0-1).
Substitutes for Cavan: J Hayes for Reilly (34); M McKeever for Tighe (35); R Maloney-Derham for Givney (35); D McKiernan for Corr (44); F Flanagan for McLoughlin (64).
Substitutes for Kildare: O Lyons for McLoughlin (44); D Earley for Foley (53); R Sweeney for Conway (57); S Johnstone for O’Connor (62); P Fogarty for Eoghan O’Flaherty (62).
Referee: Marty Duffy (Sligo).