The latest recruit to the Irish cause made a big impact with his senior debut against Latvia in Dublin – but Mikey Johnston says he feared his Ireland career was over before it had even begun after Stephen Kenny had a wasted journey on a scouting mission.
ohnston (23) has been on the radar with Ireland for some time, the Scottish-born player eligible through grandparents on both sides of the family, and Kenny made a push to get the winger on board. The Ireland boss last month travelled to Portugal – Johnston is on loan to Vitoria Guimares from Celtic – to watch Johnston in the flesh, but he was left on the bench that week.
“That was unfortunate, we went out for breakfast and he didn’t even see me play,” says Johnston, who hopes to make his competitive debut against France on Monday.
“We did chat the next morning, it’s disappointing he came to Portugal and I didn’t even get a bloody minute. It was a wee bit in my head, ‘He won’t pick me now’, but he had watched enough games, the team in the background analysing my games, he’d seen enough to pick me and now it’s down to me to repay him.”
Though he was playing at underage level for Scotland, Johnston’s Irish roots were known and Irish players at Celtic were often in his ear to lure him over to the FAI’s clutches.
“It’s always been talked about, it’s in my family, in my blood. My mum and dad, we had a conversation, they said go for it if it’s what you want,” he says.
“I have some family in Derry, some in Donegal, some in Dublin as well.”
Scottish-born players like Aiden McGeady and James McCarthy experienced a nasty backlash in Scotland when they opted to play for Ireland, but Johnston does not expect a repeat. “There were reasons for that, I think times have changed, I made this decision, people respect that or they don’t. I am my own man and they’ll never know the reasons why I did it,” he says, proud of his impact as a sub against Latvia where he assisted in the winning goal.
“You can always make an impact, it’s something I should be able to do anyway as an attacking player, you want to make an impact in games. I watched the first half and I felt I could be direct in the game and I am glad that I did that. It was disappointing not to score but I was so happy to make my debut there, I had a couple of chances.
“Sometimes it just doesn’t go in for you but the most important thing is we got the win going into the France game. We’re disappointed with conceding the two goals but we showed great character to come back, it’s a great group.”
Johnston will see out the season in Portugal with Vitoria, and despite being unsure if he has a future at Celtic he has enjoyed his time there.
“I had quite a bad time with injuries in the last couple of years, but recently I have been fine and managed to get myself back to full fitness,” he says.
“Vitoria has been a great platform for me, they are in a big league, maybe a year or two ago they were in one of the top five leagues in the world, it’s really competitive. I have had a lot of starts, a lot of games, a lot of consistency, which is what I needed.
“Last year I did still play 20 games for Celtic so it’s not like I was pushed out the door, I played in a cup final for them, and the club wants me to come back and produce.
“There’s a lot of players in my position, maybe six or seven wingers including myself, I needed consistency, needed more minutes, we had an honest conversation and he said it was best I went elsewhere, to get them minutes and I was fine with that.
“I needed a bit of a freshen-up, opinions on me weren’t accurate and I wanted to change that. I had to get away from the UK, to be honest.
“I want to enjoy football and I want to play, I don’t want to sit on the bench and not get games, I just want to feel important.”