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Monday, 21 April 2014

Barrow RL chairman Des shows you can’t keep a good man down

THREE weeks after his quadruple heart bypass surgery, Raiders chairman Des Johnston is full of his usual beans. PAUL TURNER talks to the Craven Park chief about his health and well-being, but finds he is as keen as ever to discuss all matters rugby league

“GO and speak to Des, he’s in top form and he’ll be more than happy to talk,” Jon Livesey said down the phone.

That can’t be right. He’s only just come out of hospital after a major heart bypass operation and the last thing he’ll want is the Evening Mail turfing up on his doorstep for a chat.

But the Raiders vice-chairman was insistent – Des was already on top form and welcoming all and sundry into to his home. If I went along I could let everyone know the remarkable nature of his recovery and how quickly he has returned to his former self.

And the recovery really is quite remarkable.

The man who answers the door of his Barrow home is the same smiling, joyous, buoyant man last seen a month ago. If anything he looks even better than he did then, having lost a stone in weight since going into hospital.

The scars are there of course – and he delights in opening up his shirt and lifting his trouser leg to show where they took the veins out and where they went in again to mend his heart – but they are purely physical, talking to him you would never know what he had been through.

Eight-and-a-half hours under the knife and 14 hours knocked out under anaesthetic have done him no harm at all.

His recovery has been faster than his doctors anticipated and he spends his days now walking out and about from his home – which he compares jokingly to Willie Horne’s shop as everyone passing by, wants to stop in and say hello.

That much is obvious from the large number of get well cards on his mantelpiece – and the dozens of others he does not have room for, but all of which he is thankful to have received.

“I am going to take a break from my business and I won’t be setting foot in there for some time,” he says when asked how his recovery is going. “I don’t like to set times or dates because there is no need.

“I am well aware that I am ahead of schedule and the cardiac people have said I am doing fantastically.

“I have been out walking several times a day, but I don’t want to overdo it and I am going to take some time out before I get back to my business.

“The cardiac people have been and I’m miles ahead of where I should be – the recovery has gone fantastically well.”

Des has already been visited by many of his players and coaches Steve McCormack and Dave Clark since his operation.

He is trying not to get too involved with rugby affairs and with anything stressful generally – he has stopped gambling and has left his recruitment business in the more-than-capable hands of his sister Sharon.

“Sharon has been out of this world, she is something else,” he says. “I’m very, very lucky to have her and it is very much appreciated what she has done.”

There are some times, though, when he admits he has been a little worked up in the past few weeks, most noticeably when watching his beloved Manchester United beaten 1-0 at Old Trafford by Aston Villa last week.

“I’m not getting worked up about it all,” he adds. “But then I was watching Wayne Rooney on the TV last Saturday night against Aston Villa and I nearly put my foot through the tele.

“If he’s responsible for our chances in South Africa, then God help us! He couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo!”

There it is then – the Johnston wit has gone nowhere and he is still cracking the jokes out at a rate of knots, commenting that his time under anaesthetic was comparable to when Ned Catic decided to tell him all about his career in the NRL in Australia.

And that is something else noticeable as well.

No matter how much you try and turn the conversation towards his health, he always finds a way to talk about rugby.

It was the case on his second day in recovery when former Oldham chairman Bill Quinn and Blackpool chief John Chadwick stopped by for a brief visit and ended up staying three-and-a-half hours talking all things RL.

Richard Fletcher, Liam Harrison, Brett McDermott and Jamie Rooney are just some of the players to have stopped by, while a bouquet of flowers from Andy Bracek stands in a vase in the living room – “He must have nicked them off Roose roundabout,” Des jokes.

Though he may not have been to Craven Park, and he has no intention to until February when he should have been given the all-clear by the specialists, the chairman knows everything that is going on and he has been delighted with the way things have run in his absence.

“I’m very pleased with both Steve McCormack and Dave Clark,” he says. “I knew from the last two or three years that they get on really well and that has proven to be the case.

“Working together, they have brought a little bit more professionalism to the club, the discipline is good and the players have responded excellently.

“Steve McCormack has been brilliant, Dave Clark has been brilliant – everyone at the club has been working hard and everything is in place for another successful season and that is the aim.

“We did unbelievably well last year and we want to do just as well this year.”

Watching the Test cricket from South Africa on his TV and preparing for another wander off towards Mill Brow in his new 2010 Barrow Raiders jacket, Des does eventually reflect on his time in hospital.

“When I woke up there were tubes everywhere and where the big scars are on my leg there were two big trays, and the next day the nurse asked me if I was ready and took them out and I swear it felt like someone was sticking a poker in my leg,” he says. “While I was on the ward there was another young guy, he was about 40, who came in after he had a heart attack. He died and they were taking his organs for donation.

“You see people there in far worse states and you realise how lucky you are.

“They have said to me how fit I am inside. You looked at some of them in there and they were at death’s door.”

The same can definitely not be said of Des.

As I’m leaving he’s ready for another trip out – walking, not driving (his Aston Martin is still in the garage anyhow) – and no doubt thinking over everything rugby related, even if he is on a break.

Because, while he may well be staying away from Barrow RL and his business, it is clear they are never far from his thoughts – just as long as those thoughts aren’t as stressful as Wayne Rooney’s form in front of goal.

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