GAA Football

Tyrone hopeful of swing in AFL battle after McKenna returns home

Conor McKenna (right) has returned home from the AFL, citing "homesickness and family-related reasons". Picture by Sam Barnes / Sportsfile

TYRONE’S battle with the AFL may have taken another major swing in their direction with the news that Conor McKenna has returned home to Ireland.

Having spent weeks fretting over Cathal McShane's potential move only for him to decide to stay in Ireland, they are now hoping they will regain another of their stars.

Red Hand fans woke yesterday to news that Eglish man McKenna was on his way back to Ireland for an indefinite period due to “homesickness and family-related reasons”.

The 23-year-old has spoken in the past of his difficulty in adapting to life on the fringes of Melbourne. When he was home before Christmas, he risked the wrath of his AFL employers by playing for Eglish in a relegation playoff against Edendork, scoring a goal as he helped them avoid the drop out of Division One.

Essendon coach John Worsfold said afterwards that he was “really disappointed” by McKenna’s decision to play, adding that the club would speak to him on the issue when he returned to Australia.

McKenna has been one of the most successful Irish exports to the AFL in recent times, finishing fourth in Essendon’s “best-and-fairest” award last year, the AFL equivalent of player of the year.

The Age newspaper in Australia described him as “a vital cog of the Bombers’ backline, providing vital rebound with his blistering pace and setting up attacking forays.”

The 23-year-old, who was one of the stars of Tyrone’s run to the All-Ireland minor title in 2012, has made no secret of his desire to return home and pull on the white and red of his county again at some point in his career.

“The club realise that I’ve probably struggled with homesickness for the last five years and will probably always struggle with it, it’s just something I’m dealing with and trying to make it easier,” he told The Irish Independent last year.

“If you look at the stats, not a lot of Irish make it and it’s more from the homesickness than not being able to play the game. The majority of Irish players are skilful enough and have enough ability to get used to a different game.

“But it’s actually getting over the ability to be away from home and family. It’s a lot better now, there’s more of a community of AFL players in Melbourne so you have a really good support base, but the homesickness is the main thing that lads suffer with.”

However, whether he will play for Tyrone in the near future is still very unclear.

Essendon’s general manager of football Dan Richardson said in a statement yesterday that McKenna had the club’s full support to return to his native country.

“We have been in lengthy discussions with Conor over recent weeks and we are completely supportive of him returning home to be with his family at this time,” Richardson said.

“We remain in constant communication with both Conor and his family and we will continue to provide our support during this period.”

While the AFL club will remain hopeful of his return, Tyrone will be equally hopeful that he doesn’t go back out and that he’ll step into their setup.

If that happened, it would represent an incredible coup for Mickey Harte, coming right on the heels of Cathal McShane’s decision to stay rather than take up a deal with Adelaide Crows.

Speaking after their win over Kerry on Sunday, Harte reiterated his long-held opinion on the GAA’s relationship with the AFL, which has been formalised in recent years.

"I don't want to get into political rows with another football organisation but enough to say that I like players playing Gaelic football and there is no payback for us from the AFL.

“It's a 'win-win' for them if they get Gaelic players. We never get anything back from then. I don't know why we would create a warm market for that drain.

“I have always said if people choose to go that is their own prerogative but we should not be in cahoots with an organisation that loves our players.”

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