Home is where my heart is says Red Hand star Conor McKenna
CONOR McKenna happily turned his back on AFL money and swapped Melbourne sunshine for cold nights at Garvaghy so he could replace homesickness and nagging unhappiness with the joy of being among his family and playing the sport that excites and inspires him.
To say that he’s glad to be back in his native Eglish would be a massive understatement. From watching him in Tyrone’s last two League games, it was obvious that a massive weight had been lifted off his shoulders. It was like he’d just been released into his natural environment after five long years in exile, which is exactly the case.
“There is a belief that if you’re a professional sports person you’re happy all the time and it’s all glam,” said McKenna, who will make his Ulster Championship debut for Tyrone against Donegal on Sunday.
“But for an Irish fella to go over to Australia and live by himself or with a host family… There’s definitely a lot more downs than ups for the first two years. You’re making decent money but it’s not life-changing money and it’s not as good as everybody thinks it is.
“People think you’re living this Premier League lifestyle but it’s far from it to be honest. Gaelic players get as much media attention as AFL players but the only difference is that AFL players are getting a salary and GAA players are doing it out of pure love for the sport which was something that I always missed. Instead of staying and playing professional sport and getting paid, I just wanted to come home and get back into playing for where I'm from.”
He’d signed for Essendon in 2015 and the first couple of years were a struggle to gets to grips with a new game and an oval ball. The Aussie crowds don’t spare your feelings if you’re not playing well and new recruits aren’t allowed any bedding in period before they start ‘copping stick’ from terraces and online trolls.
“There’s plenty of social media abuse given out and in my first few games in the AFL I wasn’t going that well and the fans let me know very quickly,” McKenna says.
“It didn’t really bother me, I sort of enjoyed watching what people wrote about me – ‘Go back home to Ireland’ – and stuff like that.
“It didn’t affect me that much but I can understand why other people get affected by it.”
Through talent and a lot of hard work, McKenna made the grade and lit up games with his attacking flair and skill. The Aussie crowds warmed to him and his team-mates respected him. He didn’t pull the pin until he’d proved he could play the game but he was never going to settle in Australia.
“I never enjoyed going back,” he says.
“After Christmas, after the off-season, I just never wanted to go back.
“When I did go back it usually took me two or three weeks to get into the swing of things and be happy but this year I just never got to that stage. Two months’ in I still wasn’t happy, we did a training camp and there was one session I just walked off the pitch. I was in tears, crying and went into the changingrooms.
“I just knew in my head that it wasn’t for me anymore and it got to the stage where money wasn’t enough to keep me there. I just wanted to come home to get back into playing Gaelic Football and spend time at home and enjoying life instead of always worrying about going back to Australia.
“I didn’t feel the same this year and I knew that retiring was the right decision for my happiness more than anything.”
He says Essendon did all they could to help him settle and persuade him to stay. They sent him home when he was struggling and helped him to stay in touch with his family. But they could not make the ‘home bird’ feel comfortable in a foreign land.
“In any interview I did over there I always said: ‘I’m not a lover of Australia, I’m not a lover of the game, it’s something I want to do on a part-time basis…’” explained the 24-year-old, who hopes to go to university next year.
“They (Essendon) always knew that so it wasn’t a shock to anybody that I was going to retire – it was always a matter of when.
“I was a first team player so they wanted to keep me but it got to the stage where they’d tried everything they could. They let me go to my brother’s wedding last year which was very good of them and then this year they let me go home for three weeks. They tried everything to make me happy over there but it got to the stage where it just wasn’t going to happen and I needed to move home for my own sake.”
Despite his own experiences, he says he has no regrets about making the move Down Under in 2015 and he would encourage any young person who’s offered the opportunity to give it a try.
“I don’t regret it and I would still advise any young fella from Ireland who has the opportunity to go and play AFL to do it,” he says.
“I’ll look back and be very proud of what I’ve achieved but it got to the stage where I wasn’t happy anymore and happiness is the main thing.
“If you go for a year and you don’t like it, well, it’s a different culture, a different lifestyle, give it a try for a year because it’s an experience. I don’t regret it but I’m happy I’m home.”