Jockey dreams, skipped trials and shark tales - the making of Conor McKenna
It was only when dreams of becoming a jockey fell by the wayside that Conor McKenna truly fell for Gaelic football. That is part of what brought him back from Australia but, as Neil Loughran finds out, home has always been where the heart is for many more reasons…
IT was an icy one below zero when Conor McKenna headed out into the shed near the family home in Benburb last Friday morning. This has been the hub of Pat McKenna’s engineering firm over the last 25 years, and for the past few months his prodigal son has been only too happy to lend a hand.
“I’m just in with my da at the minute – you’d be fabricating steel and then going out and erecting on site, so it’s heavy enough oul work.
“I don’t think it’s ideal for playing county football… I’ll probably go back to university in September, hopefully I’ll get something else to keep me going before that. But I’m lucky I had this to come straight back into.”
On cold, frosty mornings like this the contrast between life now and the one the 24-year-old chose to leave behind is stark.
The weekend saw temperatures hitting close to 30 degrees in Melbourne. It never quite became the place he called home, but it was there that McKenna shot to prominence with AFL outfit Essendon after leaving Tyrone as an 18-year-old prospect.
Rather than fabricating steel, this time last year he would have been a couple of weeks into pre-season training with the Bombers having reluctantly swapped Ireland for Australia a couple of days into January.
That journey to Dublin airport was never anything but awful. One time when he was heading back to prepare for season ahead, things took a turn at the check-in desk – the flight was delayed for 24 hours. He couldn’t have been happier.
Dad Pat eventually convinced him to board the flight the following day but as he prepared to make the same journey early in 2020, Conor McKenna knew the end was coming. Nine months later he was home for good.
No matter when it happened, Australia’s loss was always going to be Tyrone’s gain - and so it proved as McKenna was immediately brought into the fold by Mickey Harte, the man who had asked him into the panel as a minor six years earlier.
All the talk about how long it might take him to readjust, to adapt, despite living the life of a professional athlete for the past five years, came to an abrupt end as McKenna came back with a bang.
The athleticism, the physicality and the ball skills that made him one to watch all those years earlier had only been enhanced. Yet while pulling on the Tyrone jersey had become a burning ambition in recent times, this wasn’t a case of childhood dreams being realised.
“I wasn’t a big GAA man when I was younger. I didn’t really start playing Gaelic until I was 13 or 14, I wasn’t really a big fan of it.
“The first ever Tyrone game I went to I think was the 2005 All-Ireland final. My auntie gave me the tickets on the day of the game, me and my da weren’t supposed to go but we ended up going.
“I was more worried about getting on the pitch after, I don’t really remember much about it to be honest. Even 2008, I was 14, I don’t really mind much about it… I just wasn’t really that big into it.”
McKenna’s affections lay elsewhere. Not in rugby, basketball, hurling, Gaelic football or any of the other sports he had tried his hand at, but in the love of horses passed down through generations.
Grandfather Malachy trained them, Pat McKenna still does – his most recent runner, Sam Missile, finishing third in a flat race in Dundalk last Wednesday.
As difficult as it may be to imagine looking at his hulking frame now, Conor had ambitions to be a jockey a decade ago. He rode in a couple of amateur races too, putting football on the backburner temporarily.
Indeed the day he was due to attend an U14 trial with the county, Pat had a horse – Trotsky – running at a point-to-point in Tyrella. The young man faced a dilemma, but there was only ever going to be one winner.
“I went to the point-to-point instead of the trial - at that stage it wasn’t a real ambition of mine to play for Tyrone. It was never at the forefront of my mind really, I always liked to enjoy myself.
“I was mad into horses, I still am. My da has a few, I own a few now as well… when I was 14 I went to a thing for young riders coming up but I was too heavy even then so I sort of knew it was only going to be a short term thing.”
Mum Sheila wasn’t overly impressed when the youngest in the house chose Tyrella over Tyrone. It is from her that Conor, sister Kerri and older brothers Emmett and Ryan – both talented footballers and one-time county panelists – inherited their sporting talents and grá for the GAA.
A keen camog, at just 18 Sheila McKenna (nee Burke) was a key part of the Red Hand side that reached the All-Ireland Junior A Championship final, losing out to Cork in that 1980 decider.
Blessed with a natural understanding of the game, she was captain as Eglish swept to a hat-trick of Ulster senior club titles between 1985 and ’87, scoring remarkable tallies of 4-0 and 2-4 in the latter two as Swatragh were swept aside.
And it was the effort his parents and the club put into him and his siblings that made Conor McKenna want to succeed at Gaelic football once the jockey dream finally fizzled out.
“When I was 15 I got onto the Tyrone minor squad and at that point I probably knew I was getting decent at it.
“It was moreso for mum and dad, playing for them… they just loved watching stuff. Ryan had played minor, Emmett was on U21 Tyrone teams so I was just following them boys really.
“After my last year of minors I was called onto the senior panel and there was a month when me, Ryan and Emmett were all on the panel together so that was good at least to say we did that.
“The more you get into it, the more you make friends, the more a part of your life it becomes. When I went over to Australia ones would’ve said to me you should be grateful to the AFL for giving you the opportunity… I never really necessarily agreed with that.
“The AFL were the ones that ended up paying me but I just know Eglish and Tyrone put everything into me to get me to that point.”
Outside of “a couple of lads’ holidays”, travelling hadn’t been high on the agenda before packing his bags for Australia at the start of 2015. McKenna progressed so quickly that he made his debut in September of that year, announcing his arrival by kicking a goal.
Yet the homesickness, and the longing for the game he had learned to love back in Tyrone, was a factor from the earliest of days. Indeed, the first time he questioned what the hell he was doing on the other side of the world came just five months after moving there – May 2, 2015.
“When Tyrone won the U21 All-Ireland - 100 per cent. I was watching it, I’d obviously played with all them boys, I probably would’ve been involved with that team… it was a hard one to take.”
McKenna watched on too as some of those friends and former team-mates helped Tyrone reach the 2018 All-Ireland final, by now the fire burning ever more brightly. And even after brother Ryan joined him Down Under, still he would be counting down the days until he was back home, away from the bubble.
“I usually would’ve come home maybe three months a year and last year when I came home, I’d have said to my mates on a Friday ‘right, come on we’ll go here’, then straight in the car, no questions asked, don’t come back until the Monday.
“Just head off to any wee town around Ireland, have a few pints with mates and meet different people from different places. It was class. I wouldn’t be one for sitting in the house, I like to be away, to be doing stuff… I started doing a bit of mountain walking there the last while then we were away surfing in Benone about five weeks ago, not long before Christmas.”
A skill presumably honed on the pearly white beaches of Australia – or maybe not.
“One of my mates out there was a massive surfer but there was shark attacks a couple of times, it was enough to put me off the water, the panic going through you.
“I went in a few times but I freaked out, put my head under water and thought of a shark so I never did. I wouldn’t be the best of a swimmer anyway.
“Thankfully there’s not as many sharks around Ireland so I’ve done a bit since I got back.”
Something else McKenna has done a fair bit of since coming back is talk.
The last Irish exile to cause such a stir upon their return from the AFL was Marty Clarke 11 years ago, the Down man having made a major impact with Collingwood before coming back to help his county reach a first All-Ireland final in 16 years.
Yet Clarke, now a BBC Sport pundit, largely shunned the spotlight in those days. Interviews were few and far between, even RTE were unable to coax him in front of the cameras when handing over man-of-the-match awards.
McKenna, by comparison, has spoken at length about the reasons for his return and appears unburdened by the attention that has followed his arrival from the other side of the world.
“It’s not something that ever really bothered me too much… it actually used to annoy me when I’d go to interviews in Australia and they’d tell me what they wanted me to say sometimes, or what they wanted me to talk about. That would frustrate me.
“Coming home and just having the freedom to talk, I’ll be as honest as I can and whatever way it comes across, that’s it. Probably because of that it doesn’t affect me because I know I’m telling the truth or being honest. I don’t have to make anything up, I can just talk off the cuff and be myself.
“In Australia there was certain points I did get pulled on a lot because I was saying stuff that probably wasn’t the best thing to say… like, I was very vocal if they ever asked me if I wanted to go home.
“I would’ve always said this is not a long term thing for me, at some stage I will be going back. I don’t love the sport. I wasn’t going to turn around to a media person and say ‘yeah, I’m going to be here for the next 20 years, have a family and all that’.
“It wasn’t true so I wasn’t going to say it.”
Once McKenna was home, though, he had to justify the hype. But being back at the foot of the mountain is something he relishes.
And while it didn’t happen for him or Tyrone in their Ulster Championship shoot-out with Donegal, there were enough examples of his strength (remember that earth-shuddering collision with Michael Murphy?) and ability (the 3-4 in those first two League games, the outrageous outside of the boot assist for Darragh Canavan’s goal against Mayo) to leave Red Hand fans eagerly anticipating what 2021 might bring.
Yet nobody is looking forward to it as much as Conor McKenna. And even in the grip of the Irish winter, and with uncertainty around every corner, be it sport or otherwise, there is no hint of regret. None whatsoever.
“I’m far happier in my head that I’m back home.
“I probably wasn’t myself over there for the last year or so… I just didn’t feel like I was going on like myself so I was just happy to get home. I know it’s definitely the right decision.
“After three years of minors, the U21s for half a year and seniors before I left, I probably got a bit of a sickener of football before I left - I was happy enough to get away at that stage and try something different for a while.
“I loved the challenge of being put to the bottom of the AFL and trying to work my way up to the top, see how good I could get. That’s the way I’m sort of feeling now coming back here, having to prove myself again… that’s something I thrive on.
“The ambition now is through the roof.”