GAA Football

'That kind of player is the jam in the sandwich': What a difference a year makes for Conor McKenna

A year after swapping a successful AFL career for the home comforts of Tyrone, Conor McKenna finds himself preparing for an All-Ireland final date with Mayo this evening. Neil Loughran talks to some of those who watched his rise on both sides of the world ahead of the biggest day in his sporting life…

Conor McKenna reels away in celebration after scoring his second goal in Tyrone's All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry. Picture by Philip Walsh

IT was 1.15am on Wednesday, September 8 last year when the statement dropped on this side of the world. Few in Ireland are likely to have been surfing the Essendon FC website at that early hour yet, by the time daylight cracked through the clouds, the news was spreading from Down Under.

Conor McKenna, one of Ireland’s most successful exports to the AFL, was coming home. Or, from the club’s perspective, saying goodbye. Six years, 79 games, a debut goal and a stacked highlight reel full of electric forward forays, Gaelic football-style solos and raw ambition rippling from the Bombers’ red and black guernsey.

When the end came, though, it wasn’t a surprise.

The grá for the game was never there, McKenna is the first to admit that. The sun, the sandy beaches and the life of a professional sportsman, he loved so much of what Australia had to offer, but it could never replace home.

Instead, he yearned for his father’s yard in Benburb, the horses that inspired dreams of becoming a jockey long before football won his heart. And then there was Tyrone.

Months before first catching the eye of AFL scouts at the end of 2013, McKenna was part of a Red Hand minor side containing the likes of Frank Burns and Cathal McShane that suffered All-Ireland final heartbreak against, you guessed it, Mayo.

Two years later, under the stewardship of Feargal Logan, Brian Dooher and Peter Canavan, those boys turned to men on the way to U21 glory. McKenna was sat in a Melbourne apartment roaring them on, the celebrations bittersweet.

That could have been me, that should have been me.

Those same mixed emotions shot through him as final fever cranked up ahead of the 2018 decider, a first since the county’s last Sam Maguire success a decade earlier. With every big day that passed him by the fire was stoked a little more, until eventually an inferno raged.

That could have been me, that should have been me.

This evening, at last, it is him. Back where he wanted to be, on the greatest stage of all, a fairytale story almost complete.

What a difference a year makes.

******************

Conor McKenna with Barry Corr's son, Charlie, at Essendon

“We’re on our way to the airport, we’re going to sign this kid from Tyrone, will you have him live with you?”

BARRY Corr’s heart was still beating out of his chest an hour after the TV had been turned off. The Coalisland man has lived in Melbourne for the past 13 years, but nothing gets Tyrone blood pumping like a victory against the odds. Throw out-cute-hooring those cutest of Kingdom hoors into the mix and you’ve enough adrenaline to last a week.

It was almost 3am in Australia when the end of extra-time heralded one of the most unforgettable days in the county’s remarkable recent history. There would be no sleep, no matter how hard he tried.

“We’re locked down here in Melbourne anyway, so it wasn’t like we had to get up for junior footy or anything on Sunday morning,” he laughs.

Pride of place takes on a special meaning for ex-pats in moments like these. In the case of Corr and his family, though, it went even further.

The same sofa he leapt up off when Conor McKenna rippled the Kerry net twice was the same sofa where Corr and the young Tyrone prodigy had sat putting the world to rights on many an occasion.

An Essendon member, Corr had first leant a hand to the club in a bid to ward off unsolicited attempts at securing some quick cash in exchange for the next hot prospect off the GAA production line – whether the player in question knew about it or not.

“There was a time when the club would’ve been getting an email on a Monday morning to the list manager saying, for example, ‘I represent Sean Cavanagh, send me 5,000 euro and I’ll arrange a meeting to get him to sign for your club’. Just scammers trying the hand.

“I was going through some of the offers being made, and it was basically somebody who had just read The Irish News report from the weekend, saw who was man of the match, then sending an email thinking they can get this money from Australia.

“I was able to tell them there was no danger of Sean Cavanagh moving to Australia to play for anybody, he’s got a chartered accountancy business and he’s playing for Tyrone. Don’t waste your time, don’t waste your money.”

There were no such concerns when McKenna was recommended, however, with a host of clubs chasing his signature after starring for an AFL Europe talent program team across two games against Australia’s AIS academy side in London.

“Conor was very easily identified - he dominated those two games against the best U18 Aussie hopefuls,” says former Down star Marty Clarke, who also burst onto the scene at the start of his AFL career.

“I was still at Collingwood at the time and the club actually had me invite him to the club to try and convince him to sign for Collingwood.”

Clarke’s sweet talking didn’t work, though. And as Corr’s involvement with Essendon grew, he soon found himself called into action – and not for the first time.

When the Bombers signed Michael Quinn in 2009, Corr agreed to look after the Longford prospect for the initial few weeks “until we figure out what to do with him”.

“Two years later we were moving house and it was a case of ‘Quinny, you’re going to have to find somewhere to go brother…’”

Essendon were keen to repeat the trick.

“Quinny became part of the furniture and we loved having him. So when the club was going to sign Conor, it was a case of ‘we’re on our way to the airport, we’re going to sign this kid from Tyrone, will you have him live with you?’

“Unfortunately I was working inter-state at the time, I was away two or three weeks of the month, my wife had just gone back to work… it was a very different scenario.

“But we were still able to look after him from nearby. Conor’s always been a great lad, a real credit to his folks. We had them over for dinner, we had the brother and the brother’s girlfriend from time to time.

“He was living with some of the other players about a kilometre away from us, so he would just cruise up, wreck about outside, kicking a ball with my young fella….

“Charlie’s 15 now and for most of his life he thought it was entirely normal to have AFL players from Ireland sitting at the dinner table.”

Across his six years in Australia, the Corrs’ door was always open.

Yet, while McKenna’s career in a different code soared from the start, homesickness proved harder to master, even after brothers Ryan and Emmet moved Down Under.

It’s a challenge for most international recruits and, through his role as chief executive of the Irish-Australian chamber of commerce, something Corr hopes to do something about for future generations.

“They get a day off a week where they can go and study or do work experience, so a lot of the Aussie kids will be in uni courses or pursuing apprenticeships while they’re playing, whereas for the internationals, they probably need a little bit more support around them.

“I’ve had discussions with the clubs about maybe bringing some of the players into our mentoring programmes so they’ve got somebody to look after them, talk about life after sport and getting them set up for what comes after.

“But Conor was always passionate about GAA. Don’t get me wrong, he loved to win a game with Essendon, but you could talk to him about Essendon and talk to him about Tyrone… Tyrone was the one that got him really excited.

“And then the other thing he and I would chat about was the racing…”

******************

MATTIE McGleenan remembers the day he came back all too well. Not from Australia, not this time anyway, but from a trainee jockey course in Kildare.

Horseracing was Conor McKenna’s first love. Grandfather Malachy trained them, dad Pat still does. The day he was due to attend an U14 trial with Tyrone, Pat had a horse – Trotsky – running at a point-to-point in Tyrella.

There was only ever going to be one winner.

“I went to the point-to-point instead of the trial,” the 25-year-old recalled in an Irish News interview earlier this year.

“I was mad into horses, I still am. My da has a few, I own a few now as well… 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.”

Coaching the Eglish U13s at the time, McGleenan was waiting with open arms when McKenna returned to training.

“We had lost him at that stage, there’s no doubt about it,” says the former Cavan and Scotstown boss.

“But Conor’s a black and white sort of a fella. When he couldn’t do the horseracing, that was it. His sole focus then was on Gaelic football.

“At U13 it was two-touch football, and Conor McKenna was just different gravy. When he came back to us, it was a great day.”

McKenna would go on to play MacRory Cup football under McGleenan with St Patrick’s, Armagh. An All-Ireland finalist with Tyrone in 1995, lining out alongside Peter Canavan, McGleenan knew special when he saw it.

“There’s an energy in Conor, in how he plays the game… he plays the game with a smile. When you’ve been involved with Colleges’ football and MacRory Cup football over 20 years, you see the standout players a mile off.

“Martin Clarke was a standout, Conor Glass, I can roll back to Stephen O’Neill’s day. You often hear people in sport talking about somebody as having ‘it’, or having an X factor.

“Well Conor had ‘it’.”

McGleenan knew better than most that Eglish and Tyrone’s loss was the AFL’s gain, with McKenna admitting he relished beginning at the bottom of the pile having started to make a name for himself back home.

“Conor was never going to accept just going out and giving it a go – he was going to go at it full bore. Around a changing room, Conor brings an energy and an enthusiasm to playing any game that is infectious.

“In the changing room, that kind of player is the jam in the sandwich. He brings an energy that will lift other players around him, and the AFL ones caught onto that very quickly. He’s a fella who brings players with him.”

As he progressed and developed Down Under, so the spotlight would shine ever more brightly. It was a culture shock at first, though McKenna was never one for courting the public eye.

“The reality is, if you’re playing for one of the Melbourne teams, footy’s a religion here,” says Barry Corr.

“It’s a lot different than if you were playing in Perth, Adelaide or Brisbane, even Sydney. A player like Conor, who was dashing through at speed, making runs, doing solos, had all the tricks… he definitely brought a lot of excitement, but he wasn’t somebody who would’ve been heading off to the nightclubs to see what sort of trouble he could’ve got into.

“He was always happy enough to meet up with some of the other Irish players and go for a bit of dinner, maybe a lemonade or two depending on what part of the season it was.”

That scrutiny was never stronger than in the summer of 2020 when his AFL career was nearing an end.

McKenna was subjected to harsh judgment by sections of the Australian media after a positive test for Covid-19, including reports suggesting he had deliberately broken quarantine restrictions with his club by attending an open house viewing and visiting family.

In the weeks that followed, North Melbourne player Luke McDonald was forced to apologise after an incident in which he dramatically covered his face, seemingly in reference to the Covid controversy, after a scuffle.

Barry Corr and his family also found themselves dragged into the middle of it.

“Let’s not beat about the bush,” he says, “last year was tough for all the players - having to go into hubs, being separated from all their support networks for months.

“That would’ve been difficult for any of the internationals, and it might have been a contributing factor for Conor coming home. Then there was the issue of the Covid test, and we found ourselves in the firing line with that too.

“A journalist from Channel 7 rang me out of the blue the morning that story broke and said he thought it was us that Conor had visited, and that was the story he was going with. But it wasn’t us.

“Regardless, the reality was the lease was up on their flat, and within the restrictions you were allowed to go and inspect a property to potentially move into. What transpired was an absolute beat up.

“You’ve got a good kid who’s being painted as having done something terrible, which he didn’t do. It must have been a really slow news day.”

Mattie McGleenan grew up near the McKenna family in Benburb, and earlier this year returned to home club Eglish as manager

******************

THE day after Conor McKenna helped Tyrone storm the Kingdom a fortnight ago, Essendon were blitzed by Western Bulldogs in an elimination final. For all that Barry Corr was delighted to have him back in a Tyrone jersey, there was sadness at seeing him go.

“I was hoping he would stay a wee bit longer, but he made a great impact,” he said.

“He could easily have been a long-term fixture in the AFL if he had wanted to be, but the call of home was too strong. If he ever decided he wanted to come back to the AFL like [Tadhg] Kennelly or Marty Clarke did, I’d say there’d be plenty of clubs very keen to secure his services.

“But the lad’s got to live his life, and if he feels being home and playing for Tyrone is the right thing for him, then it’s the right thing for him. Thank God he was there to put those two goals away against Kerry.”

And yet it feels like there is so much more still to come.

Having got off to a flying start in county colours, his Championship debut last October saw McKenna pitted against Neil McGee at a rain-lashed Ballybofey.

Unable to impose his will on the Donegal veteran after picking up an early yellow card, and shining in fits and starts rather than lighting up games during this campaign before that brilliant semi-final brace, he remains Tyrone’s joker in the pack.

Under the bright lights of Croke Park this evening, it would be no surprise to see Conor McKenna steal the show.

“Conor’s not going to stand up there and be a target man - he’s going to move out, force turnovers, force men to kick the ball away under pressure,” said Mattie McGleenan, who took up the reins at home club Eglish at the start of the year.

“Even if you look at the second goal he scored against Kerry, Conor’s back on the Tyrone 45 as part of the defensive set-up, and his run is an outside run. In most cases a player would’ve said ‘there’s absolutely no chances I’m going to be a part of this play’, but there he was on the 14 yard line to get that breaking ball.

“That was the kind of run you might make 10 times and nothing ever comes off it. He’s instinctive, at times he plays off the cuff. That’s what makes him special.

“But you have to remember Conor McKenna has come from a professional world where there’s pressure on you to turn up every week, there’s a statistical focus on how many touches and possessions you had, your influence on a game… that was his environment for six years. Probably his contract depended on turning up and performing week after week.

“This is different. When he decided to come home, he wanted to play for Tyrone, he wanted to play in an All-Ireland final. Within a year he’s done all of that, now he’s 70 minutes away from everything you dream of.

“There’s no pressure on it. Pressure is professional sport, pressure is where he was 18 months ago. This now? This is just disco time for him.”

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