GAA Football

Kicking Out: Going back a beginning and an end for McKenna

Having returned home to Tyrone at the end of 2020, Conor McKenna achieved his All-Ireland sooner than most expected and left himself in a state of career limbo that is now set to take him back to the AFL. Picture by Philip Walsh

WHEN Conor McKenna was playing U14 football with Eglish, his name was put forward for county trials.

On the day the rule was to be run over the next crop of young Red Hands, he was nowhere to be seen.

Instead of Tyrone trials, he’d gone to Tyrella racecourse to watch his uncle Pat’s horse Trotsky run in a point-to-point race.

His father and their people are into the horses. Young Conor briefly set football aside at one stage to follow his ambitions of becoming a jockey, riding in a couple of amateur races. But he was too heavy and the idea quickly fell away.

Growing up in Benburb, a few miles from Eglish, he tried his hand at rugby, at basketball, at hurling. He didn’t play Gaelic football until he was “13 or 14” and “wasn’t really a big fan of it” he told Neil Loughran of this parish early in 2021, months after returning from Australia.

Those were the early signs that for a boy with the sporting world at his feet, he would spend much of his first 26 years treading around his talent, unsure quite what to do with it or whether he even wants it.

His relationship with the AFL in the six years he spent out in Melbourne was complicated to say the least.

If he was asked the question about home, he made no bones – this was all just a game. The real business would be going home to win an All-Ireland with Tyrone.

Homesickness riddled him. The Irish players would all get home for Christmas and when the return flight would come in January, he never told his mother when he was going.

He just packed his bags and disappeared, so as to avoid the tears that would only strengthen his desire to stay home.

Yet outside Zak Tuohy and possibly Pearce Hanley, McKenna has been the most successful Irish export of this generation. Where so many have struggled, he became a genuine first-team regular with Essendon, playing 73 games for the club.

In 2019, he was voted fourth in the club’s Best and Fairest, the AFL equivalent of our player of the year.

He could have stayed for as long as he wanted, but time came that he just didn’t want to any more.

His return home was expedited by the public battering he took after being caught in a Covid storm, accused of breaching public health guidelines at the time and forcing the postponement of a game, before later returning a negative test for the virus having earlier recorded what he later described as “a false positive”.

McKenna’s name was kicked about by the bolshy Australian media, leaving him to feel very lonely indeed.

Two months later, he was coming home. Nobody was surprised.

There’s a bit of the Jamie Clarke about him. The Crossmaglen man finds himself back on home shores again, picking up an Irish League contract with Newry City, saying just about little enough to keep the embers of another Armagh return smouldering.

With him you always felt Gaelic football was the best outlet available, but not necessarily the thing that got him out of bed in the morning.

McKenna comes across as much the same.

It remains to be seen whether he is picked up by an AFL club again.

The rumours in Australia are linking him with Geelong rather than a return to Essendon, but it appears there’s enough interest there that he’ll earn himself a contract somewhere.

Having said he has no love for Aussie Rules as a sport and openly admitting he’s struggled with homesickness over there, why would he go back?

For a start, he’s achieved with Tyrone what he’d wanted to.

If they hadn’t won the All-Ireland in 2021, it would be very difficult to imagine that Conor McKenna would be leaving again now.

Having won it, though, what else is left?

He yearned for home but looking back, was the yearning to play with Tyrone or was it was to win?

In making his decision to try his hand at the AFL again, McKenna will have looked down the line at the next few seasons.

The wheels came off badly for Tyrone in 2022 and the undercurrent flowing beneath it all was that with all the defections, their squad very quickly lost the depth it needed to challenge.

The age profile of Niall Morgan, Mattie Donnelly, Ronan McNamee, Peter Harte is such that they maybe only have a couple of top-end years left. The influx of All-Ireland winning U20s has already begun and on paper they should be improved next year.

Tyrone might win another All-Ireland before the statesmen retire. They might not.

But AFL clubs wouldn’t pick up the phone to Conor McKenna if he was 29. It was now or never for him.

He would be established enough to pick up a decent contract. The average annual AFL wage comes in at around $250,000 (£147,000). Put yourself in his shoes – of course you would go.

When he returned to Tyrone just as football resumed in late 2020, he burst back on to the scene scoring 3-4 in his first two games; thundering into Michael Murphy and living to tell the tale; delivering a scintillating 70-yard ball to assist a Darragh Canavan goal down in Mayo.

His contribution to the All-Ireland success was critical but sporadic. Two goals against Kerry, the assist for Darren McCurry to seal the deal in the final, but truth told very little else at times.

McKenna’s form dipped so alarmingly this year that he was only on the bench against Fermanagh. And perhaps angered by the kick up the ass, his second half performance that day was his best since Mayo.

He got sent off wrongly at the end that day, but then was rightly dismissed against Derry, when his frustration was evident.

Frustration was with himself or those around him? Both, you’d imagine.

There was no home in the team for him. He was tried just about everywhere from wing-back to full-forward but none of it seemed to fit the way it did when he was a minor.

Naturally there’s something in the nature of the Aussie Rules game that changes a player.

McKenna’s performances would come quickly to remind you of Caolan Mooney’s for Down. They both had the capacity for flashes of lightning, but struggled massively for consistency. The game would just pass them by a lot.

Originally a half-back in the AFL, McKenna had a grapple to try and get moved into the forwards towards the end of his time with Essendon. Were there adaptations to his training to meet the short, sharp requirements of playing as a forward? His conditioning has seemed that way since he came home, built for speed rather than endurance.

He never looked unfit – he just looked the wrong type of fit.

For it all, Tyrone would still be better looking at Conor McKenna than looking for him, even if that’s only on the basis of what he has the potential to do.

He leaves with an All-Ireland that they would not have won without him.

Not enough time will have been spent in county colours for him to achieve a legacy as one of Tyrone’s greatest Gaelic footballers. Not with the roll-call they’ve had since the mid-80s.

But Conor McKenna still has the capacity to make his name as one of the great Irish exports.

As much as it’s an end, it’s a new beginning.

GAA Football