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Conor McKenna: My dream of trophy glory on both sides of the globe is keeping me Down Under before Tyrone return

Big star: Conor McKenna of Essendon Bombers
Big star: Conor McKenna of Essendon Bombers

By Michael Verney

There's a fair chance that Conor McKenna would have left the AFL dream behind to head back to Tyrone had he not been so stubborn. Defiance is a trait of all good sportspeople and McKenna has it in spades.

Leaving home at 18 and heading around the world to ply his trade Down Under with Essendon was never going to be easy given that he is a self-confessed "home bird", but McKenna was determined to leave his mark.

Regardless of how his career unfolded, the former Tyrone underage star would go home happy as long as he had one AFL game under his belt, but he did even better than that in his first year, with two appearances for the Bombers.

He "still wasn't sure" if a return to Australia was what he saw in his future, but his parents urged him to continue chasing the dream of being a professional athlete and, once he returned to Melbourne, he settled back into normal life.

The hardest part has always been leaving Eglish after the off-season break every winter, so much so that he doesn't tell his mother when he's leaving. He has his bag packed and heads for the airport to avoid any tears.

"I still suffer a bit with homesickness. I've always been a home bird and the first couple of years were pretty tough, not really knowing if you want to go back at the end of the year and still kind of struggling to go back," McKenna says.

"It's fine when you're out there, but it's just when you're leaving home and stuff like that, it can be a struggle. My sister (Kerri) was there last year for six months, she lived down the road from me, and my brother (Ryan) has lived with me for the last year and a half.

"That makes it a lot easier having them out there. 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.

"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."

Essendon are understanding employers, with McKenna allowed to return home this Christmas to spend time with his family, while they were also forgiving when he defied club rules last month to play for Eglish and help save their Division One status.

McKenna got no more than a slap on the wrist, and that's not surprising given his performances last season, with the 23-year-old a rare shining light at half-back in what was an average season for Essendon.

Dubbed an "overconfident Irishman" by many commentators for his dazzling skills, McKenna has gone viral several times as he refuses to leave his Irish roots behind, with dummy solos and chip-ups just some of his tricks.

"When you come out, they take you back to square one and teach you all the basics and how you have to do things. I suppose there's not much of a notion of creating your own stuff. Gaelic football is full of people like that who try different things," he says.

"It comes natural to most Irish players, but at the very start you're a bit afraid to do it or upset anyone. But now that I've played more games and have more confidence, I'm probably not as afraid to mess up, so hopefully I can do more stuff like that this year.

"(The Aussies) haven't seen anything like it but it's so normal. 'Why are you doing that? No-one else does that', it's as if you're wrong because no-one has done it before. It's cool to put your own twist on it, it's good to see that bit of Irish coming out."

McKenna has another short-term goal in sight next season - to overhaul the number of appearances/goals (73-19) achieved by former Down and Collingwood star Marty Clarke, with the pair currently tied on both counts. That should change soon, fitness permitting, although the pull of home is never far from McKenna's thoughts and his career will have to be re-assessed when his current deal concludes at the end of the 2021 season.

Mickey Harte tried to convince him to defer his AFL career for a year to sample life with Tyrone, and he dreams of repeating what Kerry and Sydney Swans star Tadhg Kennelly completed in 2009 when returning home for a year to lift Sam Maguire.

"I'm happy to play in Australia but always the end goal is hopefully I can win a Premiership and then, eventually, I don't know if it's going to be in the next couple of years or five years, to come home and play for Eglish and Tyrone at some stage," he says.

"I want to see if I can have another crack at it. I've two years left on my contract, after that I'll talk to whoever and just consider staying for another few years or coming home.

"But I could come home and not be able to play Gaelic football, so I might have to go back to Australia.

"I'll come home and maybe try it and go back, or come home and stay and hopefully enjoy it.

"I'm happy with where I'm at right now and in two years I'll make the decision."

Had things worked out differently, McKenna would have followed his dream of being a jockey as his father Pat trains a handful of horses, which he helps out with when he returns home, while the family also operate an engineering business.

While size scuppered notions of becoming a jockey, he is involved along with Essendon team-mates in a two-year-old trained by David Hayes.

Next year should see McKenna's International Rules debut in the battle for the trophy named after former Eglish clubmate and Tyrone legend Cormac McAnallen.

Another year with another milestone to come in what is turning into a remarkable career.

Belfast Telegraph

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