Watch: Conor McKenna shows what Tyrone are missing but he'll play for Red Hands again
Three years ago Tyrone boss Mickey Harte pleaded with the then 18-year-old Conor McKenna to postpone his planned move to Australia and throw his lot in with the Red Hands seniors for 12 months. But the rising star held firm and proceeded to chase a professional sporting career on the other side of the world.
As his superb season with Essendon heads towards an exciting finale, McKenna is convinced he made the right decision, even if there have been some tough times along the way.
The 21-year-old knew this campaign would be make-or-break for his AFL ambitions, and as he prepares for his 17th successive senior game on Sunday, and his 32nd in total, it’s obvious what side of the ledger his 2017 already falls on.
“The third or fourth year tends to be massive for players out here, so to play 16 games in a row now has been brilliant,” McKenna said.
“To be in the team every week is great for the confidence. If you’re in for two games and then out again it can be very difficult mentally.”
Only seven GAA converts have played more AFL games than the Eglish man, whose blistering speed lends itself to viral highlight reels, as evidenced by his stunning goal against Pearce Hanley’s Gold Coast Suns last weekend.
A running half-back, not too dissimilar in style to Hanley, McKenna stormed down the right flank, taking four bounces at full throttle, before coolly slotting home from a tight angle.
How Harte would love to have the Essendon player’s athleticism — which sees him hit top speeds of around 34kmh in games — and attacking talents as part of his arsenal as he attempts to halt the Dubs’ march towards a third successive All-Ireland final this Sunday.
His Tyrone gear may be washed and ready to go but when McKenna sits down to cheer on the Red Hand men from 17,000km away, at 1am on a Melbourne Monday, he is hoping he will already have something to celebrate.
Just under 12 hours before David Coldrick throws the ball above the heads of the Dublin and Tyrone midfielders, McKenna’s Essendon side host Fremantle in their final regulation game of the season knowing that victory would almost certainly clinch a top-eight finish and a spot in the AFL finals.
McKenna, who arrived at the club in 2014 after captaining the Tyrone minors to an agonising All-Ireland final defeat to Mayo the previous September, is desperate to give the Essendon supporters something to celebrate.
“It’s been a tough few years for the club, so it’s great for the fans that they have something to cheer for now. Thankfully it’s all in our own hands now so if we win that should clinch our spot in the finals,” he said.
The bouts of homesickness he went through during his first few months in Melbourne have yet to make a reappearance.
However, football is often the catalyst for such feelings, and the prospect of Tyrone reaching a first All-Ireland final in nine years this weekend is naturally going to stir up that pot of emotion. Seeing so many former minor team-mates claim an U-21 All-Ireland in 2015 was particularly tough to watch from afar.
“There are obviously still times when you’d be missing family and friends,” he said.
“It is a little bit tough to watch (the seniors). It was very hard to see the U-21s win the All-Ireland in 2015 too. I would have played with a lot of those lads.”
However, having eight other young Irishmen with similar professional ambitions in and around Melbourne helps to keep any feelings of isolation at bay.
Last weekend, for instance, McKenna watched the drawn game between Kerry and Mayo with Carlton’s Louth defender Ciaran Byrne and Westmeath’s Ray Connellan, who is with St Kilda, at The Quiet Man, a traditional Irish watering hole just a stone’s throw from Melbourne’s famous Flemington Racecourse.
“It’s a great help having so many other young Irish lads around Melbourne. We meet up every week or two to just chat away, have a pint, and watch a match or whatever. Having that network is great,” he said.
The drink culture at home has been in the spotlight of late, and McKenna feels the GAA could learn a thing or two from the AFL’s attitude to alcohol.
“At home you might be on a drinking ban for two or three months and you end up going half-mad then when you can go out as you think it could be another couple of months before you can go out again,” he added.
“It doesn’t make sense. Out here, you can have a couple of drinks every few weeks. Nothing crazy, just a few pints to take the edge off. The level you’re training at, it doesn’t really affect you.”
A goal on McKenna’s radar, once this AFL campaign concludes, is representing Ireland in November’s two-Test international Rules series in Australia.
It would be particularly special for the Eglish man, who hails from the same club as the late Cormac McAnallen, the former Tyrone star whose name adorns the trophy that is contested between the two countries.
“It would be very special, Cormac obviously being from the same club. I was only seven or eight when he died but he made such a big impression on the club and on Tyrone,” he said.
McKenna insists that returning to play for Tyrone’s seniors also remains high on his list.
“I’m still thinking about returning one day, I just don’t know when,” he added.
Tyrone’s loss, it appears, is Essendon’s gain.