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McKenna: I wasn't happy

Tyrone's prodigal son is home and ready for next chapter, writes Donnchadh Boyle

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BACK HOME: Tyrone Footballer Conor McKenna at AIB’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Pic: Sportsfile

BACK HOME: Tyrone Footballer Conor McKenna at AIB’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

BACK HOME: Tyrone Footballer Conor McKenna at AIB’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Pic: Sportsfile

With Conor McKenna, there is no filter. Tyrone's prodigal, prodigious son makes no attempt to self-edit.

So ask him about homesickness and he'll tell you he once left the pitch at an Essendon training camp and started to cry.

Talk to him about professionalism and he'll tell you that at the end, he realised he was only staying for the money. Quiz him on missing out on big days with Tyrone and he'll reveal that there were days where he could tell that his friends were conflicted.

As Tyrone men, they were rooting for their county. As McKenna's friend, they didn't want Tyrone to win, knowing how hard he'd take missing out on it.

That straightforwardness is a trait has won him admirers but it raises bristles too. In interviews Down Under, he'd be asked about the GAA and home and he'd tell them the plan was to go back - and sooner rather than later.

It made Essendon uneasy to hear one of their star men talk so publicly about life outside of pro sport and away from the club.

But it was what was in his head and his heart. So it was what was going to come out of his mouth.

Shock

"It was something they (the club) weren't really a fan of. I was always open about, in any interview I ever did over there, they always asked and I said, 'I'm not a lover of Australia' or, 'I'm not a lover of the game', 'It's something I want to do on a part-time basis'.

"And I sort of always knew that. So it was never a shock to anybody when I was going to retire. It just sort of a matter of when."

By his own admission, the club bent over backwards to try keep him happy and then they bent a little more. They excused him last year to attend his brother's wedding.

When he lined out for Eglish without permission, there was only a mild public admonishment. They even let him train with the Wolfe Tones GAA club in Melbourne in the hope he'd come around.

"When I was homesick over there this year, they were just trying different things to see how I could be happier. I said I'm going to go train with my brother's Gaelic football team on a Tuesday night, to try it.

"They said no problem. So instead of a Tuesday, training with the AFL, I had to go in, do the meetings, then go back home, wear a GPS to the Gaelic session and do it with them.

"So it only lasted three weeks. It didn't really make a big difference. I was loving playing Gaelic but I still wasn't happy. So I came home then. But, yeah, the club let me do it which was pretty amazing."

On reflection, McKenna's mind was made up last Christmas. Heading back to Australia after a stint at home always filled him with dread, but with time, he'd settle back into the rhythm of life in Oz.

But even before he was at the eye of a media storm for a positive Covid-19 test result - which turned out to be a false positive - the worm had turned. When he walked off a pitch and cried at a training camp, McKenna was certain his time was up. "I never enjoyed going back, no matter what, Christmas, after the off-season, I just never wanted to go back really.

"It normally took me two or three weeks to sort of get back into the swing of things and be happy.

"But this year, I never really got to that stage and probably two months in I still wasn't happy. I was sort of walking off the training session, we did a training camp and there was one session I just sort of walked off and I was in tears crying inside in the changing room and just didn't want to be there.

"I just knew in the back of my head it just wasn't for me anymore. Probably was at the stage where money just wasn't enough anymore to keep me there and just wanted to get home and back into playing Gaelic football and getting extended time staying at home and building a life here, rather than always being worried about going back to Australia.

"That was something I never really enjoyed so it just didn't feel the same this year and I just knew it was the right decision for my happiness more than anything."

He built up quite the reputation for himself in Australia with the social media-friendly selling of dummy solos with the oval ball. He'd play 79 times and kick 20 goals before he'd finish. Only five Irish players have appeared in the AFL more often.

But Tyrone never left him and part of him never left Tyrone.

"The two points that stick out to me was when the Tyrone U-21s won the All-Ireland, that was my first year and that really hit home," he said as AIB announced their sponsorship of the football championship for another year.

"Because I had been playing with those boys and got beaten in a minor final, it was probably something that really struck me, 'Why am I here?' And really sort of questioning it.

"2018, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the All-Ireland final and then just before the game I was sitting there and it sort of hit home that I could probably be playing there. It probably proved to me that I'm not where I want to be. I was probably over in Australia for the money aspect of it rather than playing the game.

"It's something that definitely hit home, when we went five points up, my mate was sitting there and he sort of looked at me and was, you know, probably hoping they'd get beaten, just for my sake, because it was hard to watch."

He's only been with Tyrone a few weeks but there's already been several reminders of the talent that saw him so coveted by the Australians. On Sunday, he'll be front and centre for his long-awaited championship debut against Donegal. There are no regrets now. Only a desire to live out childhood dreams.

"I definitely don't regret it. I would still advise any young fella that has the opportunity to go and play AFL from Ireland, 100 per cent do it. It's something I'll look back on and I'm very proud of what I've achieved but for me it just got to a stage where I wasn't happy anymore and happiness is the main thing.

"But it's still something that I would advise people to go and if you go for a year and you don't like it, it's still a different culture, a different lifestyle, different experiences so it's definitely something I don't regret.

"I'm happy I've done it and I'm happy I'm home."


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