By Barry O’Donnell
CONOR McKenna admits that it has taken him time to adjust to the speed and intensity of top flight Gaelic football.
A year on from his much heralded return from Aussie Rules football, the young Eglish star acknowledges that the transition back to his native game hasn’t always run smoothly despite fleeting moments of real class and quality.
McKenna hit the ground running at the back end of the 2020 National League and Championship with a series of star performances in the Tyrone colours. Yet maintaining that level of excellence subsequent to the prolonged winter lockdown has proved difficult but the dynamic runs and searing pace were evident again in the last two outings against Donegal and Monaghan in the Ulster series.
Hoping now to playing a central role against Kerry this coming Saturday at Croke Park, McKenna said that adapting again to football at the highest level did present teething problems.
“Probably the intensity surprised me. Gaelic doesn’t stop whereas in the AFL every couple of minutes you get a break and then once a quarter you get to go off. Probably the consistency of the up and back game did surprise me and I’m just adjusting to it now probably.”
Having sat out the Ulster opener against Cavan, McKenna looked like a man with a point to prove when sprung from the bench for the much-anticipated provincial semi-final meeting with Donegal.
“I had a bit of a niggle and didn’t start the game but I felt good and was raring to get on.
“It was my first win in the Senior Championship as we had lost to Donegal last season and I didn’t play against Cavan in the first round this year and it was good to get a first win out of the way.
“It was just great then in the final get my hands on an Ulster winners medal. It means a lot to me. Last year it was over so quickly when we lost to Donegal in the first round but having won it now it takes the pressure off a little and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Lining out at Croke Park against Monaghan and now set to face Kerry at the same venue provide the sort of marquee fixtures which justified McKenna’s decision to pack his bags and leave the professional set up of Essendon in Australia to return home.
“These are the sort of games that I came home from Australia looking to play in. Winning the Ulster title there against Monaghan was special. Croke Park is where you dreamed of playing when you were younger. There will be 25,000 again there on Saturday, it definitely felt loud in the Ulster final and I’m sure it will be the same again.”
He is under no illusion however that Tyrone must produce a more consistent display over the full 70 minutes against raging hot-favourites Kerry if they are to pull off a stunning upset.
“We played well at times against Donegal and then in the Ulster final against Monaghan we were good in the first half and struggled a bit in the second half when we just slowed up. There is no way that we can afford to do that against Kerry.
“I think to beat Kerry you need a full 70 minutes of good football and we need to go out and give it everything that we have. Hopefully we can put that together but we will just have to see on Saturday.
“They are obviously a good team and in the last four or five years they have been one of the few teams to have really put it up to Dublin in the championship, just coming up short a few times.
“They are probably the team to beat in the remainder of the championship and we will have to be at our best to do that.”
And with the latest medical bulletins form the Tyrone camp more positive after the well-documented Covid outbreak, McKenna is bullish about their prospects this weekend.
“Everybody is back training and looking forward to getting stuck into it. It probably wasn’t ideal preparation for the game but it’s not just us that are dealing with Covid this year, everybody is. It is a case of everybody knowing their role and playing it and doing it to the best of their ability. If we go out and gave it everything and come up short that is all that we can do but we will certainly be putting our best foot forward.”