Ulster SFC Championship quarter-final
Donegal v Tyrone
Sunday, Ballybofey, 1.30pm
IT’S a good thing Conor McKenna is a down-to-earth sort of character or the widespread praise lavished upon him would go straight to his head.
Earlier this week, former Dublin midfielder Ciaran Whelan said “I can’t even explain how good he played on Sunday. This guy has just hit the ground running after coming back from Australia.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, he was involved in everything. He was excellent.”
And he wasn’t the only one. Former Meath player Cian Ward, an astute commentator on The GAA Hour podcast, proclaimed that “He’s a better addition to Tyrone than what Tadhg Kennelly would’ve been when he came back to Kerry” which is some statement given that McKenna has only played two games for Tyrone.
That’s without mentioning the viral videos as well.
His defence-splitting 50-yard foot-pass to Darragh Canavan against Mayo on Sunday racked up more than 100 thousand views on Twitter. A thunderous shoulder on Michael Murphy a week earlier? 70 thousand, which isn’t bad either.
So it’s safe to say that McKenna is hot property at the moment.
Even the most fanatical Tyrone supporter will have been surprised by his rapid readjustment to Gaelic Football after six years tearing it up with Essendon Bombers, but it’s been a life-long love affair with the sport and that can’t be discounted as a factor.
McKenna not only had a tradition of playing club football with Eglish during the AFL off-season, but he also spent a couple of weeks playing with Australian GAA club Wolfe Tones earlier in the year.
“When I was home-sick they tried different things to make me happier. I asked if I could train with my brother’s Gaelic team on Tuesday night. I’d train with Essendon, attend meetings, then wore my GPS to a Gaelic training session. It only last three weeks and I was loving playing Gaelic, but I still wasn’t happy so I came back home.”
McKenna played 79 games over six years for Essendon, but his struggles with homesickness were well-documented.
The 2019 season was probably his best for the club – statistically he was one of their top five performers which is a serious accomplishment for any payer, let alone an Irish import – but things fell by the wayside this year.
McKenna’s heart simply wasn’t in it any more – and he was also deeply unhappy at the tabloid-esque media coverage after he became the first player in the AFL to test positive for Covid-19 (it transpired to be a false positive).
It wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, however, and he said that one point he resigned to the dressing room in tears because of his yearning to be back home.
“I talked to Mickey when I was home in February. I said I was definitely going back this year but wasn’t exactly sure of when exactly that would be. I was always going to go home no matter what.
“In any interview I did over there I always said: ‘I’m not a lover of Australia, I’m not a lover of the game, it’s something I want to do on a part-time basis’.
“I never enjoyed going back at Christmas, and it usually took two or three weeks to get back into the swing of things, but this year after two months I still wasn’t happy.
“We did a training camp and at one session I just walked off the pitch. I was in tears crying and went into the changing rooms.
“I knew in the back of my head it wasn’t for me any more and the money wasn’t enough to keep me around. I just wanted to go home and play Gaelic and enjoy my life, rather than always dreading going back to Australia.”
McKenna, who starred on the Tyrone minor team which reached the All-Ireland final in 2013, says he found it particularly difficult watching many of his former teammates claim All-ireland u-21 honours two years later, and he had a front-row seat in Croke Park when they lost to Dublin in the senior decider in 2018. Now he’s back playing with Tyrone, he couldn’t be happier.
“It really hit home to me when Tyrone won the u-21 All-Ireland. I’d played with those boys in the minor final and I did question ‘why am I here?’
“I was lucky enough to get tickets for the 2018 final and it proved to me I wasn’t really where I wanted to be. A mate of mine at the game said he almost hoped Tyrone were beaten for my sake.
“I was in Australia for the money aspect rather than for the love of the game, so it was hard to watch.
“I was really looking forward to getting back with Tyrone and I’ve been lucky enough to score a few goals.
“It’s definitely been a good start and was something I’ve dreamt of doing for the last six or seven years. I wasn’t really enjoying the AFL and now I’m back playing the sport I love so it’s good to get back at it.”