Conor McKenna admits he hasn’t closed the door on AFL return

Tyrone player thinks split season could allow a player enter mid-season draft

In the whirlwind world of Conor McKenna, it’s probably not too surprising that he hasn’t completely shut the door on his AFL career.

Six years with the Essendon club behind him, he returned home in September, started playing for Tyrone in October, put down three appearances between league and championship, lost the Ulster first round to Donegal – which this year meant curtains – and on Thursday picked up the PwC GAA/GPA Footballer of the Month award for his few weeks back in Ireland.

At the remote media conference to announce his selection by fellow intercounty players, he was asked would he consider returning to Australia.

“I don’t think it’s totally done. There’s a thing in the AFL where you can get a mid-season draft so you can actually get drafted in June and go out from June until September. It’s only really a two- or three-month thing.


“I do think the possibility may be there in three or four years with Gaelic, the way they’re talking about a split season, if Tyrone was out and the club was out of the championship and there was a possibility of going over for two or three months, it’s not something I’d close the door on.”

He's walking in well-trodden footsteps. Ireland's only Premiership-winning player Tadhg Kennelly came home from his career with the Sydney Swans in 2009, specifically to have a championship season with Kerry, which culminated in an All-Ireland medal and an All Star. He then returned to the AFL.

A year later, Marty Clarke returned from an attention-grabbing career at Collingwood and re-entered the intercounty scene with Down. He went on to play a leading role as James McCartan's team went all the way to the 2010 All-Ireland final, losing narrowly to Cork. He too won an All Star before deciding to rejoin Collingwood.

McKenna’s impact didn’t get the chance to play out a full season, as Tyrone’s two-point defeat in Ballybofey fell in a season where coronavirus has forced the re-adoption of the old sudden-death football format.

Had both Kennelly and Clarke been subject to that, both of their memorable All-Ireland seasons would have been still-born as Kerry and Down were beaten in their respective provincial championships.

Not an immense consolation in those contexts to pick up a monthly award in record time and he acknowledges that.

“I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but it’s definitely not the goal. The goal was to contend in Ulster and then to go on in the All-Ireland.”

He wasn’t really drawn on the question of whether the county might consider change after long-serving manager Mickey Harte’s 18th championship.

“It’s a bit different for me. I’ve only been there for probably three months so it’s hard for me to say. I had a strange year. Nothing was probably normal [for me] compared to what them boys have been through.

“It’s probably more the players’ decision and the coaches and the ones who have been there for the last five or six years. They know what’s going on and they know what’s better for the team so if they think Mickey is the man to stay on, then that’s more than welcome for me.”

McKenna already has plans for using the time freed up by Tyrone’s shortest championship in 20 years.

“I actually think I’m going to play a bit of soccer now for a few weeks. I haven’t been at soccer now for a long time. There’s no Gaelic probably until after Christmas so it’s something I’ll get into and keep my fitness. Then just doing gym work based on Gaelic and getting ready for that as well.”

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times