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Conor McKenna says stubbornness helped him crack Australian code

Ex-Tyrone minor has secured a four-year full-time deal with AFL side Essendon

Conor McKenna of the Essendon Bombers in action against the Carlton Blues. “At the minute I am happy there and I’ll see after four years what happens.” Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

“Stubbornness,” says Conor McKenna, when asked why he’s managed to succeed in the professional environs of the Australian Football League where so many other young Irish recruits have failed.

And with that he offers a word of caution for young players like Kerry’s standout minor David Clifford, already linked with a move to the AFL: skill and talent counts for nothing against the determination to stick it out – especially the homesickness.

In 2014, Mickey Harte begged the then 18-year-old McKenna to defer any move to Australia and try at least one year with the Tyrone seniors; instead he took up his rookie contract with Melbourne club Essendon, and has just signed a new four-year full-time contract.

Still only 21, this season he gave himself the target of playing 10 games with the club, and ended up playing in 19. Already, only seven GAA recruits have played more AFL games than the Tyrone native.

“I think it was a bit of stubbornness to tell you the truth,” he says.

“I just wanted so much to succeed and not just to go over and just come back after a couple of years. So probably just being stubborn. It’s more the homesickness, rather than the skill of the game. If you can get over that then that’s a massive part of it.”

McKenna left home in 2014 after captaining the Tyrone minors to the All-Ireland final defeat to Mayo in 2013. He’s already one of the first Irish players named on Joe Kernan’s panel to play Australia in the International Rules series in November, but again suggests the Australian game is a lot different.

“It’s more tactical. If the ball goes this way then you have to run that way, it’s all structured out. There’s actually a formula you have to follow. It’s probably the one thing I struggled with, but then that’s the way Gaelic is going now too.”

Asked about the potential for young player like Clifford, he said: “He’s an unbelievable talent, scary what he can do, but no I haven’t heard anything about Australia. Not from anybody in my club anyway. I’m sure he wouldn’t be bad.

Two sides

“Ach, there’s always two sides to it. If any young fella asked me should he go, I’d tell him, ‘go.’ I suppose that’s my opinion. Just, it’s a professional sport, you can devote your whole life to it, whereas with Gaelic you are working, you are playing for your club, you are playing for your county.

“It is a bit crazy. The training that some of them county teams are doing is up there with the training we are doing, and we are professional athletes as they say. It’s just the professionalism. It’s unbelievable.

“At some stage I do hope to come home and play for my club and my county. At the minute I am happy there and I’ll see after four years what happens.”

McKenna was helped in getting his start at Essendon after several first-choice players were banned after returning positive tests, blamed on contaminated supplements.

“There was a drug scandal back in 2012 and 14 players got suspended for a year. So as bad as it was then, it probably gave the young lads a chance to play because they had to play us. They took in an extra five older players just to help us out but they just gave us game-time and it sort of probably gave me confidence. I think I played the last eight games of two years ago. So that gave me confidence going into this year and got the ball rolling.

“I said I would never leave unless I played one game. That’s what was going on in my head for that.

“The reason I wanted to go is if I didn’t go I would probably regret it for the rest of my life I’d say. I said if I went, and went at it for a year, and hated it, I’d come home, but at least I wanted to try it. I am happy out at the minute.”