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'Money And Playing Professional Sport Wasn’t Enough For Me Any More'

'Money And Playing Professional Sport Wasn’t Enough For Me Any More'

Late in the first half of Tyrone's victory over Mayo on Sunday, Conor McKenna took possession in midfield, looked up, and dropped a mesmerising 40-metre pass straight into Darragh Canavan's arms.

The young forward cut across the 20m line, hared towards David Clarke's goal and side-footed the ball into the bottom right-hand corner. It was a stunning goal. From Tyrone's defence to Tyrone green flag in just 15 seconds.

Was Canavan the intended recipient? Darren McCurry was also in the vicinity when his teammate caught the ball.

"It landed in Darragh’s hands, so I’ll say I was aiming for Darragh!" McKenna says with a smile during the launch of AIB's sixth season as All-Ireland Football Championship sponsors.

The pass was one played by a man who looked as though he'd never been away from the Eglish pitch and not someone who had spent the previous six years in Australia playing Aussie rules with Essendon.

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"There was about eight Irish boys playing AFL at one stage in Melbourne, so we were always meeting every two or three weeks just kicking the ball about," McKenna explains.

In February, Essendon allowed McKenna return to Ireland due to a bout of homesickness. He returned Down Under after a fortnight but the yearning for home remained. The club asked if he had a solution in mind.

"I said I wanted to go and play Gaelic on a Tuesday night," says McKenna.

Instead of training with the AFL side I went down to the local park and trained alongside my brother and a few mates over there. It definitely helped but then the Covid stopped it and I was back at square one.

That feeling of loneliness had been with McKenna from early on in his time in Australia. It was especially bad during his first two years there. It eased in the past two with the move of his brother and his brother's fiancée to Melbourne. He moved in with them but the homesickness persisted.

Usually, in pre-season, it would take him two or three weeks to get back into the flow of being an AFL player but that did not happen in 2020.

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The situation was exacerbated by McKenna being at the centre of a Australian media storm during the summer when he tested positive for Covid-19 but later negative. He was wrongly accused of putting the restarted AFL season in jeopardy. There were offers of apologies but McKenna wasn't interested.

Pictured is Eglish and Tyrone footballer Conor McKenna at AIB’s launch of the GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

"I was just sort of always feeling down," he says.

"I always wanted to come home. I always had that mindset that I was out there for a part-time basis. It was never going to be long term.

"If you said to me at the start, six years, I would have laughed at you but I just this year it wasn’t for me. I’m probably at the stage where money wasn’t enough and playing professional sport wasn’t enough for me any more. I missed playing for my club and county."

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In September, it was announced that McKenna's Essendon career was over. He would be returning home to become a new weapon for Mickey Harte. That he started against Donegal in the penultimate round of the league earlier this month was somewhat of a surprise.

"I didn’t know myself because I had missed two weeks when one of my family members got Covid so I had to do self-isolation and I missed the week’s training up to it," he says.

"So the same as everybody else, we got the team sent out to us, I got a look at the teamsheet and looked at the subs first and thought I didn’t make the squad, then [I] looked again and I was starting centre-forward. It was a shock for me too."

The Eglish man thought about pursuing third level education this year but felt the decision on what to do and where to go would have been rushed. Instead, he's leaving it until 2021 and for the moment is helping out with his father's business.

He would be open to returning to the AFL but it would likely only be temporary and in special circumstances.

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"I’m not 100 per cent but it’s definitely an option," he says.

"There is a mid-season draft that drafts players now in June so you would actually be out for a three-month period.

"The goal when I first went out to win a Premiership. I obviously never won a final with Essendon, which is a bit unfortunate, but I just want to leave the door open that if the Gaelic season is finished by June time, I may possibly go out to play for a team for three months that was going to challenge for a Premiership."

Now in their sixth season sponsoring the football county championship and their 30th year sponsoring the club championships, AIB are proud to support some of #TheToughest games there are. In addition to the launch, AIB will soon be releasing their new TV Ad, a fast-paced and upbeat celebration of the 2020 GAA All-Ireland Senior Football Championship. For exclusive content and to see why AIB are backing Club and County, follow us on @AIB_GAA on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Featured image by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

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PJ Browne
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