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Dublin's AFL Combine Record Breaker Taking Pro Journey In His Stride

Dublin's AFL Combine Record Breaker Taking Pro Journey In His Stride

When Ballyboden St Enda's club man James Madden first broke the AFL Draft Combine 20m sprint record at the European Combine in Dublin, the gathered officials' reaction was one of scepticism as well as surprise.

"I didn’t know straight away. We did three runs each and I did it on the second one," the 19-year old tells Balls.ie.

"Then we all went out playing football but I had to go to back into the hall and they made me test again to remeasure it, they thought it was wrong. So I did the test again and I was still there or thereabouts."

His time was 2.69 seconds and that was in December 2017. Shortly after, the Dublin U20 prospect would join Brisbane Lions where he has just completed his first season. He was always a talented runner and that is mirrored in his mentality. James Madden is a 'one foot after another' kind of guy.

james madden

A Leinster minor win, a U20 Leinster final, a superb debut season with his club and his leaving cert all came in the space of a year. Small triumphs taken in his stride.

AFL was a sport he was keenly aware of even before signing for the Queensland side. It is hard to avoid when you hail from the same club as late Dubliner Jim Stynes. Madden still remembers the sense around Ballyboden after the Irish AFL legend passed away in 2012: "That was a big deal around here."

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Even after the contract offer landed, school came first thanks to his parent's insistence.

"My leaving Cert was at the forefront of my mind. I wanted to do well in that and then the AFL came in towards the end. I tried to keep focused on school. My mam made sure! That was good for me.

"So I had to wait until I finished school before I got the AFL Global Pass. When I was finished exams, I could watch that."

His impressive sprint time was enough to grab the attention of numerous teams but something about Brisbane felt right. Aussie rules is by no means the biggest sport in the east coast city. They are rugby league crazy, yet the club's culture struck a chord and the choice proved easy.

"They weren’t only interested in a player. They were interested in my family and making sure I settled. I talked to Cian Hanley who left two years ago now and he said it was a great place. His brother, Pearce, was there before him and he just said they are a good club.

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"The recruiter who came over seemed very genuine and it just clicked. He got me talking to coaches and they were all really nice. Genuine is the word I would use.

The introduction was quickly followed by a rude awakening. A professional contract meant a new professional sport and set-up.

The biggest thing for me is that the games are so long that you find yourself switching off. The first two quarters you could be out on the field for an hour which is nearly a full Gaelic football game. Then you go out for the second half and could feel off. I found it difficult but you get better at it.

It is more like Hurling. Often there is a bit of a scrap and you just hit the ball as far as you can. It’s the same in AFL, if you are going to get tackled you just kick it as far as you can. If you do that in football everyone goes mad.

I personally find Gaelic football is more about sprinting. AFL you are more long-distance running. You could be running 12 to 14 km in a game. I remember in Gaelic football a few years ago I was running 8 to 9.

Physically, I was thrown straight in the deep end during preseason. By the end, you are so much fitter than I ever would have been playing football.

My body is feeling good now. You are managed much better. You don’t have to go to work or college so you get free time to relax your legs and brain.

Even from the other side of the world, Madden maintained a close connection to home. The Dublin underage star religiously followed his county's successful challenge for the five-in-a-row.

That team included former county team-mate Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and club-mate Michael Darragh MacAuley. Following them proved cathartic. A meaningful mechanism to maintain ties to friends and family.

Madden's off-season coincided with the All-Ireland final. He arrived home as the county was engulfed in celebrations. A fitting end to a year of devotion from abroad. At the same time, the ambition to one day try and do similar is still strong.

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"I felt like I was at home nearly when I was watching it. Just up late on the laptop and texting everyone. I mean I was talking to Michael Darragh the other night and just thinking, he has seven All-Irelands now. That is incredible. Real history.

"I haven’t lost the ambition to play for Dublin. For the moment I will give this everything I can and if it doesn’t work out I will be back. I will always have the ambition to come back and play for Dublin."

 

Yet there is no doubt his sole goal is to give this opportunity everything he has. The Irish AFL story is a complicated one with a significant spread of possible outcomes. There are numerous pivotal factors that influence a player's progression; surroundings, systems, strength and conditioning background and a whole lot of luck.

Ultimately, each and every one reduces the prospect of long-term predictions to pointless practice. Madden's only expectation is the one he places on himself; to give it his all.

If I came home not giving it absolutely everything I had, I would feel like I didn’t achieve what I could have. I can always go back to Gaelic football but if I stay for three years, I will know I challenged myself and have given it everything.

It is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How many people my age would love to play a professional sport?

Right now it is about not being too hard on yourself if you do not play well but when you do play well you can't celebrate it too much either because the next week you are back in the midst of it. It is about keeping a level head really.

Making his own way, one step at a time.

SEE ALSO: 'I Didn’t Grow Up Wanting To Play AFL, I Wanted To Play For Cork But I Got A Chance'

Maurice Brosnan

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