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Conor McKenna: From Gaelic Football to AFL and back again

From Gaelic Football to AFL, Brisbane Lions player Conor McKenna has experienced plenty of highs and lows.

Portrait of Conor McKenna

At Youi, we take the time to listen. We get to know people and find out what matters to them; what makes them an individual. We do it with our customers and now we’re proud to do the same through our Stories of Change series. 

Conor McKenna grew up in Northern Ireland, playing Gaelic Football. He had never heard of AFL, but while still at school, he received a phone call from his brother saying that one of his teammates (an ex-AFL player from the Sydney Swans) would be giving Conor a call.

“He rang and invited me to a two-day trial in Dublin,” he explains. “I tested pretty well and I went to London for four days to do it all again. Then, I was lucky enough to be invited out to the talent combine in Melbourne. I went there for two weeks, and things went from there. 

The process from hearing about AFL for the first time to being ready to play in the code was “pretty quick,” he says. “From not really hearing about the AFL until I was signed was probably nine months.”

Bigger change than expected

Although the codes are similar, Conor says the transition from Gaelic Football to AFL was a bigger change than he expected. “Gaelic's pretty full on,” he explains. “I was playing in the top ladder for three years, which was semi-professional. I would play four to five nights a week and on the weekend. I was ready for a change, which is why I came out here.  

“It's pretty frustrating getting used to it,” he adds. “You come from being one of the top players in Gaelic Football, and here you're number 45 out of all the players, and you're bottom of the barrel. That was definitely a bit of a shock,” he admits.

“Going from being so good at a sport to not being able to kick a ball straight was very frustrating. It took me the first year to 18 months to get used to the bounce and shape of the football and the game plan. There are still certain rules I don't fully understand yet!”

In October 2014, Essendon secured Conor on a two-year contract, and he made his AFL debut against Richmond at the MCG in round 22, 2015. His AFL career got off to a perfect start when he kicked a goal with his very first kick. He re-signed with Essendon at the end of 2017 on a four-year contract.

Struggled to find mojo in 2020

He settled into his role at the new club over the next few years and made a solid contribution to the team. However, at the start of 2020, he failed to settle into his playing groove. “I normally went back to Ireland in January every year. In 2020, after two or three weeks, I never really got back into the swing of it and never really wanted to be at the club or training.

“There were times when I came off the training track nearly in tears. I was going up to coaches and nearly breaking down. I really didn’t enjoy it that year,” he adds.

“One of the coaches was very good to me, and I told him, ‘I just don't want to be here at the moment’. He said, ‘If you want to go home, go home’. So, I flew out that day and went home for three weeks and weighed up my options of what I wanted to do. I knew I was going to retire from AFL at the end of the year anyway.”

COVID-19 controversy

Conor decided to return to Australia and give the remainder of the season his all. However, COVID-19 struck soon after, and he attracted controversy in June 2020 when he tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting his former host family without gaining approval first. 

His positive test resulted in the postponement of the match between Essendon and Melbourne that was scheduled for the following day. Conor and one other player – a close contact from training – were both quarantined, and Conor tested negative two days later. 

While in quarantine, he was subjected to social media abuse and intense negative media coverage. “I never really listened to the media much,” he says. “As long as I knew what I stand for and my family knows what I stand for, it didn't really bother me.

“No matter what you do, if you're playing sport at a high level, you're going to be in the limelight at some point. It's just something you have to get used to, and I tried not to take too much notice of it,” he adds.

Won All-Ireland title and returned to AFL

Conor announced his retirement from AFL in September 2020, and he returned to Ireland to take up Gaelic Football again. “The main reason I wanted to go home was to play Gaelic Football again and try to win an All-Ireland title. I was lucky enough to succeed in my second year at home, which had a massive impact on my coming back to Australia.

“I think I would've come back anyway, but the day I won the All-Ireland title, I remember thinking to myself that I would go back to AFL. I had ticked off the first goal on my list, and my next step was to come back and try to win a premiership playing in an AFL club,” he explains.

Five AFL clubs, including the Brisbane Lions, were interested in securing Conor when he indicated he’d be returning to AFL. “I talked to every club over Zoom for a few weeks, then came back and visited four of them,” he says. “I met the coaches and players, visited the facilities, and got a feel for the city.

“What drew me to Brisbane was to get a break from Melbourne. Melbourne's very full-on with AFL, and it's always in the media, whereas Brisbane's a bit more laid back. The Brisbane Lions have been doing very well in the finals for the last three to four years too.

“I still want to play deep into premier or finals football, and I want to try and win a premiership,” he adds.

Reflecting on the highs and lows of his AFL career and time in Australia, Conor agrees they’ve made him a more resilient person: “Coming into AFL at a young age changed me as a person. I’d never had a job before and never lived away from home, so having to do cooking and cleaning and start managing my money was a big shock for me.

“It probably took me a year to get used to it. It was a big shock, and it made me grow up a bit quicker and fend for myself. It put me in good stead,” he adds.

Despite the challenges, Conor highly recommends the same path to any young Gaelic footballer. “I'd recommend it to anyone who gets the opportunity to take it. If you don't like it much, you can go home; it’s as simple as that. 

“It's an unbelievable life experience – even just moving countries and living in a different culture. It is something I would really have regretted if I hadn’t done it,” he concludes.