Conor McKenna has never hidden the homesickness which tugged at him throughout his six years Down Under but the Tyrone native knew the writing was on the wall of his AFL career when he made an unexpected trip home earlier this year.
here has always been a hesitancy heading back to Australia at the start of each season but those feelings were heightened before this year’s AFL season and they never evaporated before the dam eventually burst in February.
“There were a couple of training sessions that we were doing throughout the year where I just found myself walking off the pitch and sometimes breaking down during training and not really knowing why I was here and really questioning it,” McKenna tells the Irish Independent.
“I walked in one day after training and told the manager that I wanted to go home. That was maybe at 10 o’clock in the morning and I flew home to Ireland that afternoon at three. Coming back after that was pretty tough and I just never really got into the swing of things.
“I was going through the motions and wasn’t even putting my hand up for selection to play AFL so I probably just said it was a bit pointless. It should have happened five or six weeks ago but what can you do?”
McKenna has “always been a home bird” and no sooner than each AFL season concluded, he would be on a plane back to Ireland having never spent a day longer in Australia than he had to as the thirst for home couldn’t be quenched.
Having arrived back in Eglish over the weekend, the former Essendon Bomber has a “massive weight” off his shoulders with a typically Irish question no longer tormenting him.
“I got the same questions, ‘Oh, when are you going back?’ and it would just keep hitting me that I have to go back to this place. I’d say to mum that I was leaving and she would break down and cry and I’d cry and we’d all end up crying so at least this time they’ll be happy tears,” he says.
“I felt like the last two or three months that I haven’t really been myself. I was staying away from people and not wanting to get involved with them much so to actually finally retire felt like a weight off my shoulders.”
He couldn’t thank the Bombers enough for their help throughout a career which yielded 79 Premiership appearances and his own highlight reel on YouTube such was the skill and ingenuity he displayed with the oval ball.
Essendon even allowed him to mix Gaelic football into his pre-season programme as he trained once a week with the Wolfe Tones club in Melbourne and “they gave me every opportunity to be as happy as I could be but it just didn’t work out”.
The 24-year-old is “buzzing” to get back with his club and contribute to their last two league outings, while initial conversations with Tyrone boss Mickey Harte are expected to yield a place in the Red Hand squad, although it remains to be seen if that will be over the coming weeks or in the 2021 season.
Switching from life as a professional athlete will be a challenge but he set the ball rolling in anticipation of last week’s decision to retire and looks set to commence part-time education at Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus.
Part-time work is also being sought while his fondness of horses will be rekindled as he plans to ride work for his father Pat – who trains a handful in his small dual-purpose yard – but he hasn’t closed the door entirely on his days in the AFL.
McKenna is “very proud” of what he achieved in the AFL but there may be another chapter to be added over the coming years if different pieces of the puzzle fall into place.
“I definitely couldn’t see myself going back for a holiday, the only possibility of me coming back would be to come back playing AFL, if that ever happens in the next five or six years,” he says.
“With the way the seasons are now, there’s an AFL draft in the middle of the season, in June time, because the teams get so many injuries, they get a chance to look at other players from other leagues and bring them in.
“So that’d be a possibility in the near future. If you were playing for Tyrone and it didn’t go well and your club was out, you’d have no football for the rest of the year and there’d be no reason that you couldn’t go out for that for the last three months of the season.
“Even with the way the Irish girls go over to AFLW for three or four months and are back for the county season, if that could work out over the next couple of years, I’d happily go out for three or four months and I’d probably be able to push myself even more.
“I’d know that I’m getting home after that and spending more time in Ireland. To be able to go over for three or four months, I’d be able to give it everything. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it but the door is definitely not closed.”