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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 18 July, 2018

Dinner at Ciaran Sheehan's house, the drug scandal that gave him his start and the lure of Tyrone

Tyrone man Conor McKenna is enjoying life in Melbourne.

THERE’S A HINT of paranoia in GAA circles when it comes to AFL clubs poaching young Irish talent.

David Clifford celebrates with the minor All-Ireland trophy Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Kerry prodigy David Clifford has been heavily linked with a move Down Under and was the subject of a recent piece on the official AFL website.

“Clifford, a powerful and skilful athlete of about 190cm, is yet to publicly discuss any interest in an AFL career, but there is already fear in his homeland that he will attempt to make the leap,” wrote’s Marc McGowan.

“Most Irish AFL footballers are in the half-back mold – think Kennelly, Zach Tuohy, Pearce Hanley and Conor McKenna – whereas Clifford is more akin to ex-Saint and Swan Tommy Walsh.”

The prospect of losing their brightest prospect since Colm Cooper prompted a strong reaction in the Kingdom, with Tomas Ó Sé heavily criticising Tadhg Kennelly’s for his role in luring Gaelic footballers to Australia, and the AFL for adding to the speculation.

“I don’t mind if David Clifford gets offered a way to go out to Australia. But I don’t know why they’re tweeting about it,” he said on the Sunday Game after the Kerry lifted the All-Ireland minor title.

“If the guy goes, he goes. I don’t know who’s driving it. But this is a guy who the AFL have apparently not tapped up yet, but the AFL are tweeting about him tonight, writing articles about him. There obviously is interest out there.

“I hope he stays at home for the good of Kerry football, but you can’t force a young fella to stay at home.”

There are currently 12 active Irish players on AFL squads – the highest number in history. That figure could rise even further before next season.

Jason McGee with Declan Lynch Donegal's Jason McGee Source: Presseye/John McIlwaine/INPHO

Donegal pair Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallagher and Jason McGee traveled to Australia last month for trials with the Brisbane Lions, while Armagh’s Rian O’Neill and Tipperary youngster Jack Kennedy spent a couple of weeks on trial with North Melbourne during the summer.

Pearce Hanley (Gold Coast Suns) and Zach Tuohy (Geelong Cats) have been flying the Irish flag in the AFL for a decade now, but a whole new wave of prospects have recently settled in the coastal city of Melbourne.

Of the dozen GAA players currently on the books of AFL clubs, seven of them are based in the Melbourne area. In addition, Tuohy and Mark O’Connor are located in Geelong, just an hour’s drive down the coast from Melbourne.

There’s another side to the rise in GAA players forging a professional career for themselves in Oz. As Conor McKenna, the 21-year-old ex-Tyrone starlet explains, having those familiar accents around helps deal with the homesickness too.

“There’s me, Ciaran Byrne, Ray Connellan, Darragh Joyce, Conor Nash and Conor Glass all in Melbourne,” McKenna says.

Conor McKenna Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Then Mark O’Connor, he’s just outside with Zach Tuohy in Geelong. All us young lads hang about in Gussy Sheehan’s (Ciaran Sheehan), hang about every couple of weeks and just meet up for a few pints and a bit of feeding – so it’s good.

“My first year it was only Ciaran Byrne really and I met up with him every couple of weeks. When there’s five or six of you, you’ll always meet up. I’d probably meet up at least once a week with one of them. It’s good to just meet up and talk Gaelic and watch Gaelic – it’s good, like.”

What advice would he give to David Clifford?

“I’d say to any young fella, if you got the opportunity… I said I’d go and if I didn’t like it, I’d come home after a year and if I stay for five or six years, I’ll stay. It was an opportunity that if I didn’t take it, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. It’s been good so far.”

The difficult decision to move to the other side of the world firmly is in McKenna’s rearview mirror. Before his switch in 2014, he had Mickey Harte on the phone pleading with him to delay the move for 12 months to throw his lot in with the Tyrone seniors.

He watched the Red Hand U21s lift the All-Ireland title in 2015, an experience he admits was difficult to stomach.

Tyrone players celebrate with the cup Tyrone players celebrate their All-Ireland U21 success Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“My first year, when Tyrone won the U21 final it really hit home. You start questioning whether it was worth it or not. But then this year to get a few games in a row gives you more belief in yourself. Homesickness is a massive thing.”

But these are good days for McKenna, who’s been a successful convert to the oval ball. He recently penned a new four-year deal with Essendon, and is one of three AFL-based players to make Joe Kernan’s International Rules squad.

“Another four years,” he says. “It’s good to have clarity and know where you’re going to be for the next four years rather than have it up in the air.

“I didn’t really worry too much about it. I have an agent so I just told ‘you to sort it out and I’ll try to play the best football that I can’.

“I was happy to stay at Essendon. It came to mid-year and they said they were going to offer me a contract and I said to leave it until the end of the year and we’d sort it out after.

“We finished on the Saturday and I signed on a Monday. I hadn’t talked to any other clubs.”

The funny thing about McKenna, is his path to first team footy was paved by one of the biggest performance-enhancing drug scandals to rock Australian sport.

The club ran a supplements program during the early to mid-2010s, which saw several members of the Essendon squad slapped with lengthy bans after a court case that went all the way to the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.

McKenna took his chance and he hasn’t looked back.

“There was a drugs scandal, it happened in 2012. There were 14 players from our squad suspended for a year. As bad as it was for them it was good for the young fellas because it gave us an opportunity.”

Conor McKenna EirGrid are team sponsors for the Ireland International Rules side that will travel to Australia Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

He’s since scored 10 goals in 33 AFL games for Essendon and is one of just eight Irishmen to play over 30 games in the competition. (The others are Sean Wight, Jim Stynes, Kennelly, Setanta Ó’hAilpín, Marty Clarke, Hanley and Tuohy).

He still harbours ambitions of doing a Kennelly-style return and winning the Sam Maguire with Tyrone. The lure of home is always there.

“Definitely. It’s always one that hopefully I come home at some stage and represent my club, my county. At the minute, I’m signed for those four years so I’m there for four years anyway.

“In four years I’m going to be 25, I’m a young fella. He [Tadhg Kennelly] came home he was 27 or 28; so there’s plenty of time and if it’s an option, I’ll take it.

“It’s always in the back of my head. I follow Tyrone. I watch all the games on GAAGO.”

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Kevin O'Brien

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