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What Cathal McShane's impending move to the AFL means for Tyrone...and the GAA

The All-Star forward is set to sign a two-year deal with the Brisbane Lions.

JUST A MATTER of days after Cathal McShane appeared to pour cold water on reports linking him with an AFL move, the 24-year-old now looks set to ink a two-year deal with the Brisbane Lions.

cathal-mcshane-scores-a-goal Tyrone All-Star Cathal McShane. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Reports in the north suggest that McShane will fly out to Australia in the coming days to finalise a deal that delivers a shattering blow to Tyrone’s hopes of lifting the All-Ireland in 2020. 

McShane’s departure wouldn’t have been seen anywhere near as seminal 12 months ago, but his rise in 2019 was astonishing. Traditionally employed as a half-forward or midfielder, Mickey Harte recast him as a full-forward wrecking ball and built the attack around him.

McShane quickly became Tyrone’s most important player and thrived in a target man role on the edge of the square. He gave Harte’s side a different dimension and allowed them to go direct more regularly, speeding up their often-times slow build-up play.

mickey-harte Tyrone boss Mickey Harte. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Mark Bradley opted out for the year due to his studies in Liverpool and was replaced by McShane. All of a sudden, Tyrone had an aerial threat that would give inter-county full-backs nightmares.

When McShane was paired in a two-man full-forward lone alongside Mattie Donnelly in Croke Park against Dublin during the spring, they posted 1-7 between them in a three-point victory. McShane was double-marked against Galway a few weeks later, but of the 15 balls Tyrone kicked into the full-forward, they scored 2-4.

In November, the Owen Roes man picked up an All-Star award. His first such accolade, it wasn’t without merit.

McShane torched experienced defenders all over the country last summer. He registered 3-49 across nine games to finish as the top scorer in the championship and highest scorer from play in the competition. 

It summed up McShane’s accuracy in front of the posts. McShane’s size and power was always there, but his shooting ability off either foot and on frees only arrived after hours spent honing his craft on the training pitch.

cathal-mcshane McShane stands over a free in the Ulster semi-final against Donegal last summer. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In truth, it’s no surprise McShane has been poached by the Aussies. Standing at 6’4″, he is a physical specimen who is strong in the air and nimble on the ground for a man of his size.   

Of course, it’s still a long shot for McShane to make it in a professional sport that is almost completely new to him, even if he did attend a trial at the AFL’s Europe Combine in DCU in 2014. 

There’s every chance McShane will return home after two years, or even within 12 months. But it’s worth wondering: what toll will taking up the sport in his mid-20s have on his body?

There are numerous examples of players whose bodies could not withstand the demands of the AFL game. Kerry forward Tommy Walsh is the highest-profile example with his hamstring problems, while Cork’s Ciaran Sheehan recently told The42 about the hardship he endured with a bout of fitness setbacks over his four years at Carlton.

But other converts such as Sean Hurley and Jamie O’Reilly, fine athletes and ex-U21 stars with Kildare and Down respectively, struggled to stay fit and never came close to reaching their former heights when they returned home as they continued to battle injury.

At 24, McShane is one of the older players to try his hand at the game and certainly one of the highest-profile stars to move. Walsh was 21 and reigning Young Footballer of the Year and an All-Ireland winner when he signed a deal with St Kilda in 2009.

Sheehan was an even later convert at 23 in 2013. He also had a Celtic Cross in the back pocket when he left. In 2005, Sean Cavanagh was 22 when he turned down a deal from Brisbane. 

“It is extremely flattering that somebody from Brisbane would come and pick me out of a small town and give me the chance to try my hand at Australian Rules,” explained Cavanagh of his decision at the time.

sean-cavanagh-and-andrew-lovett-21102005 Sean Cavanagh during the International Rules series in 2005. Source: ©INPHO

“People will maybe think I might be stupid to turn down an offer to go over to Brisbane and play football. But the GAA is as good as anyone with the opportunities coming up now for players with things like sponsorships and endorsements. 

“However, the financial part of it, being a professional footballer, did not come into the equation when I was making the decision,” he added.  

Cavanagh stayed put and won his third All-Ireland medal three years later. That campaign, in 2008, he was shifted from midfield to full-forward and Tyrone downed Kerry in the All-Ireland final.

McShane made a similar switch last season and topped the scoring charts nationally. But unlike Cavanagh, he’s opted to take his shot at making it as a professional athlete. 

With Dublin and Kerry looking set to carve up the Sam Maguire over the next decade between them, who could blame him?

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McShane will join Dublin and Ballyboden St Enda’s player James Madden at the Lions, while his former Tyrone minor team-mate Conor McKenna is based to the south with Melbourne club St Kilda.

Tyrone, meanwhile, must figure out how to replace the scores of McShane, Donnelly and Connor McAliskey in their attack this season. Donnelly will miss the entire league after undergoing hamstring surgery while McAliskey opted out of the panel for 2020. 

The return to the panel of Ronan O’Neill is a plus while Darragh Canavan may be handed further opportunities over the coming weeks. A recall could be on the cards for Lee Brennan, who like O’Neill quit the panel last season.

niall-sludden-cathal-mcshane-and-colm-kavanagh-take-to-the-field Niall Sludden, McShane and Colm Cavanagh take to the field in the qualifier clash against Longford. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The irony is that Harte only stumbled on McShane at full-forward due to the advanced mark that was being trialled in the 2019 league. 

It’s a rule the GAA aped from Aussie Rules and one which was written into law at a Special Congress last October. 

McShane’s size and power made him an obvious candidate for the role. Tyrone struck gold and unlocked his potential – the only problem was it worked too well. His performances caught the attention of AFL scouts.

Instead of refining their gameplan around McShane and taking advantage of the new rule in this year’s championship, Tyrone are back to square one. 

As Gaelic football moves a step closer to its Aussie Rules cousin with the new advanced mark rule, AFL clubs will be monitoring things closely. 

The GAA’s top brass will be hoping that McShane proves the exception rather than the new reality.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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