'No matter if it's true, they want to be first to say it' - McKenna on AFL media as Tyrone career takes flight

Conor McKenna was at the centre of a media storm in Australia after testing positive for Covid-19.

Updated Oct 27th 2020, 5:08 PM

CONOR MCKENNA HAS made an unusually smooth transition back into to Gaelic football.

ryan-mchugh-and-tyrones-conor-mckenna Conor McKenna in action for Tyrone against Donegal last weekend. Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

After a six year-break to pursue the AFL dream, the Eglish forward has already banked two impressive performances in a Tyrone jersey that has yielded 3-3 from play.

He finished as one of Tyrone’s top scorers in both of those league outings against Donegal and Mayo, while Twitter was ablaze with clips of his individual brilliance.

That precise pass he delivered into Darragh Canavan to set-up a goal against Mayo on Sunday is just one example from the McKenna highlight reel so far.

And with Tyrone’s Ulster SFC clash with Donegal just days away, there’s more to come from this talented 24-year-old.

“It’s something I’ve always dreamt about it,” McKenna tells the media over a video call when describing the feeling of being back in a Tyrone jersey.

“Playing with the minors and six years from that so it’s something I knew I always wanted to achieve and just to finally get the jersey on and get my first win was pretty special.”

This is not the kind of return that most GAA players experience when they come home from AFL duty. They normally need time to readjust.

In trying to explain why the process has been so seamless for him, McKenna points to the regular kickabouts he had with other GAA players during his time in Australia.

“There was about eight Irish boys playing AFL at one stage in Melbourne so we were always meeting every two or three weeks just kicking the ball about.

“And then I was actually training for a GAA team for three weeks when I was over there to try and help with homesickness. They were letting me train with my brother’s team so I always kept in contact with it.

“And then I always train with my club when I came home in the off season.”

Up to now, McKenna has had a difficult 2020. He found himself at the centre of a media storm in Australia after he became the first AFL player to test positive for Covid-19.

He later tested negative for Covid-19 on three occasions and confusion still reigned in the aftermath of the saga. McKenna subsequently said that he still didn’t know how or if ever had the virus.

His ongoing struggles with homesickness were widely known at the time as well, and it all culminated in him retiring from the AFL last month.

How the story was covered by the AFL media left a bad aftertaste for the Essendon player.

“Yeah the media was something I was never really a fan of,” McKenna says, reflecting back on that period.

“I think it’s a very negative thing over there. For the whole access they get to AFL games and players and the way they train is, is something they need to look up because the AFL media are just [working] on a first come, first serve basis.

No matter if it’s true, they want to be the first person to say it, no matter what it is.

“So it was something I never really paid much attention to, to be honest.”

Although the conclusion of his time with the Essendon club was difficult, McKenna says that he wants to “leave the door open” for a potential return to playing in the AFL.

When asked if his Covid-19 controversy was the final straw that influenced his decision to retire, McKenna said:

“Not really, I think from this year, the first time [in] pre-season. It normally takes me two or three weeks to get back into it and be myself again. But this year I just never really got to that stage and I was just sort of always feeling down.

I was sort of walking off training a couple of times just didn’t really enjoy my time this year to be honest and it was something I knew was going to happen and I’m just sort of happy it’s over now and just sort of looking forward to the future.

“I didn’t really read much into it but I know from one Irish journalist that I worked with a lot, Catherine Murphy, she said a few of them did apologise but it wasn’t really something that I was looking for.

 ”I think I got offered a couple of times, but it didn’t make much difference at that stage.”

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Before the Covid-delayed season resumed, Peter Canavan said he had doubts about whether McKenna would be able to make the Tyrone panel for their league game against Donegal.

Manager Mickey Harte opted to start McKenna for that game, and reaped huge rewards from his decision. But it wasn’t until he saw the teamsheet that McKenna knew he was in the line-up.

“I didn’t know myself because I had missed two weeks when one of my family members got Covid so I had to do self-isolation and I missed the week’s training up to it.

“So the same as everybody else, we got the team sent out to us, I got a look at the teamsheet and look at the subs first and thought I didn’t make the squad then looked again and I was starting centre-forward so it was a shock for me too.

McKenna’s introduction to senior football with Tyrone coincides with a strange time for the GAA, as the championship reverts to the straight knockout format due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“That’s the way our club championship is in Tyrone and I love it,” says an excited McKenna as Tyrone prepare to travel to Ballybofey on Sunday.

“You go out and give everything for that one day and nobody cares about the next day or a second chance so it’s something really to look forward to and adds to the excitement.

“Whoever deals with that pressure will probably come out the winners on the day.”

Conor McKenna was speaking at the launch of AIB’s GAA All Ireland Senior Football Championships.

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