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Analysing McKenna's debut, AFL influence on his game and why Tyrone fans should be excited

Conor McKenna scored 1-2 and set-up 1-1 on his first senior appearance for his county.

Updated Oct 19th 2020, 3:00 PM

LOOK UP THE statistics from Conor McKenna’s AFL career and you’ll notice he kicked the Sherrin far more often than he handpassed it.  

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It’s not unusual for an AFL player’s kickpasses to outweigh their ‘handball’ stats, but McKenna was moving the ball by foot almost twice as often as he did by hand.  

During his six-year stint with Essendon, he completed 905 kickpasses compared to 468 handpasses. Positioned as a half-back, one of his main requirements was to deliver accurate ball for the forwards to mark, something he was proficient at off either foot. 

It was interesting to watch McKenna as he made his first competitive appearance for Tyrone at senior level against Donegal on Sunday.  

A key developmental stage for any footballer comes between the ages of 18 and 24, when McKenna lived in Australia and played Aussie Rules. So it’s no surprise to see how the AFL has influenced McKenna’s style of play on the Gaelic football field, even if he kept his eye in with his native code over the years.  

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Unusually for a Tyrone footballer, McKenna’s first instinct was always to look for the kickpass inside.  

The first two balls he touched resulted in footpasses into the full-forward line.

They turned out to be his only two of the day, but when McKenna drifted in closer to goal, the power and directness that were features of his AFL game resulted in him scoring 1-2 from four shots.

Not bad for a man who has been playing a different code for the past six years.

He directly assisted 1-1 and embarked on six solo runs despite being tightly marked throughout the 70 minutes.

When McKenna was required to drop deeper in the opening period, he wasn’t afraid of getting involved in defensive duties. He was happy to look for work. 

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Here he presses high on two players and reads Ryan McHugh’s pass to Michael Murphy before colliding with Donegal’s talisman.

As Kevin Cassidy said on TG4′s commentary, it’s not often you see Murphy being forced back. 

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It says a lot about McKenna’s physique and strength that he was able to stay on his feet considering Murphy had all the momentum in the collision. 

Mickey Harte’s side went with their usual defensive set-up, dropping everybody back behind the ball when Donegal were in possession.  

It must be said that Donegal were the better team and their pacey forwards had no issue breaking down Tyrone’s system, but for the purposes of this piece the focus is on McKenna and what he will bring to Tyrone. 

The Eglish man wore number 11 but often times was Tyrone’s most advanced forward. He spent a good deal of time in between the half and full-forward lines as an ideal outlet for early deliveries. 

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When the play developed and Donegal flooded the defence with bodies, McKenna would drift out to the half-forward line and look to get himself on the ball. 

He started both halves at midfield for the throw-in with Harte clearly looking to utilise the fielding skills he developed in Australia. He got a fist to the first throw-in but it was picked up by a Donegal defender. Padraig Hampsey was fouled for the second throw-in.

Tracked by Stephen McMenamin in the opening half, McKenna got himself involved early with an assist for Frank Burns’s mark. Here he peels off the left flank to take possession and picks out Burns with a glorious pass from the outside of his right boot. 

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McKenna would admit himself the penalty he won had more than a touch of fortune to it. As he stood under a high delivery from Burns, he felt a touch on the back by McMenamin and had the cuteness to go down. 

It left Jerome Henry with a decision to make and he awarded Tyrone the spot-kick, which Darren McCurry stitched into the top corner. 

But McKenna was unlucky not to be awarded a penalty in the 57th minute when it looked like he was fouled by Neil McGee after Michael McKernan’s pass into the area. 

The former Essendon man shows remarkable control and quick hands to get out of danger and retain possession in the same move. 

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Quick hands were a feature of his AFL game and it’s an area that will easily transition back to GAA.  

Earlier in the half, he brings the ball into the tackle with a run at the Donegal defence but is able to offload before he goes to ground – which is a lot more difficult than it looks with a defender hanging out of him.

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Like most teams, Donegal tried to clog up space around the scoring zone, yet McKenna found some joy when he would make a late run down the middle and leave space behind him around the D. 

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With a quick turn, McKenna moves back into the gap he left open and collects a pass from Kieran McGeary in a dangerous position.  

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As the game wore on, he held his position inside much more, effectively playing as an out-and-out full-forward. It’s a role Cathal McShane thrived in over the past couple of seasons. 

For his opening score, he arrives on the loop to receive a pass from Conor Meyler and split the posts. 

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Patience is the name of the game as an inside forward for Tyrone. For his second point, McKenna holds his position on the edge of the square until the handpass comes from Tiernan McCann. 

McKenna has the explosiveness to power through two players and drive it over the bar.  

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The stoppage-time goal shows just how dangerous McKenna can be.

When he receives the ball a point doesn’t even look on, but he manages to fashion a shot on goal for himself out of nothing. 

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For such an experienced player, Neil McGee is surprisingly sloppy in this move. Not alone does he turn his back to the play but he inadvertently screens a team-mate which gives McKenna the space he needs to run at goal. 

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He doesn’t require a second invitation. His trademark dummy solo brings him around McHugh and though Shaun Patton gets a hand to the shot, the power takes it into the top corner. 

It was a magical moment for McKenna to enjoy on his debut, even if it was a consolation goal. 

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Given how effective McKenna was when he played as a permanent full-forward in the second-half, it’s likely that’s where he’ll feature going forward for Tyrone.

They’ve already lost McShane to a season-ending injury and Harte spent much of the early months of the year searching for a replacement. 

Now, McKenna has fallen into his lap. 

Many GAA players return home from the AFL as shadows of their former selves, but he looks in supreme condition. Thankfully for Tyrone, it was homesickness – rather than injuries – that persuaded him to leave professional sport behind. 

He’ll only get better as he continues to readjust and gets used to playing with his team-mates. The prospect of pairing McShane and McKenna together in attack next season is a tantalising one for Tyrone fans.  

Factor in someone like sharpshooter Lee Brennan, who isn’t part of this year’s squad, and Tyrone have a terrifying full-forward line potentially on their hands. McShane, McKenna and Brennan are all aged 24 with their best years ahead of them. 

McKenna could also be positioned at centre-forward where his kickpassing ability would be a dream for McShane.  

Whether they’ll reach their full attacking potential under Harte is an argument for another day.  

For this season at least, McKenna will give Tyrone a much-needed punch on the last line of attack. And down the line, the future looks bright.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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