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'It's definitely always been in my head' - from Kerry roots to chasing glory in AFL Grand Final

Mark O’Connor on the Irish interest in next Saturday’s AFL Grand Final with his club Geelong after a strange and dramatic season.

Mark O'Connor's Geelong team play Richmond Tigers in Saturday's AFL Grand Final.
Mark O'Connor's Geelong team play Richmond Tigers in Saturday's AFL Grand Final.
Image: AAP/PA Images

OCTOBER SHOULD TYPICALLY revolve around a journey home for Mark O’Connor.

Travelling back from Victoria to West Kerry, a few weeks to unwind with family and reconnect with familiar faces around Dingle.

Instead he’s still in Australia, keeping his game face on and immersed in AFL.

It’s a good complaint to have though. This is Grand Final week in Australian Rules, a marathon and turbulent season has stretched on a month later than usual. 

The Gabba in Brisbane will be the setting next Saturday evening rather than the traditional stage of the MCG. The defending champions Richmond Tigers are there but so too are Geelong Cats, the club of O’Connor and Portlaoise’s Zach Tuohy.

They will become the first Irish players since Tadhg Kennelly back in 2006 to be participants on the biggest annual day in Australian Rules and hoping to emulate the Listowel man’s success from 2005.

“It’s funny I’m getting flashbacks of photos (that) come up on your phone and when you took them,” says O’Connor.

“Around this time last year I was in Scotland on holiday so it’s pretty different. Normally I’d be home around this time of year so it has been a bit strange.

“But then so has everything this year.

“It’s amazing, back in March it was hard to even see the competition finishing off let alone us being in a Grand Final. It has been a very strange year, we’re glad it’s all worked out.”

afl-lions-cats Mark O'Connor *( Source: AAP/PA Images

That earlier part of the year was a precarious time. Geelong got their opening game played on 21 March before the season was shut down and they didn’t line out again until 12 June.

“That was a pretty tough period,” recalls the Kerry native.

“There was an option as well to go home. They didn’t really know when or if it would be resumed. It was a tough decision. I had a chat with my family and we thought I might be better off just staying out if the competition did go ahead.

“I knew that if the competition did get fully postponed, I could just go home then. So I probably had that as a bit of a safety net as well.”

Apart from a few away games and the odd weekend getaway to take in the coastal sunshine, O’Connor had not spent much time previously in Queensland. Last week he was part of the Geelong setup that marked 100 days residing in their base on the Gold Coast. That has been the level sacrifice and adaptation they needed to make as part of the efforts to keep the AFL season alive.

With the Covid-19 situation deteriorating and Victoria moving into lockdown, the clubs from the state were on the move in July to the eastern part of the country.

“We celebrated 100 days in the hub last Wednesday, it’s been over three months. We went to Sydney first and were flying to Perth and we were told we might be away for 30 days max. That obviously turned out a little differently.

“So we flew from Perth then to the Gold Coast where we’ve been since. It’s got a footy oval out the back as well so that’s been handy. We’re lucky enough that it’s just us in the hotel. We’ve still got some AFL protocols to abide by so we’re not doing whatever we want outside of the hub.

“There is a lot of downtime. It’s good that you’ve 40 guys in the same boat and then staff on top of that as well. Makes it a bit easier, there’s always someone to chat to or do something with. You watch as much Netflix as you can. It’s been strange but we’re lucky up here that it wasn’t as bad as the lockdown in Victoria, unfortunately people there had to go under far stricter protocols.” 

The longer they have stayed put, the more positive a sign it has been as to how their season is unfolding. They lost their first qualifying final to Port Adelaide but a top four regular season finish provided another chance and they have seized it, defeating Collingwood to avoid elimination and claiming a triumph over Brisbane Lions in last Saturday’s preliminary final.

That game was a landmark in the 23-year-old’s career as he reached the half century mark of AFL appearances. It’s four years since he switched sporting paths. After a decorated underage Gaelic football career, punctuated by Hogan Cup schools triumphs and Kerry minor glories, he took a punt on Australian Rules.

A debut arrived in May 2017 but early appearances were sporadic. By the outset of 2019 he had only clocked up seven first-team outings yet has become a regular over the past two seasons and is now part of the Geelong leadership group, a sign of his growing influence.

“I couldn’t avoid looking back in certain moments during that downtime this year. I’ve been out here four years now but it felt like the 50 games has been a long time coming in a sense. That first two years was a good grind to get into that first team. It was a good moment for myself but we’ve bigger things now and hopefully the 51st game is better.”

There is a clear figure to aspire to when O’Connor strives to improve. Zach Tuohy is another Gaelic football export, long established in the Australian game and had his own milestone when crashing through the 200 barrier last month.

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afl-lions-cats Source: AAP/PA Images

“50 might be an okay achievement but 200 is phenomenal, especially for an Irish guy who came out here. It’s a massive milestone for any AFL player not to mind someone who just picked it up when he was 18, 19. He’s been great this year, kicking goals and playing a great role for us.”

The 30-year-old is also capable of setting TV sport anchors straight when it comes to his Laois hometown roots.

“It was brilliant,” laughs O’Connor.

“He’s very witty. It was very impressive with all the emotions that would have been running through his head to come up with belter on the spot. It was pretty special.”

Last Saturday’s success was savoured all the more due to the fact that the stadium was not empty like other sporting arenas around the globe at present. The final is set to attract a crowd of around 30,000 which will help whip up an atmosphere befitting of the occasion.

“I was a bit thrown in our first game when there was no fans,” says O’Connor.

“I didn’t think it’d affect me that much but I think it did. I saw the Kerry Monaghan game (on Saturday) and no one at it, it just looks strange. It takes a bit of getting used to. I feed off the energy of the crowd, even last weekend when Brisbane had the majority of their supporters. Even the opposition supporters being there, it gives you a boost of energy.”

There is a regret that those at home cannot journey over to cheer him on. Travel restrictions will prevent his parents John and Mary, and brothers David and John from being present with BT Sport their link to following the action. There is plenty at home in West Kerry who will lend support as well.

“One of my brothers rang me a couple of weeks ago when things were looking good for us. He said, ‘Is there any chance we’d get out for the Grand Final.’

“But sure there’s Australians that can’t get out to the Grand Final, the restrictions are pretty strict between state to state. It’s unfortunate but I know they’ll be watching anyway on Saturday. I’ll give them a call straight after regardless.

“It’s always comforting to see people, especially from Dingle, shooting messages through. People you’d think wouldn’t be into sport all messaging. That’s been amazing. The Dingle people have always supported me and backed me in whatever decisions I’ve made. They’re obviously very close to my heart. I’ve a really strong connection with home and the stories of fellas there doing well in sport is just great to see. That always gives me a buzz.”

His rapid rise to prominence in a different ball game may be striking yet there will be time later for reflection. In his first few weeks in training at the tail end of 2016 he was grappling with the tackling rules, his hands often up in the air as he looked for referee assistance.

mark-oconnor-celebrates-with-the-trophy Mark O'Connor celebrating with his Kerry minor team-mates after the 2015 All-Ireland final. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Then there was the spell in 2018 when he was home as Dingle were chasing the Bishop Moynihan Cup for the first time since 1948. O’Connor got sucked into the fervour of a club championship run and played in a quarter-final against Austin Stacks.

It was a difficult time to figure out his sporting plans but those close to him helped in settling on a decision. He was torn watching on for the rest of Dingle’s season but returned to Australia and has made a name for himself ever since.

And now comes the biggest stage. Ever since he was first recruited, the possibility of playing in a Grand Final floated around his mind.

“Obviously you’ve less control as a first and second year player when you’re not playing so getting in the first team is a step on the process. It’s definitely always been in my head. Since coming out here it’s something I’ve always wanted to do.

“It’s certainly been a driving force and motivation for getting in the team. Geelong has put itself in a good position the last number of years, you’re sort of in a rush to get into the first team to give yourself the best chance to get at it.”

“There is pride but I’m never really satisfied to be honest. I always see a lot of flaws in my games after or a few at least that I can work on. That reflecting is probably for the off season. It’s a long flight back to Ireland and I’m sure I’ll do some reflecting on that.

“It’s comforting as well knowing there’s just one game left and we can leave it all out there. Richmond are a really good side, hopefully we can bring close to our best on Saturday and bring it home. We’ll give it our all.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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