'To leave at a young age to go to the opposite side of the world and succeed, it takes a special person'

Former coaches on the rise of the two Irish stars chasing Australian Rules glory on Saturday.

pjimage (4) Geelong's Mark O'Connor and Zach Tuohy are chasing AFL Grand Final glory. Source: PA

FOR EAMONN FITZMAURICE the decision was a straightforward one to make.

Heading into the summer of 2016 he looked to expand his range of playing options as Kerry manager. A Leaving Cert student and leader of the county minor team from the year before was drafted into the senior setup.

If it looked from the outside a big leap to make, Mark O’Connor’s seamless transition justified the call-up.

“He was very comfortable the year he was in with us. What would have frustrated him that year and would have frustrated us, he had a knee injury that took a good bit of rehab and work. But I’ve no doubt he would haved gone and been central to what Kerry are trying to do at the moment if he was still around.”

Kerry’s championship ambitions ended in August of the year.

By October it was confirmed that one of their brightest talents had been drawn towards a professional sporting life in Australia.

Fitzmaurice’s connection with O’Connor runs deeper than one formed in that solitary senior season. The current principal of Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, he taught O’Connor in the classrooms and coached him on the pitches in Dingle during his teenage years.

On Saturday O’Connor is in line to feature in the AFL Grand Final with Geelong, on the cusp of landing the biggest prize in Australian Rules.

“I would have been disappointed that he left with the Kerry football hat on because you want everyone that can help the cause. If you feel a player is going to add to the options and the group, you want him to stay around.

“But having known Mark since he was a young fella, you realise the human side as well and that it’s a huge opportunity. It was something he really wanted to do and he’s enjoyed and thriving. 

“So you’d wish him all the best. I keep in touch with him. Whenever he’s around he calls into the school, we always have a chat. There’s certainly no hard feelings.”

Up in Portlaoise, John Mulligan can related to the scenario of fast-tracking a young star to a higher level. Zach Tuohy is a team-mate of O’Connor’s in Geelong, the pair ensuring there will be an Irish playing role at the climax of the Australian Rules season for the first time in 14 years.

Mulligan was the Portlaoise senior manager at the end of the 2000s, a decade where the club were consistently Laois kingpins and Leinster challengers. Tuohy made a persuasive case for inclusion, even after he moved to Melbourne in 2009 and his holidays at home coincided with the concluding stages of championship journeys.

john-mulligan Former Portlaoise manager John Mulligan. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“At the time we had a very competitive panel, we were very lucky, we really had good footballers. Some people would say, ‘How can you justify playing Zach? He’s not even training with ye and he’s in Australia all the year.’

“But what we used to do as a management team, we actually asked the panel had anyone any problem if we played Zach or if anyone had a problem if we brought him in during the game. To a man, everyone said to play him or bring him in, do what you like.”

O’Connor emerged as part of a rich playing crop that was harvested in West Kerry. In 2015 their school retained the Hogan Cup, the highest honour attainable in schools Gaelic football, when they defeated Roscommon CBS. Last Saturday O’Connor helped Geelong rout the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba before Tom O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich, team-mates five years ago, featured as Kerry’s senior action resumed against Monaghan in Inniskeen.

marc-oconchuir-and-brian-obeaglaoich-lift-the-trophy Mark O'Connor and Brian Ó Beaglaoich lift the Hogan Cup in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“There was definitely a special group of them came together,” remembers Fitzmaurice.

“We’d great times the whole way up from when they were in first year. Winning the Russell Cup in Kerry was a big deal initially, then the Dunloe Cup, Moran Cup, the Frewen Cup and the first Corn Uí Mhuiri was very special for a newly formed school. The girls won a basketball All-Ireland at the same time, it gave the school an identity straight away. 

“Many of them have gone on to play for Kerry, it’s great to see. When they came together, it was clear that they were going to win things.  The likes of Mark, the first year that they played senior they were still in fourth year. We got to the All-Ireland semi-final that year to St Pat’s Navan but other than that they didn’t lose much.

“I’d say those lads could almost count on one hand how many school games they lost the whole way through school. There was a winning habit there. It was a privilege to be involved with them, it was very enjoyable.”

sean-o-bambaire-eamonn-fitzmaurice-and-brian-o-raoil-celebrate Eamonn Fitzmaurice celebrates with PS Chorca Dhuibhne players Seán Ó Bambaire and Brian Ó Raoil in 2014.

PS Chorca Dhuibhne collected six Corn Uí Mhuirí titles between 2012 and 2019, proof of their growth in prominence as they punched above their weight against traditional forces. O’Connor’s potential was advertised at the start of that golden spell.

“He was always very athletic,” outlines Fitzmaurice.

“Very skilful, very comfortable on the ball. But I think the thing that probably marks him out as being that bit special is his personality and the way he’s able to play well on the big days. He thrives on the big occasions.  

“He hasn’t changed a bit in terms of how he carries himself. It’s a huge achievement for a young person. Similar to Tadhg when he went to Australia in ’99 all those years ago, to leave at a young age to go to the opposite side of the world and succeed, it takes a special person to do that.

“It’s a game you’re only just after taking up in a professional environment where it’s fairly cut-throat. Mark had that personality and he had it in school, he had it in class and he certainly had it on the field as well.

“I think probably the biggest testament to how well he’s doing, as well as making the transition to a different game with a different ball, is that he’s membership of the leadership group.

“For someone so young and from a different country, who’s only there a couple years, he’s considered and respected enough in that group, it’s a sign of how well he’s doing. It’s been meteoric really, the rise for everything to be happening so quickly.

Fitzmaurice would be acquainted with the demands and the pitfalls associated with making it in the AFL from the pathway that Tadhg Kennelly embarked upon. O’Connor’s adjustment is what has impressed him most.

afl-cats-magpies Mark O'Connor (right) in action for Geelong against Collingwood. Source: AAP/PA Images

“When he went over there initially, he was very comfortable in terms of the training. He was able to take it. Sometimes I think when young players go over from here, getting used to that training load as a professional is a challenge. Mark was able to take that in his stride and concentrate on the football side of things, the oval ball and the requirements of his position tactically. 

“The type of person he is, the way he settled in so quickly he wasn’t really homesick, that wasn’t something that was eating at him either. He was able to just focus on the football. Evidently it’s clear how good he has become.”

Tuohy’s longevity is one of the most salient aspects of his AFL career. 11 years after he first signed for Carlton, he is getting his first taste of a Grand Final. His resolve and hard-nosed edge are reflected in his remarkable run of games as he climbed to reach the 200 appearance mark last month while his playing prowess is illustrated in his importance to the Geelong cause.

afl-power-cats Zach Tuohy celebrates kicking a goal for Geelong in the first qualifying final. Source: AAP/PA Images

All character traits that Mulligan detected years ago in Portlaoise colours.

“He was such a great guy to train. As the old saying goes, he’d train for Ireland. He was blessed with a fantastic engine, he could run all day.

“I’ll tell you what he had as well, the distance he could a dead ball off the ground or out of his hands was phenomenal. I often watched him in training, kicking it 60 yards was no problem to him. The thump he had of the ball was incredible. 

“He was a unique kind of player. It’s team game and everyone has a job to do. But with the likes of Zach what I found is you didn’t really have to tell him to do anything. You couldn’t really pin him down. You’d just let him go and he just fitted in so well. You just wound him up and let him off.”

Challenges did not appear to faze Tuohy as a youngster.

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“All he ever wanted to do was to play and to win. I remember a league match one time, we were playing a team here in the league and they had a really bigger guy than him on him. He was hopping off him.

“I remember saying to Zach at half-time, ‘You don’t have to take that from him. I’ll move you.’

“He said, ‘No, no John, leave him. I don’t mind. Let him hit me as much as he likes, I don’t care, I’m not going to get involved. It’s all about the scoreboard.’

“That was his attitude, which was brilliant. You couldn’t buy it.”

If they are thrilled in the Midlands to see him making waves in a different environment, there is always the nagging question of what he could have brought to their camp on a permanent basis. He kicked 0-3 when they fell short to Offaly’s Rhode in the province in 2008, a year before he made the move to Australia, and then offered a reminder of his ability when he chipped in with 0-2 to help fashion victory in the 2010 Laois final. Mulligan also reflects on the 2015 two-game saga to settle the county title.

“He was a massive loss to us. 2009 he played in the county final with us and then he had to go back to Australia. So he wasn’t available for our Leinster campaign but as it turned out, we actually won the Leinster. That was the year we beat Garrycastle. 

“We went on to the All-Ireland semi-final and we’d a disaster against Kilmurry-Ibrickane. If we had him that year, we’d a really good panel, you’d think what could have happened. But that’s sport, it’s ifs and buts.

“I think his last game with the club was 2015 (county final) against Emo. They were lucky enough to hang on and draw. They brought him in and scored two points. Then they started him in the replay, they won easy as it turned out and he scored 1-2. But again everyone was on board, they wanted him to play.”

zach-tuohy-takes-to-the-field Zach Tuohy in action for Portlaoise. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

There’s widespread interest in both local areas in these current playing days. Fitzmaurice has noticed an increase in the discussions in this sport-mad area, particularly at a stage when GAA activity has hit a lull.

“The Geelong app I’d say a lot of people would have that. It’s a lot easier for people to watch the games than it would have been once upon time. He’s the other side of the world but he very much still has a link to here.”

For Mulligan it would be heartening to see Tuohy cap off his long run of service with success.

“It’s been a great rollercoaster for him. I do hope he does it now and gets the publicity locally and in the county if things work out for him because it’s a fantastic achievement. He was always a role model on and off the pitch from day one. He’s be very genuine. It’s a great achievement for the two lads, it’s great to see Irish guys doing well.”

And in Dingle it could be a unique honour for a former student to achieve.

“We’re lucky with our past pupils, many of them have gone on to do fantastic things professionally,” says Fitzmaurice.

“We’ve had people in the sporting fields playing with Kerry, international basketball players, Kerry ladies players and so on. For someone to be achieving in a professional sport, the school are very proud of that.

He’ll be tuning in to watch the action closely on Saturday morning.

“Hopefully now after getting this far, he’ll pull it off.

“And who knows he might come home then, he might be happy, have had enough of it,” laughs the Kerry All-Ireland winning manager.

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Fintan O'Toole

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