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Mullin reverse typifies why top GAA counties can hold onto stars despite lure of AFL

Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone and Dublin can make it attractive for their best talent to remain at home.

THE NEWS THAT Oisin Mullin performed a U-turn on his decision to join AFL side Geelong Cats was greeted with unabated joy in Mayo.

oisin-mullen-celebrates-after-the-game-with-stephen-coen Mullin celebrates after the Connacht final with Stephen Coen. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

A cloud had been hanging over the county since last year’s All-Ireland defeat to Tyrone. Mullin’s decision to stay, accompanied with the anticipated return of Cillian O’Connor from an Achilles injury, means Mayo will be right in the mix again this season.

After initially agreeing to a two-year contract and being assigned the number 34 jersey, turning his back on a potential career in professional sport wasn’t taken lightly. 

It was clear he’d been mulling over his decision for some time. There had been doubts over Mullin’s intention to head Down Under within a fortnight of signing the deal with Geelong. 

He was noncommittal about the move during interview the night he was named Young Footballer of the Year for a second time in December. James Horan indicated earlier this month that he was still discussing matters with his family. 

Up until the weekend, the Victoria club were adamant that the signing was going ahead. According to Geelong CEO Steve Hocking, Mullin was due to board a plane a week ago only for a positive Covid test to delay things. 

In his statement released through Mayo GAA on Sunday night, the defender said he wanted to consider all aspects of the potential switch.

It was certainly an attractive proposal. For a 21-year-old, the dream of playing sport for a living, the sunshine and experiencing life on the far side of the world made it a captivating offer. 

Geelong are one of the AFL’s most consistent and well-run organisations. Already at the club are countrymen Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor who’d have helped with the transition. Fellow Mayo native Rachel Kearns plays with their female team. 

As is the case with any Irish recruit to the AFL, there are no guarantees of success.

Pearce Hanley left Mayo as a teenager and forged an incredible career for himself in the AFL, setting himself up for life in the country. For every Hanley, there are dozens who failed to make it, or settle, Down Under. 

There’s every chance he would have followed in the footsteps of Hanley or Tuohy. But he also could have encountered injury, homesickness or simply failed to adapt. 

oisin-mullen Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

However, Mullin looked to have the mental and physical tools to give himself every chance of making it. 

Given his athletic profile and what he’s achieved in Gaelic football since 2020, he may even have been fast-tracked into their senior team this season.

“In athletic form and power, he’s a top 5% athlete,” said Andy Moran about Mullin on Off The Ball’s Football Podcast last November.

“Imagine that man in a vest, the pink boots and the hair in a pony tail.

“If you’re Mayo you produce, possibly, if you’re lucky, three or four of these every 10 years and he’s one of them.”

That’s why his decision to stay is so monumental for Mayo and Kilmaine, who were beaten in the county intermediate semi-final last season. He’s a generational talent, a brilliant ball carrier, capable of shutting down his man and causing wreck going forward.

It continues the recent trend of GAA players leaving the AFL. Only days earlier, Mark Keane announced he wasn’t returning to Collingwood and instead has linked up with the Cork hurlers. 

Stefan Okunbor ended his three-year stint at Geelong last September and made his senior debut for Kerry this month. Tyrone’s All-Ireland winning side last year contained Conor McKenna, a regular at Essendon, and Cathal McShane, who turned down a deal from Adelaide Crows.

That year the number of Irish in the AFL stood at a record 17. It has dropped to 11 for the coming season. For counties like Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone, they’ve pulled out all the stops to keep prized talent at home.

While Kerry have lost O’Connor and Devidas Uosis, the dream of winning the Sam Maguire generally makes it more tempting players from the elite counties to stay put.

David Clifford’s decision to turn down Aussie advances after his stunning minor campaign was greeted with a wave of relief in the Kingdom. 

Dublin have been less affected. They lost speedster James Madden to Brisbane Lions in 2018, while other stars spurned moves in the past.

James McCarthy trialled with North Melbourne in 2009, Ciaran Kilkenny left Hawthorn after four months in 2011 and Tadhg Kennelly contacted Brian Fenton about attending trials in 2015, but he didn’t pursue the avenue. 

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brian-fenton-catches-a-high-ball Brian Fenton's physical traits make him ideally suited to the AFL. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There undoubtedly have been other Sky Blues approached by AFL sides, but the pull of home was clearly too strong. 

Without the prospect of winning All-Irelands, staying at home is a harder sell for a county like Meath to do with Conor Nash (Hawthorn) and Cian McBride (Essendon).

Conor Glass has become a key figure for the Glen and Derry since his return in late 2020. 

Anton Tohill (Derry) and Luke Towey (Sligo) are others who opted to come back to these shores in the last 12 months, with, Fionn O’Hara (Westmeath) headed in the opposite direction.

The AFL will continue to come calling in search of Irish talent but with counties better organised and funded than ever before, they’re having success in selling the benefits of remaining at home.

The elite counties can put together attractive packages to stay, sweetened by scholarships, sponsorships and job offers.

Of course, Mullin is still young enough to pursue an AFL career in the next year or two. Geelong will likely keep in touch with him and leave the door open should he gave a change of heart down the line.

But it appears the two-time Young Footballer of the Year has made his decision. His return to Mayo training this week will give the Westerners a major bounce as the league looms. 

And for GAA fans across the country, the prospect of watching him grace MacHale Park and Croke Park over the next decade is an exciting one. 

- Originally published at 07.35

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Kevin O'Brien

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