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McKenna and McShane impact highlights need for Mayo to hold onto Mullin amid AFL interest

The Mayo star has been linked with a move Down Under.

conor-mckenna McKenna carries the ball forward in the All-Ireland final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

TYRONE’S DAY 3 celebrations were in full swing at 9.32pm last night when a tweet appeared on Conor McKenna’s timeline. 

“Any @AFL clubs need a half back?” he asked.

It caused a couple of Australian online publications to wonder if the Tyrone man was mulling over a return to the AFL following his retirement in September 2020. 

“Conor McKenna considering AFL return?” was the headline on the Australian Sporting News. 

“Former Bomber hints at AFL return,” wrote Zero Hanger, an independent AFL news website.

Unfortunately for Essendon fans, it was most likely a tweet made in jest by the 25-year-old. However, McKenna did appear to leave the door ajar last November when he admitted it would be open to a return via the mid-season draft. 

“I don’t think it’s totally done,” he said. “There’s a thing in the AFL where you can get a mid-season draft so you can actually get drafted in June and go out from June until September. It’s only really a two- or three-month thing.

“I do think the possibility may be there in three or four years with Gaelic, the way they’re talking about a split season, if Tyrone was out and the club was out of the championship and there was a possibility of going over for two or three months, it’s not something I’d close the door on.”

Essendon would jump at the chance to re-sign the man who played in 79 games over six seasons for the club. But judging by his comments in the wake of Saturday’s All-Ireland final, McKenna seems determined to build on his performances for 2022 with Tyrone. 

“I haven’t been good this year at all,” he admitted. “I have done bits and pieces but I haven’t been. Even today I wasn’t good, so there’s plenty to work on for myself.”

While McKenna would have liked to give more consistent displays across the summer, he made decisive impacts in the big games. He scored two goals in the semi-final and created Darren McCurry’s three-pointer in the final.

Back in 2018, McKenna spoke about his burning desire to come home and win an All-Ireland with Tyrone. He became just the fourth player to lift the Sam Maguire after playing in the AFL, following Dermot McNicholl (Derry & St Kilda), Brian Stynes (Dublin & Melbourne) and Tadhg Kennelly (Kerry & Sydney Swans).

McNicholl only played three times for St Kilda, while Stynes made two appearances for Melbourne, before they led their native counties to victory in 1993 and 1995 respectively. Kennelly clocked 197 games for the Swans either side of a sabbatical with Kerry that resulted in his Celtic Cross and All-Star in 2009. 

Getting McKenna back into the squad upon his return was a massive boost for Tyrone, as was Cathal McShane’s decision to turn down a contract by Adelaide Crows last year. 

cathal-mcshane-celebrates-after-the-game Cathal McShane scored key goals against Kerry and Mayo. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McShane’s 1-3 off the bench in the semi-final helped Tyrone over the line and his second-half flick into the Mayo net was arguably the most important score of the game, setting the Red Hand on the path to victory. 

In a team full of quality defenders and transition players, McKenna and McShane provided the X-factor up front. They wouldn’t have come close to winning the All-Ireland without that pair.

Tyrone moved heaven and earth to keep McShane at home, not dissimilar to how the Kerry county board’s charm offensive helped convince David Clifford to turn down overtures from Australia in 2017. 

Kerry had already lost Dingle’s Mark O’Connor to Geelong two years earlier and were keen to avoid the departure of a generational talent in Clifford. 

It’s a battle Mayo will face over the winter as Oisin Mullin weighs up offers from the AFL. The Irish Examiner reported last month that the All-Star defender, who recovered from a quad injury to start the final, will be officially approached by Aussie clubs this off-season.

Of course, it goes without saying that Mullin has every right to pursue a career in professional sport if he so desires. It’s an incredible opportunity for any player. His athletic profile makes him a good fit for a half-back role that GAA players often occupy in the AFL. 

Mullin was due to travel Down Under in April 2020 to undergo trials in front of AFL recruiters until Covid scuppered those plans. He had yet to make his championship debut for Mayo at that stage. He’s now a fully formed inter-county star, having become a key figure in the spine of James Horan’s team that reached back-to-back All-Ireland finals.

He looks set to land a second successive All-Star, having also claimed Young Footballer of the Year in 2020. 

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oisin-mullen-dejected-after-the-game Mayo’s Oisin Mullin after the final whistle on Saturday. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

From a Mayo perspective, its of uptmost importance they give him every reason to stay. 

The county have lost several leading lights to Australia, namely Pearce Hanley who forged a lengthy career in the AFL. If a player of his calibre had remained at home, it may have been the difference in helping Mayo over the line in one of the seven All-Ireland finals they’ve failed to win since 2012.

Cian Hanley also spent a few years on the books of the Brisbane Lions, while Mayo ladies have seen Cora Staunton, Sarah Rowe, Aileen Gilroy, Rachel Kearns, Grace and Niamh Kelly sign deals with AFLW sides. 

Even Dublin haven’t been immune to losing top talent. Despite Ciaran Kilkenny’s decision to perform a U-turn on his move to Hawthorn in 2012, Ballyboden’s James Madden switched codes and made his AFL debut for the Lions in May. 

The speedster would have mitigated the loss of Jack McCaffrey by providing pace and power on Dublin’s half-back line this season had he stuck around. 

Mayo’s battle to keep Mullin may well be the most important one they face in the off-season. He’s a player with a massive future ahead of him if he decides to throw his lot in with the county.

In time he could settle into a permanent role at centre-back or even midfield to make full use of his ability on the ball. 

Tyrone kept their best players at home and it proved decisive in ending a 13-year wait without the All-Ireland. 

The loss of Mullin this winter would be another hammer blow for the Westerners. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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