Conor McKenna: AFL star plans to return home to Tyrone "in next few years"

By Thomas NiblockBBC Sport NI
Winning All-Ireland with Tyrone still a big ambition for McKenna

Australian Football Rules star Conor McKenna plans to return home in the next couple of years which would put him in the frame to have a senior inter-county career with Tyrone.

McKenna, 24, is back home in Ireland amid the coronavirus outbreak after having the best season of his AFL career with Essendon in 2019.

"I will be home in the next few years," McKenna told BBC Sport NI.

"Whether it's this year or next year I'm just not sure at the minute.

"I've always had the idea I'd like to return home to Eglish and if good enough for Tyrone. It's been five-and-a-half years now and I always think about the opportunity to come back.

"I didn't grow up dreaming of playing AFL, I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity at the minute, but I did grow up dreaming of playing for Tyrone, win Ulsters, win All-Irelands.

"I want to play for Eglish first and see if I can kick the ball straight, then reassess from there."

Hugely impressive Tyrone underage career

After a hugely impressive minor career with Tyrone, McKenna was promoted to the county's senior squad as a 19-year-old in the summer of 2014 but then opted to begin an AFL career later that year.

After making his Essendon debut in 2015, the Eglish native has established himself as one of the club's key players and his outstanding 2019 campaign included topping the AFL's running bounces stats.

A bout of homesickness caused McKenna to fly home to Ireland earlier this year for a couple of weeks but he returned Down Under to begin the new AFL campaign before the action was halted by the global pandemic.

These are uncertain times for the finances of sport across the globe and the AFL is no exception.

Players have taken a 50% paycut as the season is on hold and if the pandemic stretches, that paycut could rise to 80%.

McKenna's intention is to return to Melbourne after Covid-19 and see out his remaining 18 month Essendon contract.

The outside world sees Conor McKenna living the dream. A well paid job, playing in front of 95,000 people, a professional sportsman living in sunny Australia.

However homesickness is something the Tyrone man has had to battle with throughout his Australian stint.

McKenna has the best season of his AFL career in 2019
McKenna signed a four-year contract extension with Essendon in 2017

"Tyrone won the U21 All-Ireland [in 2015] and I probably would have been playing on that team.

"I lived with a host family who were lovely during the first year but it's not your own family.

"I didn't have any friends, I didn't know what to do and didn't know who to speak to.

"It's not a nice feeling. I got through it, but I still struggle with it. Six years on I'm still trying to deal with it which really shows how tough it is."

When McKenna did return home from Australia last week, he had to celebrate his 24th birthday away from his family and friends during a two-week isolation in county Donegal.

He has this advice for those feeling the impact of being lonely.

"Stay positive, feed off your family and friends. Be happy with the small stuff. Money isn't everything.

"Communicate with your family and friends, build a better relationship and just try and get through this difficult time together."

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