John Fogarty: The AFL highway is jammed with broken heroes

Of the 63 players who had signed for an AFL team up to this past season, 36 never made or are yet to make a Premiership appearance.
John Fogarty: The AFL highway is jammed with broken heroes

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - JULY 22: Luke Towey during a Gold Coast Suns AFL training session at Austoworld Centre on July 22, 2021 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

If the pandemic propelled the split season, it impacted other projects former GAA president John Horan had like acting upon a review of Irish players returning from Australian Rules.

Towards the end of his first year in office, Horan had put in place an opportunity for players who had come back early or were released by their clubs to provide feedback to the GAA so that those following them might be better prepared or informed about the decisions they were making.

“Through our player welfare department, I have asked for a detailed audit of the experience of these players who play or have played AFL and see what lessons can be learnt and adapted so that any future young players looking at making that step are as educated and prepared as possible,” Horan said in February 2019. “We will shortly return to the AFL for discussions and hope they make changes to give greater support to our young players.”

As a result of the engagement, four main findings were derived. “From the responses to the questionnaire, players felt an education programme before signing up to AFL clubs would be a worthwhile initiative,” GAA director of club, player and games administration Feargal McGill told this column yesterday. “A minority, but a significant one, felt AFL clubs needed to have more supports in place to help them make the transition to the sport/country/culture.

“Only a very small number of players received support from the AFL to resettle in Ireland. There was unanimous support from those questioned for an advisory programme for players going to and returning from AFL.”

The plan had been for the GAA to engage directly with the AFL around these matters as they usually do when International Rules series are staged. However, the postponement of last year’s event in Ireland meant such discussions didn’t take place.

With one hand Covid taketh but with the other it gaveth as the numbers of Irish signed to AFL clubs have plateaued in the mid-teens. So far, Fermanagh’s Ultan Kelm and Westmeath’s Fionn O’Hara have signed on the dotted line as Stefan Okunbor, Anton Tohill and Luke Towey have come back home.

However, Oisín Mullin’s pending move to Geelong at a time when Mayo’s need has never been greater will prompt further discussion about the GAA’s relationship with the AFL. In truth, Mullin’s switch was a case of the inevitable being delayed. But for the pandemic, he might never have played senior football for Mayo.

The county’s supporters will hardly consider themselves fortunate to have seen him do that for two seasons but holding on to rare talent in the face of a professional if not a totally complementary sport is difficult. It pays off - where would Tyrone have been this year but for Cathal McShane’s Jordan Belfort-like u-turn last year - but some heads can’t be turned.

Nobody can prove that Pearce Hanley remaining in Ireland would have been the difference between Mayo winning and losing All-Ireland finals in the past decade. However, he was so prodigious as a 19-year-old that John O’Mahony named him at centre-forward for their two qualifier games in 2007.

Hanley is one of the rare Irish success stories in the AFL, one of only five to play more than 100 times in the Premiership - Jim Stynes, Seán Wight, Tadhg Kennelly and Zach Tuohy the other four.

Watching Mullin sparkle these last two seasons, he is capable of joining that band of brothers but the path to success in Australia is the proverbial Springsteen highway jammed with broken heroes. Of the 63 players who had signed for an AFL team up to this past season, 36 never made or are yet to make a Premiership appearance.

Undoubtedly, Covid has hampered the progress of some. Towey conceded that in an interview with on Sunday: “If you boil it down, I had one thing over there and 10 things here. You sacrifice so much for two years. Covid just ruined everything for any Irish lad. It was an unbelievable experience, but it really restricted what we could do.”

How Tyrone star Conor McKenna was treated by the Australian media following his positive Covid test last year and other scare stories about what Irish players have endured these last 20 months are other deterrents.

Those drawbacks will dissipate, though. “It won’t stop, I know that,” said Tuohy in September about Irish recruitment. “It might take a bit of a lull for a year or two but it won’t stop. There’s too much talent and too many guys back home prepared to sacrifice to give you a shot.”

With 205 Premiership games under his belt, Laois man Tuohy is second only to Stynes in the all-time appearances list for Irish players. No two ways about it, he is a phenom. And for every Tuohy, there are at least six Gaelic footballers like him who come home early, unbowed perhaps but bruised.

Horgan's power of siege mentality

Anyone doubting the power of siege mentality should listen back to the interview Patrick Horgan gave to Valerie Wheeler on RTÉ Radio One following Glen Rovers’ win over Sarsfields on Sunday.

We can provide the tone but here are the words about upsetting the odds to reach a second consecutive Cork premier senior final: “I thought we played fantastic throughout. We were always in the game. People would have said during the week we had no chance and we were just coming down to get beaten by 10 points maybe. But this group never gives up and we showed it again today. We show it in all our games. It’s a great thing to have in a team.”

It must have been on social media where Horgan drew most of his inspiration to prove the doubters wrong because as much as the general sense in the press was anticipating a Sarsfields victory it was hardly dismissive of the Blackpool men.

Horgan found similar motivation from the perception he had received preferential treatment in being freed up to play on Sunday having been shown a red card in the quarter-final win over Imokilly. The 33-year-old’s one-match ban was rescinded on the basis of footage apparently from behind the goal where the incident involving John Cronin.

“There was a lot of talk about that, whether people were for or against it, during the week,” he added. “A lot of people thought it was a ‘special’ hearing but anyone that is sent off and think they are wronged they get a chance to one of these hearings. Thankfully, we had video evidence clearly showing that nothing actually happened on the day so it was cleared it fairly quick.”

Just how much of what Horgan interpreted was reality doesn’t matter as he once again harnessed those sleights to great effect. Whether it’s criticising the colour of the sliotar or “know-it-all” pundits, the bristling version of the great Cork forward seems to be the most ferocious.

Galway's isolation helps but for how long more?

On more than one occasion has Galway hurling’s lack of a provincial championship been heaven sent for fixture makers.

In 2019, Loughrea successfully requested a postponement of their semi-final having played the two previous weekends. When it was played, Mullagh contested the validity of their defeat, which held the competition up further.

As a mark of respect, the 2013 final was rescheduled following the tragic loss of former Galway senior hurler Niall Donohue. And last year, Covid cases prompted the rescheduling of the two semi-finals although there was no All-Ireland series.

Following a Covid case in the Gort set-up in recent days, their last four senior clash with champions St Thomas has been put back. The final, due to take place on November 21, will go back either a week or two. As All-Ireland semi-finals do not take place until January, time is on Galway’s side but for how much longer?

The national fixtures calendar task-force have proposed bringing the county into the one of the provincial club championships. Their reasoning is simple. “Currently there is no Connacht Club Championship; for competition purposes, Galway champions should be accommodated in one of the other provincial championships, as currently in Senior and U20 inter county.”

Isolation clearly suits Galway in such situations but as part of new fixtures measures they will be expected to conform to timeframes like every county that enter provincial competitions. Were they to enter Leinster, they should be entitled to a home draw too but such checks and balances should apply to everyone.


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