Bright lights big pity ...

Some of Ireland’s finest young players have headed Down Under in search of a career as a professional sportsman. While, the allure of Sydney and Australia’s other attractions fill many a dream, the reality for Tommy Walsh, Michael Quinn, Chris McKaigue and Setanta Ó hAilpÍn also includes bouts of homesickness and a punishing schedule.

THIS is how big you can be. This is how good you can have it. This is when you can lean back some sunny afternoon, take stock of it all and tell yourself you’ve made it.

Back before Tadhg Kennelly fulfilled his destiny, popping home to pick up an All-Ireland medal as if visiting the corner shop for a sliced pan, he was amongst a group of Sydney Swans who travelled to a local Catholic girls’ school in Wollongong.

On stage, his team-mate Lewis Roberts-Thompson was asked about his most embarrassing moment but when no reply came, the Kerry man stepped forward, pulled Thompson’s trousers down around his ankles and gave him a readymade answer. By the time Kennelly got home that evening and switched on the television, he saw his prank had made the main evening news. He could but laugh.

There’s more to Kennelly’s success story. Much more. The rumour seemed plausible that he was dating beautiful Home and Away actress Rebecca Cartwright long before she married Lleyton Hewitt, even if the evidence was nothing more than a Channel 7 party they were spotted at together.

And back in 2009 when I asked Kennelly the sort of things women sent to him, he awkwardly replied: “Cup cakes, underwear. Now I’m back in Kerry, I’ve had to get a PO Box because I’m afraid my mom will open up the mail and get a g-string. You get some freaks out there.”

And all this before his Premiership medal, his house on Bondi Beach, his reported salary that would make a banker proud.

AND this is how small you can be. This is how hard you can have it. This is when you can lean back some cloudy evening, take stock of it all and realise just how far you have to go.

Ask Down’s Jamie O’Reilly what it’s like financially and you realise the closest he’ll get to living on a beach is under the boardwalk.

“Young players from overseas get rent, living away from home allowance and some cash to kit you out with a new bed and toaster and kettle,” says the 23-year-old Hawthorn player. “So we are looked after and it frees up a bit of capital but I’m no Wayne Rooney.”

O’Reilly is one of 10 Irishmen trying to make it in the AFL now, but if Kennelly is still kicking on and Setanta Ó hAilpín is still creeping and crawling forward, the other eight are only starting out with everything against them. Aussie Rules journalist Mark Robinson says the Irish experiment hasn’t quite failed, but it hasn’t proven much either.

“Clubs are never sceptical if they’ve a talented junior but right now, there is a bit of a lull,” he insists. “I don’t know if there’s the same level of player coming through that was once there from Ireland and people are aware of that.”

Yet O’Reilly and the rest are giving it a go, fighting public perception, fighting their need to be home for championship, fighting every nerve and sinew in bodies that tell them they weren’t built for this. Then again, sometimes it is more important to discover what you cannot do rather than what you can, while pain is nothing compared to what it feels like to quit.

The destination may have been the same but their journeys have been very different. For O’Reilly, he was spotted in the 2009 Ulster U21 final but later found out the recruiter thought it better to let him finish out that campaign. When the call finally came two days after the All-Ireland final, he was on his way to university and refused to believe it was anything other than a prank.

For Derry’s Chrissy McKaigue it just didn’t seem worth it initially. Besides, he’d already turned down Carlton shortly after school and was making his name with the county and he wanted to finish a law degree.

For Tommy Walsh, his signing according to the Herald-Sun newspaper, “had numerous twists and turns, clandestine meetings, several overseas expeditions and even a St Kilda official caught up in a gypsy colony”.

For Kildare youngster Paul Cribbin the drama involved cold feet over a hot dinner. “I was 16, we got to a Hogan Cup final with the school and the scout came into the changing room to me after the game,” recalls the 18-year-old. “I don’t think I entertained him too much but after that they were in regular contact. When I was old enough, the recruiter, Derek Hine, came over with the contract and he expected me to sign because I told him by phone I’d do it.

“We went out for a meal but when he took out the papers I couldn’t.”

However, two days later he finally inked his name in the more comfortable surroundings of the family home.

“You sign and you’re committed and it seems fine for a while,” continues Walsh, who is arguably the highest profile loss from Gaelic football. “Then comes the first day. It’s weird coming from one sport at the top, where you are nearly on every team all the way up and suddenly you are bottom of the barrel. And it is really nerve racking, and that’s not just because you are meeting 50 strangers. You don’t know what you are in for with pre-season. You know it’s going to be hard but you don’t know hard.”

Yet Cribbin made that pre-season look easy. After returning to Collingwood from his Christmas break, his flight landed at 9pm on Sunday but early the next morning he still won the club’s two-kilometre run.

“I’d say it was all the caffeine I had on the plane,” is his reasoning.

Others didn’t make it look so easy. Brisbane Lion Niall McKeever’s initial beep test of 14.5 may have put him in the AFL elite category despite no training, but he still remembers with trepidation his first pre-season trip when the Queensland club headed to nearby Noosa.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was based on a beach. All the tackling stuff was new, a lot of mentally challenging stuff. A lot of runs with weights. It was a bit of an eye opener. A few of them were asking me did I regret it.”

But if those two provided the good and the bad to the start of a new life, Longford’s Michael Quinn provided the ugly courtesy of one of his first sessions with Essendon Bombers.

“I went in for a tackle with Andrew Welch. I was told afterwards it was a perfectly good tackle but that was no consolation because his leg broke badly. It was dislocated, broken, ligaments went, everything. I thought my own fans would even turn on me before I played a game.”

BUT those are the stories from base camp. Since then all have been scaling the mountain with varying degrees of pace, confidence and sure-footedness.

Quinn’s career looked to have taken off when he made the quickest ever Irish debut five months after arriving and was described as “phenomenal” by Jim Stynes. But now back in the reserves he admits: “Only in my second year did I realise how well my first had gone and appreciated it.” Ever since then it’s been Mayo’s Pearce Hanley who has climbed highest. He’s started all of the Brisbane Lions’ six games this season, and even if they were all defeats, he’s highly rated.

“It’s strange but homesickness has been worse lately despite everything. I’ve been thinking about home a lot because it’s a good time of year and you know the lads have the hard work done and just can’t wait for the championship. But I’ve enjoyed it here too.

“Once you play your first game you realise how strong you have to be and what it takes. You go through two hours of a game. But it can be strange thinking it’s going well as a professional because before I left I worked in Durkin’s in Ballaghaderreen as a waiter and barman so it’s a little bit different.”

Adds Zach Tuohy from Portlaoise: “Different barely describes it. The hardest part is being away from family and friends. Early on, even to have the confidence to talk to guys is hard. That sounds silly but I can remember at the start just being petrified to even open my mouth. It’s not a nice way to be but you just are so shy because you come from such a different background and initially anyway, you are wishing you were at home.

“Like I was out here when Portlaoise won the Leinster club and it broke my heart to miss it. I was getting texts from lads out celebrating for a week after it. They were all in the pub, I was in the gym. There were times I got very homesick and wanted to be home, but I never considered packing all this in. Now my biggest worry is getting rid of a cold because the weather here has been crap and I insisted on the t-shirt and shorts, not that too many of them still fit.”

There’s a good reason for the wardrobe problems. After arriving, Tuohy put on 10 kilos between November and February, too much even for a game that often relies on brawn as much as brains. He was told to change his programme to lose some of it. But others have been slowly bulking up. Hanley has gone from 82 kilos to 87, Quinn from 77 to 82, McKeever has finally reached 96 from 89.

Size matters and so much is geared around it. On the door of the Lexus Centre in Collingwood is the sort of scene they’ve all witnessed at their own clubs. Each morning, Cribbin passes a sign that reads: “Training Givens: Train with intensity — match conditions. Every minute counts — no idle time. Train with purpose — be better after training”.

From there it’s into the gym where team-mates are lifting 130 kilos — that’s over 20 stone. And upstairs there’s the altitude room, an area where players run at simulations of 3,000m to build up their oxygen-intake capacity.

“But you need all that,” says Derry’s McKaigue, now of Sydney. “The AFL is definitely moving away from the physical side, but put it this way, Australian journalists see GAA as a non-contact sport.”

But that’s far from the only challenge.

“For me the hardest part is the concentration aspect,” admits O’Reilly. “At home you just play with the flow of the game and it’s just up to your individual reading of it, whereas here the game is more structured, you get corridors to block, presses and structures to play. All kinds of scenarios. The ball takes getting used to as well. Whenever I went for lunch at the start I’d be walking up the street and bouncing it on the pavement and even going to training in the car I’d be in the passenger seat bouncing it. You can’t be without it.”

For Quinn, the most worrying aspect is career.

“Back home you play badly and you might lose your place, here it’s very different. Your livelihood is on the line.”

For McKaigue, the hardship comes from lifestyle. “Ach, it’s a long way from home. What do you do after training? How do you occupy your time? I suppose Sydney is a very fast world compared to where I’m from in Derry so it’s a bit of a lifestyle change.”

Their journeys may have been different but being a professional footballer has left them all with high hurdles to clear.

Don’t get them wrong, they don’t want you to think that life is harder for them than anyone else. Far from it. When a group of them got together on St Patrick’s Day for a function it was one of the discussions they had.

Walsh claimed his degree in “construction management combined with the economy played a big factor in my move” and it’s a sentiment echoed.

“If guys are asked to make the move now, the economy would play more of a part,” insists McKaigue. “I’ve friends just finished university with degrees and they are doing part-time jobs and don’t really have anything. So it’s nice to have something secure for the now.”

AND quite possibly for the future, with Walsh maintaining there is plenty the GAA could learn from a professional organisation like the AFL.

“Firstly from a marketing point of view. They are very aggressive when it comes to that. Also they are constantly working on education and if you want to do that it’s all paid for. There’s a retirement fund where a certain amount is put away for every year you play. Granted there are downsides. The media is definitely more intrusive here. I heard one time there were more reporters covering it than players. But you take the good with the bad.”

In fact after the initial fears and failures, it’s been more good, with all of them knocking some craic out of it on their way up. Not so long ago then development coach at Brisbane, Craig McRae called over Niall McKeever during a game to ask how he was feeling.

“Good, thanks coach,” came the reply. “How about a run on the wing?” McRae asked. “No, I’ll be all right thanks,” was the answer. Cheeky, but his club-mate Hanley reckons he got away with it. “I had to slow down talking. Niall is still going through that phase and they just don’t know what he’s going on about.”

In Sydney, McKaigue has been having fun too, although it has mostly involved Tadhg Kennelly slagging him over a dive that won Kerry a crucial free towards the end of the 2009 league final.

“Ah, he’s given me advice as well. Like, there are some Irish guys it hasn’t worked out for, but if you give it a bit of time and have a bit of patience with it, there are definitely opportunities here. You have to believe it’s worth the wait. But everyone here thinks about home this time of year. Some day I want to be back playing for Derry. If my body is still fit and healthy I’d love to it because the passion doesn’t go away. That helps you too, having the aspiration of some day going back.”

But that’s for another day. Right now it’s about inching away towards the biggest you can be, the best you can have it and being able to lean back some sunny afternoon, take stock of it all and tell yourself that you’ve made it.

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