Ambitious Mark Keane aiming high Down Under with Collingwood

Its 30 degrees in Melbourne and the sports mad city is abuzz as it bids farewell to the record breaking Women’s T20 Cricket World Cup and looks forward to the upcoming Australian Rules season, writes Maurice Brosnan.

Ambitious Mark Keane aiming high Down Under with Collingwood

Its 30 degrees in Melbourne and the sports mad city is abuzz as it bids farewell to the record breaking Women’s T20 Cricket World Cup and looks forward to the upcoming Australian Rules season, writes Maurice Brosnan.

Mark Keane has spent the day showing his Irish cousin around the suburbs, before sitting down to chat about his adventure thus far in the AFL.

There are nine clubs in this town and Collingwood are amongst the biggest of them. It is also home to Anton Tohill, son of Derry legend Anthony, as well as AFLW stars Aisling Sheridan and Sarah Rowe.

Situated in the Aussie Rules heartland of the nation but still surrounded by Irish, just the way he likes it: “It’s nice to chat to someone who can understand me,” he says with a grin.

“Aussies are constantly asking: ‘What did you just say?’ I have Anton with me at the club, but sure he is from Derry which doesn’t help much either.

“It is one of the things I like about Melbourne. It is a real sporting city and there are a lot of Irish involved it that.

Also, it is sort of similar to Ireland with the weather. Brisbane or Gold Coast would be too hot for me. At least here it rains the odd time. Sometimes now I’d be praying for it to come.”

This city, its sport, the weather; combining like they were created purely for the contentment of a football-obsessed 19-year-old from Cork.

Keane represented his county at minor and U20 level, where his final game was the 2018 Munster final. He was the standout prospect at the European AFL Draft Combine with his athleticism and poise attracting interest from several clubs.

The Mitchelstown man was also involved with the senior squad before accepting an invitation Down Under.

Collingwood’s pre-season has just finished and while it remains to be seen if the AFL campaign will start as scheduled, there is no doubt Keane will be pushing to play a part when it does.

Word from the club is positive and all the indicators are that the Corkman will see first-team action in 2020.

“It is going really well. They seem to be happy anyway,” he explains.

Last year’s countless classes learning the games systems and styles have him up to speed. His formidable six-foot-four frame and combative disposition will also help.

I really like the physical side of the game. That is one my favourite things here.

"On the other side, I don’t like the way it goes on too long. It is nearly four 30-minute periods and 20 minutes at half-time. I think that’s too much. Two hours for a full match? That is two Gaelic football games.

Because it is more physical, you would be battered by the end of it."

Then there is the technical side of it all. Year one in the VFL saw Keane operate as a half-back. Once again, as he discusses it there is the inevitable comparison with Gaelic football.

If there is one thing to be learned from a conversation with Mark Keane, it is that Gaelic football is never far from his thoughts.

“We are a come-forward team, we do not sit back. If one man is free, we all have to push up one spot. For example, if a player is free in midfield. A high back pushes up to him, he will slide up one and everyone else follows up. You leave someone free out the back, but we don’t mind that. He is out the back well away from the ball.

“If they want to launch it high in, we can come back and spoil it. I think if coaches came out from Ireland to see this stuff, they would get real value from it. Especially team defence.

A lot of it applies to Gaelic football: Communication, tackling, and aerial methods. Our team is about slide and cover."

We play six backs; it is not one on one. It is six against six.

“That is what I want to do when I go back to Ireland. Be a coach. I’m doing coaching courses out here actually. I train the U16s and U18s with the Sandringham Zebras.”

AFL was but a foreign concept during a childhood in north Cork. Seán Óg ÓhAilpín was his U14 hurling coach and Keane was vaguely aware that his brothers were playing with Carlton, but it only really crossed his radar when Ciarán Sheehan made the move in 2013.

Mark Keane in training for Colingwood FC
Mark Keane in training for Colingwood FC

So, when Keane relocated to Melbourne, he had a Rebel County ally ready and waiting. That friendship was invaluable.

A confidant who understood the difficulty that came with adapting to the sport’s skills and choreography and the crucial need to set aside time on Tuesday mornings to watch The Sunday Game. To watch Cork.

“Ciarán was great to have. He came from the same part of Cork and he just got what it was like for me. To be able to chat with him whenever was great. He is gone back to Ireland now, but I still talk to him regularly.

“I’d be in contact with home constantly, especially with Mitchelstown. You always make time to watch Cork games as well. A friend of mine, Cathal O’Mahony, he is playing with the Cork seniors at the moment which adds to it.

“Mitchelstown’s support meant the world when he took the decision to leave. They sent him off with a signed jersey, football, and the backing of a parish. It is a love affair Collingwood are keen to understand, particularly given a recent request Keane lodged with the club.

“Recently I actually went and asked could I go home this year and play for Mitchelstown in the off-season. They are yet to come back to me but hopefully it works out.

"The International Rules are going on as well this year in Cork and Dublin and our captain will play for Australia. He will be playing Gaelic basically, so it is pretty much the same thing if I go home and play for Mitchelstown.

“As I speak to you, a fella from Collingwood is out visiting my parents. He was with my local GAA club today. He wanted to understand where I came from, to know my background. He visited my school, my club, my local area.

“Collingwood wanted to actually go last year but my parents weren’t around. This club is brilliant.

“They fly my parents out if they want to come out to see me. They came out last year.”

When it comes to this season, the collective goal is to win the Premiership; the individual goal is to play a part.

“Our goal is winning the flag. That’s our theme in training: ‘We are going to win it. This is our year.’

Every game we play is towards winning the flag. Every training session is towards winning the Premiership. It all feeds back to that.

"That is said openly: ‘Everything we do is to win the Premiership.’ You find that sometimes with Cork. Like Cork should be aiming to get past the Super 8s. Qualify out of that. Go all the way.

If you don’t have anything to work towards, what is the point? If Cork don’t think they will win the Munster final or get through the Super 8s, why bother? Aim high.”

Collingwood and Cork on the mind. In the short term, his sole focus is delivering the Magpies their first flag since 2010.

Yet the presence of former team-mates in Ronan McCarthy’s outfit only bolsters the pull home.

“Cathal O’Mahony, Damien Gore, Tadhg Corkery, Liam O’Donovan; I played with all of them. It is weird.

Growing up all I wanted was to play for Cork. Seeing them doing it is good but Jesus, I’d love to be out there alongside those boys. Hopefully, down the line I’ll go home and play with them.”

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