Uncertain days for AFL, but Mark O'Connor still stoked by Aussie lifestyle

Soon after Saturday’s 89-52 win over Gold Coast Suns, Mark O’Connor was packing his bags and getting ready to say goodbye to Geelong.
Uncertain days for AFL, but Mark O'Connor still stoked by Aussie lifestyle
Mark O'Connor of the Cats runs with the ball during the round 5 AFL match between the Geelong Cats and the Gold Coast Suns at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)
Mark O'Connor of the Cats runs with the ball during the round 5 AFL match between the Geelong Cats and the Gold Coast Suns at GMHBA Stadium on Saturday (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Soon after Saturday’s 89-52 win over Gold Coast Suns, Mark O’Connor was packing his bags and getting ready to say goodbye to Geelong.

For how long, he doesn’t know. On Friday, the AFL ordered all 10 Victoria-based clubs to leave the state for their round six and seven games due to the second coronavirus surge there.

And so O’Connor’s Geelong, who also have Zach Tuohy and Stefan Okunbor on their books, will face Brisbane Lions in Sydney on Thursday when they had been scheduled to play St Kilda in Melbourne.

Then it’s on to a pre-scheduled three-week spell in Perth beginning with a game against Collingwood on Thursday week. After that, the Dingle man doesn’t know. “It’s all a bit up in the air,” he shrugs.

The AFL have had to become incredibly flexible to ensure their season isn’t interrupted again having been suspended for almost three months between rounds one and two. Players could be forgiven for feeling discombobulated although O’Connor counts himself as one of the lucky ones.

“Because I pretty much don’t have a lot of responsibility to anyone here. I don’t have a partner or kids so it will be a lot more stressful for people who do have families. There are a few boys in the team who have newborns as well so it’s just trying to toss up how long we’ll spend away and things like that would be distracting.

“I’m probably escaping a lot of that in my current situation. It’s just out of our control. I’m taking it day by day. I’m not looking further than the next game because it can all change.”

The virus in Australia made headlines here last month when Essendon’s game against Melbourne was postponed due to Tyrone’s Conor McKenna testing positive for Covid-19. It later emerged he had recorded a false positive but that didn’t stop those in the Australian sports media from disparaging him or questioning his future in the game.

O’Connor was in touch with McKenna last month with some words of support. “I just sent him a message when all the hullabaloo was happening. It was just one sentence: ‘I hope your head’s okay’ and I said, ‘This will pass’, which fortunately it has. Obviously, he came back with the negative tests. I was just worried for his mental health and I didn’t want to be blowing up his phone even more.

“I guess the culture of the media out here is a bit more ruthless. In the football industry you’ve a lot of ex-players who tend to be just scathing and ruthless. A lot of it is trying to make headlines, which is kind of what happened to Conor unfortunately. Everyone was giving their opinion without having facts.

“When you’re just assuming things and giving your opinion in big news outlets it can be quite dangerous for a person. The things that were being said, being plucked out of thin air which weren’t even true. It’s dangerous, that’s what it is.”

The episode hasn’t soured O’Connor’s attitude towards the press although he’s not naive enough to appreciate he too could be in the crosshairs in the future. “I’m pretty careful anyway but at the same time my time could come too. It’s about having that understanding that it will pass.

“Like, Conor was under the spotlight a couple of weeks ago and there have been a few more players who have broken restrictions and they’re under scrutiny now and in the hot seat and it seems like their world is coming down on them even though next week it will be somebody else. It’s just the nature of the beast. It’s obviously very hard when you’re in the middle of it but you have to realise it will pass. If it does happen to me, I just have to keep that in my head.”

Made a member of Geelong’s seven-man leadership team in March and joining the likes of Tuohy was a major endorsement of O’Connor’s rise having made his debut in 2017. That followed a new contract last year, which sees him signed up until the end of 2022.

“It’s been a learning curve ever since but it is great to be recognised by the players and the staff who are involved in the selecting of the leadership group,” he says of the vote. “It gave me confidence that I was on the right path, doing the right things by the club and by my team-mates.

“In terms of longevity and things like that, I do see myself out here for a while certainly from the sporting career side of it. But nothing is guaranteed and you just can’t look too far ahead.

“Zach, they probably stopped referring to him as a great Irish player out here and now refer to him as just a great Aussie Rules player, which is a testament to how far he has come. Stef Okunbur is out here with me, he’s doing phenomenally well and we’re following in Zach’s footsteps, seeing what he has had to do and endure over here. He’s probably like the older brother who has had to take all the flak from the parents in the early days and Stef and myself just benefit from him and his successes too.”

Although the winter in Geelong right now isn’t too pretty, O’Connor loves the Australian lifestyle and wonders about bringing back some of it when he returns to Ireland. “I’m a big coffee man, I love it. Maybe down the line, if there was something I could do it would be to bring back the Aussie coffee and cafe culture back to Ireland. They just take the coffee so seriously, their coffee to water ratio and all this craic. The baristas over here, they know what they’re talking about. It’s great, I love that.”

Geelong’s form has been patchy but then so many of the Premiership contenders have been out of sorts since the season resumed last month. Although he was relieved a late error didn’t prove too costly against Melbourne the weekend before last, O’Connor has been progressing with each game. Just don’t mention stats to him.

“It’s probably the Irishman in me, I don’t look too much at the stats. I don’t see it as part of my role to get my hands on the ball heaps. The journalists over here love looking at the stats to verify a point they’re making or if someone has a certain amount of ball it automatically means they had a great game but it’s just not the case. I actually laugh every time I see somebody highlight ‘oh, such and such had 30 disposals’, all that kind of craic. It just doesn’t register with me as much.”

What does is news from home and he was thrilled to see the Dingle GAA pitch and the town fully reopen last week. “It’s great that football is back. I have two older brothers (John and David) who were just dying to get a bit more focus outside of their computers and studies and football provides that, the game and the human relations that go with it. They’re just stoked to be back training away. Gaelic football is the heart of the community.”

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