“You’ve changed, man.” It says a lot that the style of the phrase surprises Michael Quinn a lot more than the actual meaning and his reaction is merely a smile and a knowing laugh. He’s well aware that he’s changed. More importantly, he’s glad that he’s changed.
You’ve just reminded him that a year ago, during an article with the Irish players beginning a new life in the AFL, you called him on his mobile in Melbourne and were slightly taken aback. Up to that point the conversations had been like a runaway sentence of hopes and dreams, excitement and potential, gathering pace with every glittering aspiration. Then there was the unlikely Essendon Bomber from the rural Midland parish of Killoe. He was the punctuation mark. The full stop. The exception to the rule that said this is what every athlete should want from life.
“Yeah, I’m more content and happy and I’m enjoying my football now,” he says. “It may sound obvious and a safe thing to say, but coming back to your own county at a time when we can see where we are heading, it’s exciting. I suppose it’s very hard for the likes of Longford.
“Other counties can produce a high level and keep producing but smaller counties, you’ve to maximise it when a good bunch comes along or it all passes you by. We are now in a good era and have to capitalise on it. That’s exciting in itself.”
He’s still finding his feet after leaving a torrent of emotions and statistics on the other side of the world but nowadays he’s bubbly and talkative. So much happened during his stint in Australia that it’s still hard to take in.
“Coming from Longford was an advantage,” he says, “because there was no expectation and nobody really noticed I was gone until I was actually playing.”
But there was no middle ground either and Quinn’s career went from silent to deafening before there was a chance to adjust.
During his first inter-club game he tried to tackle seasoned defensive-midfielder Andrew Welsh, didn’t have the strength to wrestle him to the ground and the awkwardness of his attempt caused a career-ending injury to his team-mate. “His knee was dislocated, broken, ligaments went, everything.”
Even though coaches told him it wasn’t his fault the then 18-year-old Quinn was afraid team-mates and fans would take a dislike to him. They didn’t though, and most people know the story from then onwards.
There was the quickest ever debut of an Irish player in the AFL, the likes of the late Jim Stynes calling him “phenomenal”, Quinn asking if the tide of media looking to speak to him in the club lobby the day after his first appearance was a joke, the six first-year appearances. But by year three, as the club went into transition and the coaching staff changed, he couldn’t get close to a game. No Irish player was given so much and had it taken away so quickly.
“I now know how ruthless the game is. If things don’t work out they don’t hold onto you and hope for the best. Because they aren’t Irish and don’t understand the culture, they can’t inform you and tell you how bad it can get. You do have to take it slow with a guy. You can’t give an Irish guy a two-year contract, do the same with an Aussie who has been playing since he was five and expect them to do the same. But it’s business and they don’t hang about.”
But in many ways it’s made Quinn and made him realise just how much he cares for home.
“A year ago I went and watched the Laois game in an Irish pub in Melbourne and you are watching the lads you grew up wanting to play alongside. I was there thinking, ‘I could do that’.
But when he finally made it back for this season a couple of things struck him. Away from football the economy was unavoidable although “it just shows how important football is in the weaker counties when you consider how things are worse there”. Yet something else caught his attention even more. How football had changed.
“The professionalism now, it’s scary. To imagine that it’s only amateur, there actually isn’t a huge difference between Australia and here. Although there are things we can learn and one thing I did pick up, in Australia in a dressing-room, they are very good communicators. They tell you in a good manner what you’ve done well and badly and how to improve. That stood out and it’s one area I’ll try and bring back to help Longford.”
But he’s helped them in so many other ways already. As a centre-back even his manager, a legend of the position, has admired his performances hugely while he has repeatedly switched to and dominated midfield when needed.
Not that it came quickly. It took a while to adjust on the field and off it, only in Ireland would we question a guy about adapting to Melbourne but presume the return is the easy part.
After all, according to Wikipedia, “the major attractions that Killoe has to offer its visitors, are large areas of bogland”. “I got used to the different cultures and there was always something going on and different food and life. Then rural Ireland, rural Longford, it’s the opposite. I’m still getting used to it.”
Just as he’s getting used to being the poster boy of his county. He’s the adventurer, the pioneer, the success story with none of the baggage from darker days. That seems to suit the team perfectly and makes you think it’s not just him that has changed.
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