It won't be long now before Mark O’Connor swaps Dingle for Geelong again.
A daunting second pre-season gruel awaits when he returns next week but his nest is as feathered in the South Victorian city. His digs are just 200 metres away from the club. Most amenities are within five minutes. He couldn’t have things much better.
But there is home. Always home. Inviting his team-mate Scott Selwood, brother of captain Joel who lines out against Ireland these next couple of weekends, to Dingle last month, he was able to see the beauty of his county and country through his friend’s eyes.
As well as being served a pint of Guinness in O’Flaherty's, Selwood was fed a potted history of Kerry football.
His Australian pal’s interest in the allure of football in Kerry only reinforced it O’Connor’s grá for it.
He will be back, he intends to play senior for Kerry. But when is the question.
“The whole Kerry thing, I want to play for Kerry down the line. That essentially was my dream when I was a young lad but this came up and I thought it was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. Whenever it is, I want to come back and play for my club and hopefully my county if they want me.”
It wasn’t that O’Connor felt Tomás Ó Sé was questioning his love for Kerry when the former star launched a tirade against the growing numbers of young footballers being attracted to the AFL when he responded strongly to his newspaper column earlier this year.
O’Connor simply want to point out that what Tadhg Kennelly was doing in facilitating the transfers wasn’t a crime.
“Tadhg was getting a bit of abuse when it wasn’t really necessary. Giving fellas opportunities, you can’t really begrudge a man for doing that but I think that’s what was happening. I can see the point that Tomás was making but it’s just the way he kind of made it.
“I totally agree with what Tadhg has done and now he’s a coach with the Swans. I’m not sure what his role will be now but all he was trying to do was give young fellas new experiences. Maybe I thought it was a bit unfair and I let him (Ó Sé) know what I felt about it.
"I’ve nothing against Tomás – he had his Kerry hat on when he was writing it and you can understand that as well.”
Kennelly has regularly highlighted the failure rate of Irish players attempting to make it in the AFL. O’Connor is loath to be another statistic but then if it doesn’t work out he feels his club and perhaps his county too will benefit from him having given Geelong his all.
“The way I looked at it was even if I come back from Australia I’ll be stronger, I’ll be fitter, I’ll be faster, I’ll get a bit of an education while I’m there. I just thought I would be the better for it overall, that even if I did come back to Dingle and Kerry I would be a better player and athlete. I didn’t really see it as a loss but as an opportunity to improve myself and that’s why I went.”
When he returns, he will do so a more rounded individual too. “Even the independence side of it and moving away from home, you don’t have the comforts that you would have here. The whole experience of a new culture and new people. I didn’t know anybody over here and I had to meet new people and I was outside my comfort zone. I’m hoping to get a diploma in the next few months and I’ll be able to bring that home whenever I come back.”
Geelong is a hard place to leave, though. “It’s a good lifestyle, it’s nice and relaxed and it’s the culture of the club that really appeals to me. It was eye-opening from day one. I met Joel Selwood on the first day and he was just an absolute gentleman, the captain of the club. I had an image of professional players being stuck up or something and I was totally wrong.”
That culture played a part in him overachieving last season – he had intended in breaking into the first team but by season’s end, not as early as round eight. “It was the goal I wrote down but I knew there was a very slim chance that it would happen. I didn’t expect it to happen so early. I planned to work my way through the VFL system and by the end of the season earn a spot in the first team so to get it in round eight was a shock. The injury then came at a bad time, a week after my second game and I was out for seven weeks.”
In between spending time with his family these last few weeks, he’s continued to keep in shape with pre-season in mind. After the International Rules, his more established team-mate and fellow Irishman Zach Tuohy will join him in those preparations.
“The fact that Zach is established over here kind of gives you the hope that maybe you could do the same thing. That’s probably the main thing about having him around the place. He was very unlucky not to get an All-Australian this year and he’s good craic. He still has the Laois humour.” O
O’Connor and Tuohy’s head coach Chris Scott leads Australia into battle against Ireland in Adelaide this Sunday and Perth the following Saturday and the former knows the hosts are formidable in a game he wants to play in the future. “They’ll be strong enough. Dusty Martin is the current Brownlow medallist (footballer of the year) but they still have players like Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield who are superstars. I’d love to play the (International) Rules down the line at some stage. This time around it’s about spending time with my family. I probably wouldn’t have played anyway but down the line definitely.”
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