Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

Talk of mak­ing life more dif­fi­cult for Aus­tralian clubs to sign Ir­ish play­ers misses the point en­tirely. The Aussies would move on and look else­where. The peo­ple we’d be hurt­ing would be our own.

IN 1951, Ea­mon de Valera gave a speech in which he claimed 50 Ir­ish work­ers were liv­ing in one house in Birm­ing­ham, 15 to a room, and men and women on shift work slept in the same bed by turns. The Ir­ish Di­gest news­pa­per ran re­ports head­lined, ‘Ir­ish girls found liv­ing with coloured men and Poles’ and ‘Ir­ish boys liv­ing in il­licit as­so­ci­a­tion with their land­ladies and di­vorced women’. Priests warned that Ir­ish em­i­grants were go­ing to dance halls which were “the haunt of spivs and bar­row boys”.

1950s Ire­land didn’t have much to of­fer, but those in a po­si­tion of power liked mak­ing those who left feel as though they’d com­mit­ted a form of treach­ery. In re­al­ity, as Clair Wills wrote in her mag­nif­i­cent his­tory of post-war im­mi­gra­tion to Bri­tain, Lovers and Strangers, “The Ir­ish weaved their way through with ev­ery­day sense and tact”.

The cur­rent hys­te­ria about young Gaelic foot­ballers be­ing lost to Aus­tralian rules foot­ball brings those grim warn­ings from the past to mind. Once more Ir­ish peo­ple sim­ply try­ing to bet­ter their lot are be­ing made to feel as though leav­ing the coun­try is an im­moral act. Yet like ‘50s Ire­land, the GAA can’t of­fer a liv­ing to the young men in­volved. The AFL, be­ing a pro­fes­sional league, can.

Among those de­part­ing is Sligo’s Red Óg Mur­phy who’s signed a two-year con­tract with North Mel­bourne. I’ve been keep­ing an eye on young Mur­phy for a while and he is un­doubt­edly a prodi­gious tal­ent. Last year, the Curry man hit 11 points, four from play, against Derry in the All-Ire­land mi­nor quar­ter-fi­nal. The year be­fore he scored 3-10 when St Attracta’s Tub­ber­curry won the Con­nacht Ju­nior League fi­nal against St Jar­lath’s Tuam.

I’d been look­ing for­ward to see­ing how this won­derkid would go at se­nior level. But now I’m look­ing for­ward to see­ing if he can make it in the AFL. Should he or any of the other 13 Ir­ish play­ers cur­rently in the league em­u­late Jim Stynes and Tadhg Ken­nelly, it would be a mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ment. We’re talk­ing, af­ter all, about the game whose grand fi­nal this year at­tracted over 100,000 spec­ta­tors.

Mur­phy and lads like him would be mad not to jump at the chance of go­ing to Aus­tralia. For starters, it gives them the chance of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional sports­man and earn­ing money do­ing the thing they love most. I don’t know any­thing about the ed­u­ca­tional prospects of the cur­rent wave of Aussie re­cruits but I do know that there are plenty of GAA stars whose ca­reer op­tions were ad­versely af­fected by the way they’d fo­cused on foot­ball from a young age. Some top play­ers are pro­fes­sion­als in all but re­mu­ner­a­tion. Why not get the proper re­ward?

But a move Down Un­der isn’t all about money. It also rep­re­sents a huge per­sonal chal­lenge, some­thing ir­re­sistible to the kind of driven and gifted young­sters who show up on the radar of the AFL scouts. Why not find out ex­actly what you’re made of by tak­ing on the tough­est task pos­si­ble? Adding to the at­trac­tion is the fact that Aus­tralia seems to pos­sess the same mys­tique for young­sters now as Eng­land did for their pre­de­ces­sors in the ‘50s and Amer­ica did for my gen­er­a­tion in the 1980s.

The eco­nomic push fac­tor has al­ways been ac­com­pa­nied by the pull fac­tor rep­re­sented by the op­por­tu­nity to live a dif­fer­ent kind of life in a new place.

will al­ways seem that bit more glam­orous than Fair City. The beach al­ways trumps the rain.

This de­par­ture of a rel­a­tive hand­ful of play­ers has prompted some lu­di­crous apoc­a­lyp­tic rhetoric. I’ve seen it sug­gested, for ex­am­ple, that Mark O’Con­nor’s move to Gee­long cost Din­gle vic­tory in last Sun­day’s Kerry county fi­nal against Dr Crokes. Se­ri­ously? Crokes won by six points. O’Con­nor is a very good player but his rep­u­ta­tion will grow in­or­di­nately ev­ery year the King­dom fail to over­throw Dublin. If the Dubs make it seven in a row, he’ ll be­come Jack O’Shea and Mick O’Con­nell rolled into one. That’s al­ways pre­sum­ing O’Con­nor isn’t back home by then.

The prophets of doom seem to for­get that the ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish play­ers don’t make it in Aus­tralia. Only around half of those who’ve trav­elled over have even played a first-team game. Of the 21 who achieved that feat, less than half en­joyed a suc­cess­ful AFL ca­reer. Stynes and Ken­nelly top the list, while Zach Tuohy, Pearce Han­ley, Seán Wight, Se­tanta Ó hAilpín and Martin Clarke can all be con­sid­ered to have made it in Aus­tralia. Ty­rone’s Conor McKenna, who signed a new four-year con­tract with Essendon last year, looks well placed to join their ranks.

Some ex­cep­tional tal­ents have found the AFL a step too far. Paul Ear­ley, Brian Stynes, Der­mot McNi­choll, Tommy Walsh, An­thony To­hill, Chrissy McKaigue, Colm Be­g­ley, John Hes­lin, Bren­dan Mur­phy and Michael Quinn among them. That’s a re­flec­tion on the im­mense dif­fi­culty of the task in­volved rather than on the abil­ity of the play­ers. The chances of an enor­mous and last­ing ex­o­dus of the GAA’s best young tal­ent are slim be­cause the com­pe­ti­tion is just too tough.

For all the su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the games, Aus­tralian rules is a very dif­fer­ent game from Gaelic foot­ball. The Ir­ish player tak­ing it up at 19 or 20 is try­ing to win a pro con­tract ahead of guys who’ve been ded­i­cated to their na­tive game since they were kids and who are bound to have an in­stinc­tive un­der­stand­ing of the game which he lacks. For all Red Óg Mur­phy’s tal­ent, the com­ments of North Mel­bourne gen­eral man­ager Cameron Joyce were tellingly cau­tious: “We feel that he has the right foun­da­tions to en­able him to have a real crack at play­ing in the AFL and we will give him ev­ery chance.”

Yet there are still calls to make it more dif­fi­cult for the Aus­tralians to sign young Ir­ish­men. It’s been said we should threaten to call off the In­ter­na­tional Rules se­ries which would be a some­what hol­low threat as the se­ries has al­ways mat­tered more to the GAA than the AFL.

Tomás Ó Sé sug­gested last week that the Aus­tralian clubs should be made pay a fee. But apart from the fact that this would be un­en­force­able, it seems com­pletely un­eth­i­cal for the GAA to try and pre­vent a young man mak­ing a liv­ing the way he sees fit. Given the fail­ure rate among Ir­ish re­cruits, it’s un­likely AFL sides would fork out big money to se­cure an un­known quan­tity. Ir­ish play­ers are a big enough gam­ble as it is.

Ó Sé’s crit­i­cism of Tadhg Ken­nelly for act­ing as a scout also seems un­fair. Know­ing how well things worked out for him­self, Ken­nelly is merely giv­ing other young­sters a crack at the Aus­tralian dream. The pos­si­ble loss of Mark O’Con­nor is some­thing Kerry should be well able to ab­sorb as they ab­sorbed that of Ken­nelly, win­ning three All-Ire­land ti­tles in the eight years he spent with the Syd­ney Swans be­fore he re­turned in 2009 and helped them to an­other.

Red Óg Mur­phy will rep­re­sent a con­sid­er­ably big­ger loss to Sligo, yet his de­par­ture comes at a time when the GAA are pre­par­ing to con­sign smaller coun­ties to the base­ment of a two-tier cham­pi­onship. De­nied the chance to test him­self against the best his own game has to of­fer, why wouldn’t a tal­ented young­ster go to Aus­tralia in­stead?

Sev­en­teen years ago, Bernie Collins left Castle­haven for the Western Bull­dogs. Bernie was a big loss to Haven yet dur­ing the two years he spent in Aus­tralia I never heard any­one say, “I hope he fails be­cause then he can come back and play for us.” Peo­ple were thrilled he’d got the op­por­tu­nity and root­ing for him to make it out there. He al­most did. When Bernie came home, he won a county se­nior medal and played a valu­able role in the club.

So when their dis­ap­point­ment over los­ing Red Óg Mur­phy fades, I’m sure his friends and neigh­bours in Curry will be in­trigued by the prospect of see­ing one of their own suc­ceed on the other side of the globe. Imag­ine how ex­cit­ing it would be to see a Sligo man or a Kerry man or a Laois man or a Mayo man in the Grand Fi­nal. And imag­ine what a tribute it would be to the sport, the club and the county which pro­duced him.

Talk of mak­ing life more dif­fi­cult for Aus­tralian clubs to sign Ir­ish play­ers misses the point en­tirely. The Aussies would move on and look else­where. The peo­ple we’d be hurt­ing would be our own. Be­wail­ing the good for­tune of an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal per­cent­age of the GAA’s play­ers is an ex­tremely petty and parochial re­ac­tion.

It’s not Van Diemen’s Land they’re go­ing to.

The ma­jor­ity of Ir­ish play­ers don’t make it in Aus­tralia

Photo: Ryan Pierse

Jeremy McGovern of the West Coast Ea­gles marks dur­ing the 2018 AFL Grand Fi­nal against Colling­wood Mag­pies which was played in front of 100,022 spec­ta­tors.

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