Fifteen years have passed since a skinny and scared Irishman sat alone in the cafe at the Sydney Football stadium waiting for his first professional Australian rules training session to start.
Today, Tadgh Kennelly has little in common with that timid youth. Although he is retired from the Sydney Swans, he retains a muscular frame and beams widely when he reflects on a career that boomeranged from Ireland to Australia and back again.
“I remember sitting here in this cafe, I didn’t have a clue what was in store. Fifteen years ago, god, I was so scared. I felt this huge pressure on my shoulders, I couldn’t fathom failure. I was representing Kerry and Listowel coming to Australia, I felt I had to make it work no matter what.”
After finishing his career in Australia in 2011, Kennelly started working as an international ambassador for the AFL, searching for the best talent available globally. The numbers of international success stories in the AFL are relatively limited, but those that have enjoyed long and storied careers like Kennelly keep giving clubs the incentive to make huge financial outlays to source talent from Ireland in the hope that their numbers will come up.
Kennelly is a member of an exclusive club in Australia, he has a Premiership winners medal in his cabinet, giving him special status, even in a rugby league crazed town like Sydney. He nods politely to people who recognise him in the cafe and smiles ruefully when he remembers how hard the journey to success was for him, and will continue to be for any young Irishman who arrives in Australia hoping to find success in the AFL.
“It was brutally hard at times. I cried myself to sleep many times. You come from a place where you’re treated like a god. In Kerry when you do well as a minor, that’s what defines you, your ability in Gaelic Football. Anytime in my life I had problems, I escaped to the football field and everything was fine. I found myself so far from home in Sydney unable to play this new game and everything that had defined and comforted me was gone.”
Kennelly arrived in Sydney in 1999. It was a different era where the distance from home was felt more palpably. He wrote long letters to his family friends, and relied on a heavily worn pay phone card for precious calls home. In his desire to adapt to the Australian code, his knuckles were red raw and his body battered from hours of extra training. Gradual improvement at the football oval was still accompanied by loneliness every time he returned home to an empty flat after training.
Kennelly hasn’t forgotten how difficult his own arrival was and wants to give new Irish imports a better launch pad than he had. Athletic skill isn’t the defining factor whether Irish youngsters make a long career in the AFL, life outside of the oval is even more important he believes. “Irish people are very loyal to their homeland, and we are quite emotional people, those are good things that won’t change. I just thought, there are things that we need to put in place. Simple, basic things that can help. The talent is there in Ireland to make it over here, we are blessed with amazing touch on our feet, but that counts for nothing if we don’t make sure they have the right support networks in place to give them every chance of succeeding.”
Outside of Kennelly, Sean Wight and Jim Stynes, the long term success stories of Irishmen in the AFL are relatively limited. Kennelly can’t exactly put his finger on why so few Irishmen have a lengthy career in the AFL, but he wants to give the ones that try more than a fighting chance. He puts in place regular flights for family members to visit and introduces new arrivals into an Irish network that is willing and able to support them. “It’s quite simple, but sometimes it’s neglected, if you have a guy who is happy off the field, I promise you his football will be better. We do lots of things, whether it’s getting them Irish food, like Barry’s tea or just getting them involved in a social network. Player welfare was something that wasn’t really thought of hugely when I started, but it’s something we needed to address specifically with young Irish players coming over here if we want them to stay and thrive.”
Currently, Kennelly speaks highly of two young Irish recruits Padraig Lucey for the Geelong Cats and Paddy Brophy who has joined the West Coast Eagles. Both young men have shown huge promise and have arrived into a sport where their Irish counterparts are ready and willing to help them in anyway they can off the field. Kennelly used to ring Jim Stynes for contract advise regularly and is fully willing to act as an unofficial mentor to any Irish footballer who makes a sporting commitment to the sunburnt country.
Before Kennelly, the process of attaining talented young gaelic players for the AFL was conducted through a myriad of speculative training camps conducted by agents, some scrupulous, some not. Kennelly put in place official recruitment combines endorsed by the AFL where the GAA is informed exactly when and where they are taking place. The cloak and dagger camps of agents in rural sports halls have passed. Kennelly’s European combine at DCU in December took place in full view. However, after returning to Ireland to the GAA in 2009 to win an All-Ireland does Kennelly have any guilt about taking players away from their counties and their boyhood dreams?
“All I want to do is give these young players options. I don’t want to be seen as the big bad wolf taking these players away from their counties and the GAA. The first thing I say to young players at a combine is you have a very slim chance of making it in the AFL, the better option is probably to stay in Ireland, play for your county and live a very happy and fulfilled life. However, there will be those kids who stick their fingers up at me and say no, I’m going to make it, this is what I want. They will be in a minority, and those are the guys you want.”
Kennelly lives in the beachside Sydney suburb of Coogee with his Australian wife and on the surface lives an idyllic existence. He has been in Sydney for a large part of his adult life and his accent bears testament to this, with infrequent, but noticeable Australian inflections on his Kerry brogue. Despite the blue skies and sunshine, he says the greatest shock to Irish arrivals is the hardness of the nation’s character, specifically in sport.
“People get this idea of Australia, probably from social media, that it’s a great life on the beach and the sun, which it is, but it’s also a very hard place at times, especially in sport. It is a nation of winners. When you play professional sport here, it’s ruthless. You are marking a guy who is playing for his livelihood, he will think nothing of breaking you in half to win a game. He has everything on the line as do you. In Ireland, we’re self depreciating and affable, whereas here, it’s just a lot more serious than that. Sydney demands a winning culture in all of their sports and you have to be ready to sacrifice everything.”
Kennelly kindly insists on walking me back to the taxi rank, he is on his way to witness an Irish friend being made an Australian citizen. A ceremony that becomes a common fixture in the social calendar for the longterm Irish emigrant. A reminder of the life in Ireland that he left, and the opportunity that he grasped in Australia. He hopes he won’t be an isolated sporting success story in Sydney from Ireland for much longer.