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VIDEO: The Swan that came home

Tadhg Kennelly told David Hennessy about being the first man to win both an AFL Premiership and an All-Ireland and gives his thoughts on topics such as GAA losing prospects to AFL and the uncertain future of the international rules.

When you count an All-Ireland and an AFL Premiership among your achievements, you have had a unique sporting career. Tadhg Kennelly is the only man to win the big prize in both Gaelic football and the professional game of Aussie Rules. After going to Australia in 1999, Tadhg established himself in the Sydney Swans team and played his part in their 2005 Premiership victory, as well as in two finals when the team were losing finalists.

However, he would not hang up the boots before winning the All-Ireland he had dreamed of winning since he was a child. This also meant a great deal to him personally because it was something he wanted to do for himself after his father Tim, a Kerry football legend, passed away.

The Irish World caught up with Tadhg during the last AFL season when he was coaching with Sydney Swans.

“It’s briliant. It’s just like home,” he says of the Sydney club.

“I’m very much entrenched in this football club from my history of nearly 20 years now. ’99 I came here as a young gasún, 18 years of age, plenty of hair and I was very green. The club means the world to me, gave me an opportunity and very much helped to build me into the man I am. I was an 18 year old boy really when I came out here.”

Tadhg has been criticised in the media by his former Kerry team-mate Tomás Ó Sé for his part in taking top prospects away from GAA in his role then as AFL Talent Coordinator. On this topic, Tadhg says: “I see both sides of the argument. I understand if I was a young man at home in Kerry and I’m watching Mark O’Connor go and play for Geelong, I wouldn’t be happy. It would be tough to watch because that’s what you bleed at home, you bleed Kerry football and you don’t want to see your best talent going.

“I also see the other side of the argument: He’s a young man getting an opportunity to play professional football, getting to challenge himself in a game he knows nothing about and an opportunity to put it up against people in a game that you don’t know. I understand both sides of the argument. Which one’s right? Who knows?

“I’ve been able to live both of them, going back to play football at home and getting to play as a professional here with the Swans. It’s a tough one and I see both sides of the argument. I understand both sides of the argument but I also understand there’s been close to 70 Irish players that have come out here. There’s only three of us who have played over 150 games of AFL football, the majority go back. That’s the first thing I say to players or anyone who talks to me about coming out here. It’s f**king hard and it’s a hard thing to do because you’re playing a game you knew nothing about, you haven’t been able to grow up with it, you don’t understand it and it’s tough. The majority of players go back and they go back better Gaelic footballers because they have lived in an environment of being a professional for a couple of years.”

It was in 1999 that he first came to Sydney to try his hand at Aussie Rules. He chatted to us to look back on his career that includes being the first Irishman to win a Premiership in 2005 before he returned home to Kerry to play a part in Kerry’s 2009 All-Ireland success. This was an emotional return for Tadhg who wanted to emulate his father Tim who won five All-Irelands with Kerry.

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Does this achievement mean more to him than his AFL Premiership due to the emotional nature of winning it for his late father? “They both mean the world to me really because they’re very, very different. I was 18 when I came out here and I took up the challenge. I really had my life set as an 18-year-old in Kerry.

“I was going to play senior football for Kerry and I was going to play football for Kerry for the rest of my manhood as such. Then I decided, ‘You know what? I’m up and gone. I’m going to try that professional game in Australia and try AFL’.”

Although he would have been a leader on any team he had played with previously, Tadhg was one of the weaker and inexperienced players once he got to Australia.

He was also met with much cynicism. Before Tadhg, Irishmen playing Aussie Rules was not such a well worn path although there had been the famous Jim Stynes who had gone on to win a famous Brownlow, the best and fairest in the league. Tadhg was known as ‘the Irish Experiment’ as this was how he was viewed.

“It was hard. It was very, very hard at 18 to leave for the other side of the world, learning a new game and trying to master it. Obviously then to go on and win the Premiership, it meant a lot to me. It was a real sense of self-satisfaction, the fact that I was able to put myself outside the box. I could have easily taken the easy choice and the comfortable choice and I decided not to. I was going to step outside the box, make a difficult decision at 18 and I was able to achieve the ultimate. I felt really proud of myself.”

2005 may have been the year Tadhg famously became the first Irishman to win an AFL Premiership but it would also be the year he lost his father. Tadhg struggled with the loss and felt a lot of resentment towards Australia and his glittering career for how it had taken him so far away from his family and the dream of playing for Kerry and winning an All-Ireland. He shocked the AFL world when he said he announced in 2009 he was leaving behind a lucrative contact, saying, ‘I want to win an All-Ireland with Kerry’.

“Then of course going back in 2009. Growing up as a Kerryman, you’re nothing in Kerry unless you’ve got an All-Ireland medal. My Dad had won plenty of them, my brother (Noel) has won a couple of them. I wasn’t going to let them have one without me. Of course losing my father in 2005 really sped up the process as far as wanting to go back and try and win an All-Ireland.

“It was a really emotional occasion. I was quite wound up the whole occasion of All-Ireland week. I spent a lot of nervous energy because I knew the occasion was that big. Really it was something I’d dreamt about since I was a child. People talk about this cliche all the time but I really watched Kerry football and that’s all I ever wanted to do as a young man. To be getting that opportunity at 28, 29, I thought I would have done it a lot earlier. I was thinking, Oh God, I’m not sure I’m going to get that many more of these opportunities’. All that build up and the emotion was a huge, huge moment for me and I was glad I was able to achieve it.

“It was the worst financial decision of my life really, going back. My wife at the time was thinking, ‘What are you doing? Going back and having to get a job, leaving behind a lot of money, a full-time professional contact’.

“But it was somethign that I had to do, I wanted to do and I knew that if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t have been happy in my life and I’m glad I went back and actually tried to do it. It would have been interesting if we didn’t win it, what I would have done. Would I have stayed in Kerry? I’d probably still be in Kerry, I’d say if I didn’t actually win it. I doubt I would have come back. At that age, 28/29, I probably would have been too old to come back having spent two years out of AFL. I came back and played two more years. If I hadn’t won the All-Ireland, I probably would have stayed in Kerry I’d say.”

Paul Galvin, who Tadhg developed a great understanding with in their time playing together, has written in his autobiography about feeling a pressure to win it for Tadhg because of what it meant to him and the sacrifices he had made. Was Tadhg conscious of this? “I wasn’t conscious of it. Then I read the book myself. Paul and myself were room-mates and very close. Obviously we live right beside each other back home in Kerry. We’re good friends.
“I was happy for Paul that year. He had a great year and won Player of the Year. I think we bounced off each other an awful lot in a lot of things. We think similar, myself and Paul. We play similar.

“I didn’t realise at the time. When I read it, I was like, ‘Wow’. I was in my bubble, trying to do my role for the team, play for the team and get things done.”

Tadhg at work on the training ground with Sydney Swans assistant coach Steve Johnson and Dean Cox. Tadhg was assistant coach at Swans when we spoke to him but was let go as a consequence of the Covid-19 outbreak. Pictures: Sydney Swans

There is now a record number of Irishmen who are now plying their trade with AFL clubs. Does Tadhg feel a sense of pride at inspiring them to take it on? “Definitely. I know myself when I was in that situation, I built up a great relationship with Jimmy Stynes and Sean Wight who were here previously.

“When someone of a similar background and culture as yourself is able to achieve, Jimmy obviously winning the Brownlow, it gives you a sense of, ‘I can actually do this’. Someone has done it from a similar background, similar game as myself and you get some confidence knowing people have been able to get through that.

“That’s what I’ve tried to do. It happens later in your career: 24, 25, 26. I started understanding what I was doing and the impact I was having trying to provide opportunities for young men from Ireland. There’s a lot coming over.

“It’s hard to do. It’s not easy but the more and more success we’re having as Irish players, the more clubs are going to go, ‘You know what? There’s a talent pool here that can play the game , that are able to do it and handle the transition, especially the transition’. But also football clubs are wealthier now and the welfare’s unbelievable as far as handling the transition for young men from Ireland to come over to Australia and play the game.”

With a record number of Irish lads in the AFL, it’s hard to write off another Irish winner of the big prize, isn’t it?

“That’s right. There’s two of them at Geelong at the moment and they’re top of the ladder in Zach (Tuohy) and Mark so I’m hoping my record stays on top, that the boys don’t get over the line. I’d love for Colin O’Riordan to win it, to be the next Irishman to do it. It means we’re winning the Premiership also.”
Colin O’Riordan from Tipperary has really established himself in the Swans team in the last few years featuring regularly in their 2019 campaign.

“It was always a difficult transition for Colin initially. He spent a lot of time playing reserve football and understanding the game and how to play it. We really gave him the faith and confidence to go and play a block of senior football. He’s played ten games now and played them all on the run and played some really good football and looking strong and comfortable at the level and that’s something you want from your young players. He looks like a player who has been playing for ten years, Colin. The boys love playing with him because he gives his all and his leadership is second to none for a young man who hasn’t grown up with the game.”

Accepting his AFL medal in 2005, Tadhg did an Irish jig on the podium which was his nod to all those watching at home. Did he see Ailish Considine emulate his jig on the podium when she became the first Irish woman to win an AFLW Premiership in 2019? “I did, of course. Of course you do. Again it’s people from your own background and culture. You only want to support and help. It’s great to see. Hopefully we see many more Irish jigs and a couple in September would be nice on the podium.”

Tadhg represented Ireland six times in the International Rules series that has seen its future the source of some uncertainty in recent years. Would he like to see fans get more excited about it on both sides: “Yeah, it’s difficult and I understand it is hard. The demands on both codes as far as the GAA and AFL are concerned. There’s a lot going on, a lot on their plate. It’s hard to get momentum up. Because there’s a year, two years between games, it’s hard to get momentum going.

“I’m a huge fan of it. It’s an opportunity for you to represent your country which both codes don’t get. You talk to any player who has played it, they absolutley love the experience and love playing for their country. I hope it does continue.”

Asked if he misses being involved in matches, Tadhg says: “Sometimes. There’s odd occasions like Anzac Day is a pretty special occasion for the country. There’s some big games like playing Collingwood on a Friday night at the SCG. There’s a small bit you go, ‘I’d love to be playing’. But my body’s well and truly shot. I enjoyed my time. It feels like a long time ago now, almost a lifetime ago since I played. Not much really.”

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