ON THE LAST Saturday night of March, after Geelong had thoroughly dismantled Melbourne to make a strong early statement in the 2019 AFL season, Mark O’Connor was drawn to home.

The 22-year-old had lined out for the second week running, part of a side that had followed up an opening victory over Collingwood by routing their opponents. The 80-point winning margin accurately reflected the scale of their dominance and in their sporting corner of Australia they were flying high. 

But the tie to home had never snapped, the roots that took hold in West Kerry still providing a connection for O’Connor. He was performing at an elite level of Aussie Rules yet it was only four years since he had been joint captain of a Hogan Cup winning side for the second successive year in Croke Park.

The 2019 class of footballers from Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne were in action in Mallow at the last four stage and if Naas CBS would ultimately confirm their exit, their midfield graduate was determined to monitor their progress.

“I can’t really sleep after games over here so I said I’d wait up and watch Pobalscoil playing. I stayed up to watch it. I do keep in touch with Gaelic football, a lot of my best mates are obviously playing with Dingle and Kerry so we’d chat about that.”

Mark O’Connor (left) after PS Chorca Dhuibhne’s 2015 Hogan Cup final victory.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

He tracks events at home but his sporting life at present locks him down at the other side of the world.

And he is thriving.

Back in October 2016 he put pen to paper on a career with Geelong and by May 2017 he had made his debut in the big time of AFL. The road he has travelled in the two years since then has not been smooth. 

After making his bow, he had only made six further AFL appearances before the 2019 action commenced. What happened? Injuries. Form. A predictable fight for a young Gaelic footballer to grapple with the rules of an alien game. The usual stuff.

Now it has fallen neatly into place. Ten games into this year’s campaign and O’Connor has featured in each of Geelong’s outings. They are top of the AFL ladder, he’s toasted nine victories and there’s just been one blip for the team, a loss in a Round 4 fixture against GWS Giants.

“I was supposed to play in Round 1 last year but I actually twisted my ankle on the Friday before the game,” recalls O’Connor.

“I was back in for Round 2 but then got dropped for pretty much all the year. I thought I was playing some good footy but they were happy for me to just bide my time in the VFL and just keep building that confidence.

“Towards the end of the year I got back in the team and played in the finals which was a great experience. So coming into this pre-season I thought I could get into the first team and did think it was a realistic goal.”

He’s seized the opportunity and compiled a personal highlights reel.

A first AFL goal in that game against Melbourne.

O'Connor kicks the goal – the first of his career! 🙌#AFLCatsDees pic.twitter.com/qL51jelPeg

— AFL (@AFL) March 30, 2019

A piece of sparkling defensive play against West Coast Eagles, last year’s Grand Final winners, featuring a relieving kick with his weaker left leg.

“He does one or two things every week that take us by surprise to an extent,” was Geelong coach Chris Scott’s verdict afterwards.

Mark O'Connor turned heads with this defensive play against the reigning premiers 👀#StandProud #WeAreGeelong pic.twitter.com/nlpEaj75JL

— Geelong Cats (@GeelongCats) April 30, 2019

“It was mainly just a confidence thing at the start. Coming over I didn’t have much experience so I didn’t want to leave my team-mates down and I was probably thinking about things too much.

“With the help of people around me, we just managed to change my perspective on it and just go out and play and enjoy myself. I think I’m really reaping the rewards.”

It all paints a promising picture after a challenging off season. That lure of West Kerry has always been there and when he got back home for a spell last autumn, revisiting his sporting upbringing felt natural.

In late September he was a curveball in Tralee, thrown into the fray in a Kerry county senior quarter-final. He was detailed to sweep in front of towering presence of Kieran Donaghy and the ploy paid off with Dingle accounting for Austin Stacks by three goals.

“When they said there was a chance I’d be on Kieran Donaghy, it was just a good opportunity,” says O’Connor.

“I remember when I was probably 17, I was asked to mark him, I think it was in the county championship. I was full-back and he just gave me the run around. He made a fool of me that day really!

“I seriously enjoyed playing with Dingle. Nobody pressured me at all into playing. It was just something that I really wanted to do. I couldn’t say no to it.”

The joy of that success was tempered when news filtered back to Geelong and his involvement drew some heat. His Australian employers declared they couldn’t sanction him playing for Dingle any more.

“When the club did get in touch that I shouldn’t have played and I couldn’t play going forward, that was the most difficult part. I was being pulled in two directions as to whether I’d play and most likely rip up my contract or not play and go back to Geelong for another pre-season.

“I decided with the help of people around me, I zoomed out of the position that I was in at that time and made a decision for the long term rather than a few games that I’d be able to play. I came to realise there are far more important things. You can’t serve two masters.”

Mark O’Connor in action for Geelong against Western Bulldogs recently.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Still watching on was a conflicting experience. Dingle last lifted the Bishop Moynihan Cup in 1948. Their community has yearned for another title. O’Connor was part of a group of precocious Dingle players that shone at underage level.

“My knees were very restrictive when I was 17 or 18 before actually coming out to Australia. To go home in the best shape of my life, having no knee complaints, being a lot stronger, a lot fitter, a lot faster, I could finally go 100% in a Gaelic football game I felt.

“Not only that but I stepped right back in to the tribal atmosphere I felt of a club team. I also felt like I wanted to give something back to Dingle for all they’ve done for me. I care a lot about my team-mates and management. There was just too many factors that lead to me playing.”

He stood on the sideline for the two-game semi-final saga with East Kerry last October and the final loss to Dr Crokes, ferrying water into colleagues on the pitch.

“You just feel so powerless. You can’t impact and you can’t influence like you really want to. It was pretty tough.

“The management there, they never put pressure on me to play and the club as a whole, that’s what they’re about. And that’s why I felt the urge to play so strongly because they are so special. They were fantastic.”

He took the broader view and returned to Geelong, targeting a new season as a chance to make an impact. Portlaoise’s Zach Tuohy has always been a sounding board at the club and Stefan Okunbor’s arrival swelled the Kerry ranks at Geelong.

“Just having Zach over here, having reached the 150 game milestone last year is inspirational in itself. But on top of that, he’s a very good fella. Very generous guy with his time.

Zach Tuohy in action for Geelong against North Melbourne.

Source: AAP/PA Images

“Stefan is travelling really well. I was kind of sad for Kerry that he was leaving but I was delighted to see him come over. He was actually the year below me in Kerry but we didn’t have much to do with each other up until this year.” 

Stefan Okunbor with the man-of-the-match award after last year’s Munster U20 football championship final.

Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As he has progressed in recent weeks and months, there’s been familiar faces to observe his development. His eldest brother John lives an hour away in Melbourne, his mother and another brother David flew out for a holiday in late March.

“It was great to show them around. They hadn’t actually seen me play an AFL game before so that was an experience in itself. They went to a couple of wineries and they went around Melbourne. We took them down the coast, down the Great Ocean Road. They squeezed a lot into their two weeks. 

“John then has gone to most games, he goes to the ones in Melbourne and Geelong. The away games are more difficult when we’ve to fly to Adelaide or Perth or Sydney. He’s really got into it, there’s a good group in Melbourne, a few people from Dingle that have moved out in the past year. That’s great, it’s just like a little taste of home.”

With the league over and championship looming, they will keep a studious eye on the fortunes of Kerry. O’Connor was a pivotal member of all-conquering Kingdom minor teams, the products of which are rolling onto the senior stage now.

He captained them to their triumph in 2015. From that side Sean O’Shea, Gavin White and Jason Foley stepped up last year. Graham O’Sullivan has joined them this spring. Tom O’Sullivan is a close friend from Dingle, Briain Ó Beaglaoich was a constant presence in schools teams with new Kerry selector Tommy Griffin guiding them along there.

“It’s very exciting for Kerry people. They’ve probably had to be very patient in waiting for these fellas to come through. But it seems they’re really blossoming at the minute, especially Tom (O’Sullivan) and Sean O’Shea, they seem to be lifting. I’m very excited to watch how it goes over the summer and keep an eye on it.”

Mark O’Connor lifts the trophy after Kerry’s 2015 All-Ireland minor final triumph.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The temptation to consider what could have been is obvious but not really productive.

“It’s a bit easier when I’m taken out of it, when I’m over here playing AFL. But when I go home there certainly is that sense of ‘what if?’.

“I really envy the likes of Sarah Rowe who comes over and she plays for the AFLW season and she can go home and play with Mayo. That’s just fantastic, it’s the best of both worlds. But that’s not just doable unfortunately. I do envy that a bit. I made my choice and I try not to let the what ifs creep in.

“I knew when I was coming over that being in a professional environment, you’d learn so much about your own body from a sports science point of view, from a nutritional point of view, from a lifestyle point of view.

“There’s a lot to learn and take in. I’m still really enjoying it. I don’t look too far ahead as things can change and circumstances can change. I don’t think it’d be wise to look too far into the future.”

On Saturday evening Kerry set out against Clare in the start of this summer’s journey.

That morning O’Connor and his Geelong team-mates go up against Sydney Swans, who will have Colin O’Riordan in their line-up.

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Still linked to home but plotting his own sporting path now.

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