By Niall Gartland
CONOR McKenna lives only a short spin away from the Athletic Grounds, so for the former AFL star says that Tyrone’s league clash against neighbours Armagh on Saturday evening is actually almost like a home game for himself personally.
McKenna lives in Benburb, nestled on the banks of the River Blackwater which splinters the two counties, and he actually spent his school years in attendance at St Patrick’s, Armagh (as did former All-Ireland winners Cormac McAnallen, Sean Cavanagh, Ryan Mellon, Colin Holmes and Philip Jordan).
He has fond memories of the school – McKenna won an Ulster Colleges All-Star back for his MacRory Cup performances, and he returned to St Pat’s in 2016 to deliver an AFL coaching session to PE students – so he can’t wait to renew acquaintances with a few of his old friends on Saturday evening.
He said: “It’s been a long time since I played in the Athletic Grounds, it was back in my MacRory days, so I’m looking forward to getting back there.
“It’s a great pitch and I know a lot of their side having played with some of them and against some of them in my younger days.
“I loved my time at St Pat’s, Armagh, I made a lot of good friends but all that will be put to one side come Saturday evening.
“Armagh is like a home game for me as it is only 15 minutes from my house compared to 40 minutes to Omagh.”
The margins between advancing to a Division One semi-final or ending up mired in a relegation play-off are wafer-thin. Victory for Armagh should be enough to secure their place in the last four, while Tyrone are bidding for an absolutely crucial league win after losing to Donegal on Saturday evening.
McKenna said: “They will have their tails up after they got their campaign off to a great start with a win over Monaghan, and they know that if they were to win again they would be in the play-offs for a place in the league final, so they’ll be giving everything that they have.
“It’s a massive game for both sides and will have a huge bearing on what end of the table you finish at.”
Reflecting on the events of last weekend, he said the sending off of Michael O’Neill and a few unforced errors were contributing factors in their 0-18 to 0-16 defeat to Donegal.
“It was obviously disappointing not to get the win. We really wanted to make home advantage count but just came up short but it’s something to work on. At the end of the day it was just great to be back playing football as it was our first game in a long while.
“It wasn’t the result we were looking but it’s gone now and we have to refocus and look forward to Armagh this weekend.
“It was a more open than a normal Tyrone versus Donegal game with 34 scores. I felt that we played well in the first half against the breeze to leave ourselves in a decent position at the break.”
He continued: “The sending off was obviously a big blow to us and it allowed them to get the momentum and we were always chasing the game after that. We had a few skill errors and things like that but we have to take that on the chin and aim to bounce back this Saturday.”
McKenna also admits he’s looking forward to playing someone other than Donegal (three of the four matches he’s played since retiring from the AFL last season have been against Declan Bonner’s side).
“No matter how much training you do you can’t replicate that game intensity and the speed of a competitive game which can easily catch you out.
“That was only my fourth game of Gaelic in five or six years and three of those have been against Donegal so it will be good to play somebody different and get another game under my belt.”