This Irish Don is good: Conor McKenna impressing in career-best season for Essendon
Brayden May, FOX SPORTS
August 3, 2017 2:38pm
PEOPLE may not understand him when he speaks.
But Irishman Conor McKenna has let his football do the talking this season as he continues to impress in a foreign game.
Now with 28 AFL matches to his name, the 21-year-old is set for a bright future in the Essendon defence, according to Essendon development coach Dan Jordan
“He’s got an insatiable work ethic and I reckon he would be out there 24-7 with a footy in his hand if he could — that’s testament to his drive in AFL ranks and playing the footy he is at the moment,” Jordan told foxfooty.com.au.
“In the last two years, he’s done the most work out of anyone that has been in our development group — he works really hard on his game which a lot of people don’t know about him.
“But he has worked hard even to the point where we have had to pull him back at times — he was just doing a little bit too much work or putting himself at risk of injury.”
Throughout his 14 games in 2017, McKenna has averaged 16.7 disposals, 3.1 rebound 50s and 339.4 metres gained.
It is McKenna’s sponge-like qualities that have seen him develop at a rate that has impressed coaches and fans alike in his third year using an oval ball.
“He has been really open to new ideas and he’ll embrace any challenge,” Jordan said.
“It might have surprised a few outsiders where he has got his game to, but internally they were the traits we thought Conor could bring to AFL level.”
Just like cult hero Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, McKenna may not have become a regular fixture in the Essendon line-up this season if he had not spent more time at the top level in 2016.
Ten current teammates were sidelined due to suspension last year — one of whom was McKenna’s first Australian housemate Jobe Watson — opening the door for the boy from County Tyrone to win a spot in the senior team.
Essendon’s loss to Sydney was arguably McKenna’s most impressive game this season, as he produced a big second half to help the Bombers work their way into the contest in tight SCG confines. He continued his solid form a few weeks later against St Kilda, playing a pivotal role and booting a goal that demonstrated great awareness and fleet-of-foot.
And to Jordan, these efforts are just a snapshot of the tireless work ethic shown by the out of contract defender.
“It hasn’t surprised me — I’ve coached him at VFL level for the last two years so I’ve seen what he has been able to bring to the table at that level,” he explained.
“It’s probably been more about getting his opportunity and getting a bit of continuity at AFL level so that he starts to feel comfortable and can play his natural game at the level.”
While many Essendon fans have become accustomed to his dash from defence throughout 2017, Jordan has been most impressed with McKenna’s development without the ball.
“I guess what a lot of people haven’t seen is how hard he works defensively on his game. People are always seeing the run and carry or a dash with a couple of bounces off the half-back line, but defensively he has become a really good small defender,” he said.
“And I’m sure the guys that have played on him will say they’ve been a little bit surprised by how hard he does defend and how hard he is in the contest.
“That defensive craft has been an area where he has worked very hard and it’s really hard to teach — it’s a credit to him that he has been able to evolve his game in that respect.”
Having shown an ability to make an impact at the top level, McKenna looms as a star on the rise at Essendon — and a player who will make a name for himself, according to his development coach.
“I think because of the way that defences are played and set up, to be able to transition that ball with speed particularly on turnovers is becoming a crucial area of AFL football,” Jordan said.
“Conor fits that mould and he’s a player that can turn from defence into attack — and there’s an element of excitement that comes with that, so it probably means he is going to endear himself to some fans.
“Conor McKenna wants to play like Conor McKenna. I think he has a skill set where he will make his own name.”