1 October 2011, Melbourne Cricket Ground, AFL official lunch, Melbourne, Australia
First of all I would like to thank the AFL for inviting me here today to speak about my journey in football and what football has meant to me.
To the honourable Prime Minister Julia Gillard and other dignitaries – welcome, I hope you all have a great day and enjoy the game, to the PM I’m sure the doggies will survive without Big Bazza – the Swans did.
My football journey began the minute I could walk. I grew up in a small country town called Listowel, in Co-Kerry on the south-west of Ireland where there are about 1500 people.
My childhood was no different to many other children’s in that I idolised my father and whatever my father did I wanted to do. The only problem was my dad had won five All-Irelands with Kerry so I had a lot to live up to.
So from as young as I can remember I had a football in my hands, practising, training, playing, doing whatever I could to be just like my idol, my father. Many, many hours were spent with my brother kicking the footy against the house wall. Within a few years of playing underage football I started to make a name for myself and was on people’s radar as the son of the legendary Tim Kennelly.
Then out of the blue when I was 17-years-old a phone call came from the other side of the world and I was asked the question: Would I be interested in coming to Australia to play Aussie Rules with the Sydney Swans?
Our house at the time in Ireland was above my father’s pub and when the Swans recruitment officer Rick Barham would ring, more often than not, mum would be upstairs getting dinner ready for us and the barman would call up from the bottom of the stairs shouting:
‘The man from Australia who wants to take your kid away is on the phone’.
At that stage I had never been out of Ireland. I had never been away from home. I had never been on a plane. I had never watched a game of Aussie Rules. And I never had any right to say yes I will go, but I did.
To be honest I really had no idea what I was getting myself into but the sound of kicking a football around, getting paid for it, sitting on the beach and the sun, all sounded fantastic to me.
Here I was all the way from Kerry to Coogee and I had no idea about Aussie rules but by God was I in for an awakening. Pre-season training as a professional footballer – holy shit all I did for my first six months here was eat, sleep and train. I knew one way around Sydney and that was to training and back home.
The first few months were really tough. Not only was I 15,000kms away from my family and friends but I was being challenged physically and mentally. My determination to succeed grew stronger and stronger. I was on my own, and I was going to make it because one thing is for sure I was not going back home as a failure.
In my early days there were a lot of sleepless nights, and crying myself to sleep. Homesickness was a huge factor but what I was slowly beginning to learn was that AFL – just like the GAA back home – was and is more than just a game of football. Its all about family and supporting each other and I soon had my own family, the Sydney Swans.
As my career began to take off in the beautiful surroundings of Sydney there were still a lot of challenges I had to overcome. Yes I was in a country that spoke the same language as myself but have you guys ever sat back and listen to the Australian lingo? Especially inside a football club, it’s like being in the middle of Russia! I had no idea what was being said to me half the time so much so that during a game in my early days the then senior coach Rodney Eade ran out at quarter time and came straight up to me screaming:
I must have had a look of utter bemusement as I had absolutely no idea what he meant and went straight up to our assistant coach to find out my instructions.
I remember one pre-season training session when I had just arrived back from Ireland after my Christmas break where the weather was, well let’s just say mild. We were doing a 10km run and let’s just say the weather in Sydney was a wee bit warmer than a mild Irish Christmas. I started to feel light headed and before I knew it I had passed out and I was in the back of an ambulance. I started to come around and our captain at the time Paul Kelly was with me in the back of the ambulance. One of the paramedics asked me my name and I said Tadhg and he said spell it, so I did and as I spelled it out he looked at Kell and said “this kid is off his head get him to hospital quick – what kind of name is that?!”
Once I got my head around the cultural differences, the homesickness, the distance from home, I was ok but then there was this one small thing I had to get my head around and that was the shape of the Aussie Rules football and I referred to it once as a rabbit when I first got out here, I’d go for it over here and it would shoot over there. It was a massive pain in the arse for someone who grew up with a round ball!
I used all these challenges the cultural differences, the lingo, my new surroundings, the distance from my family and friends. I used all this to motivate me throughout my career. I would often go back to it, say to myself I have sacrificed more than anyone to make a career in the AFL and nobody is going to take it away from me. I would use it in games against opponents thinking to myself I have given up a hell of a lot more than other footballers – I’m all over you today what have you sacrificed? It was the sacrifice of being so far away from my family that motivated me and drove me through the hard times and onto success.
Fast forward a few years to that fantastic year of 2005 where we started out the year having won one of our first four games, shaky start to say the least. We sat down as a group and we talked and we argued but we all agreed on one thing – that we were perceived in the competition by our opposition as a soft and weak team, with a soft underbelly. It was this perception that drove the team to success – I have no doubt about it.
We wanted to change the opposition’s perception of us, so that every time they played the Sydney Swans they knew that they were in for a long hard day at the office.
Yes we had players with different abilities, but no one was ever asked to do something that they couldn’t do. This is how the Sydney Swans Bloods culture began and why it will last a very long time because everyone is equal, everyone contributes whether it’s the CEO, the boot studder or the players, the club is what matters most and not the individual, we are all just passing through. It’s a “no dickhead policy” and something I’m sure we could use in parliament, what do you think Julia?
All that hard work, all those tears, all the blood and all the love I put into making it payed off on that last Saturday in September in 2005 when I was walking up to collect my premiership medallion. I knew people back home in Ireland were watching and I wanted to do something for them so once I received my medal I broke into a rendition of Michael Flatley’s Irish gig as best I could.
That day was made even more special as my Mum, Dad, Brother and girlfriend were all there to share that moment with me. My father was glowing with pride that day and it was like he was ten foot tall.
The grand final – what an occasion and look don’t get me wrong here I’m delighted to have been asked here today but I would much prefer to be out there running around. My experience of the whole week is just a buzz with excitement, anticipation, the parade, organising accommodation for the Irish contingent, then the small thing of playing infront of 100,000 people and trying to win the flag.
As my dad had experience on the big day he had plenty of advice for me even though he had never picked up an oval ball in his life. It was simple but I remembered it:
I remember running out onto the ground and all week the club was trying its best to protect the players from the distractions and trying to keep our minds on the game. Well for me that all went out the window when we ran up the race onto the ground for the start of the game, there was this huge roar and as I’m superstitious I always run onto the ground last so this puts me right beside the coaches. So when I heard the roar I just started laughing and smiling and turned around and there was Roosy looking at me and he said “Its good to see you’re tuned in and ready Tadhg”. In fact it was perfect for me as from that moment on I was in my element, I was relaxed and just soaked the whole game up and enjoyed it.
Unfortunately six weeks later my dad passed away from a sudden heart attack and it was an extremely difficult time for my family and I. To go through the emotions of extreme satisfaction and happiness to the worst possible emotion anyone can feel, the feeling of loss was very very difficult.
A few years later following this tragic time in my life, in 2009 I decided to go back and try and do what my father had done and win an All-Ireland medal with Kerry. This was a very tough thing to do. I had been playing AFL for 10 years and that rabbit had become more like a tortoise now, it was my friend. But also I had to get my first job at the age of 28 as Gaelic football is an amateur game and I had to prove I was good enough to get on the team.
I managed to do both, I got a job as a PE teacher and I got into the team after about four months. To make a long story short we had a shaky start just like I had in 2005 with the Swans but finished strong and again on the last Sunday of September I won an All-Ireland medal for Kerry – 30 years to the day exactly when my dad won his first and again upon my venture on the podium I managed to do another gig.
Following my success in Ireland I returned to Sydney to play the last two seasons with the Swans and earlier this year I decided to hang my boots up.
I came to Australia 12 years ago as a very fresh green innocent young lad. I was entering a phase in my life where all my morals, ethics and beliefs would be either tested or made stronger by my new environment.
I’m very happy to say that my morals and ethics have been made a lot stronger from my new environment, the environment of the Swans and the AFL. While I was playing and trying to make a career for myself a lot of great human traits have being taught to me along the way. Support your mate, discipline, no short cuts, honesty, integrity, you’re a footballer 100% of the time all the time. These are just a few traits that I have learnt from being a day to day footballer.
I’m a very passionate, enthusiastic person and I always wear my heart on my sleeve – that’s the way I played my footy and that’s the way I lead my life.
It’s the game of Aussie Rules that has defined me and made me who I am today. It has taught me to respect elders, respect women, always be honest and true to myself, always display my passion and love, but most importantly it has taught me how to be a human being with the utmost respect for other human beings.
Football I owe you my life as you have given me mine.
Thanks very much.