Sunday 23 July 2017

Footballing natural is ready for new code of conduct

Professional sport has tempted John Heslin to give Australian Rules a shot, as he tells Marie Crowe

I t hardly comes as a surprise to hear that one of the first things John Heslin was asked about when he landed in the dressing room of the Richmond Tigers was Copper Face Jacks nightclub in Dublin.

Jack Riewoldt, one of the highest paid players in the AFL, was there only a few months ago with the Australian team and he was looking for someone to reminisce with. John Heslin felt instantly welcome. His mind was made up. The result is a two-year deal for the Westmeath youngster which begins in August.

Even though Heslin was born in Boston and spent his formative years there, he was still exposed to Gaelic football every day of his life. His father is a GAA man, he co-founded a club in the American city and the first football team Heslin played for was in Boston. However, when Heslin was just six years old his parents moved back to Ireland and settled on a farm in Westmeath. He joined the St Loman's club in Mullingar and quickly picked up where he left off on the football field.

But Gaelic football wasn't the only sport that Heslin took to. He tried his hand at everything from tennis to swimming to running but it was soccer, hurling and Gaelic football where his talent really shone.

So impressive were his ball skills that Heslin, who played with Mullingar Athletic and Cherry Orchard, was selected for an emerging talent soccer squad which eventually led him to line out for Ireland at underage level.

"At that time I was travelling to Dublin twice a week, once for training and once for a game. And I'd also go to Tullamore two nights a week because that's where the emerging talent squad was based. But luckily it was all happening in the winter so I could play football then in the summer."

It didn't take long for some Premier League clubs to show an interest in Heslin and a trial at Derby County was organised. He spent a few weeks there and when he returned from England, Heslin decided there and then that a career in the Premier League wasn't for him. He gave up soccer completely to concentrate on Gaelic football.

"The professional aspect of the game was very appealing but the set-up just wasn't very welcoming," he says. "The manager rarely talked to us. It was almost like we were a number. The Australian set-up was so different. Everyone was welcoming from the start, and I know I was a bit older but it was a totally different atmosphere. For the week I was there I was wearing Jack Riewoldt's boots because I needed moulded studs. Kenny Miller was at Derby then and he wouldn't even have noticed younger lads let alone loan us his boots.

"When I came back I just asked myself would I rather be scoring a goal in Pride Park or a point in Croke Park into Hill 16 against the Dubs. I didn't even have to think about the answer so I knew what needed to be done."

From there Gaelic football took over completely. Although he has yet to play a senior inter-county championship game, he has gained a recognition factor in the game -- albeit not solely for good reason. Before Heslin was even a minor he was being heralded by those in the county and outside as the saviour of Westmeath football. But being a 16-year-old and having that weight of expectation around your neck brings it own pressures. And it also guarantees extra attention from the opposition.

For three successive years now Heslin has been sent off for Westmeath. His latest misdemeanour occurred just last Wednesday night against Longford in the Leinster under 21 championship. It was Heslin's first game back from a suspension he received in February in an NFL game against Cavan and having been brought in as a second-half sub, he once again found himself in the eye of a storm, receiving a straight red card which will rule him out of football for at least two months.

"I remember all my sendings-off over the last three years. I go in tough but I don't strike off the ball. Every incident has been during play where I'm tackling with another player for a ball. I was 16 when I was sent off first for Westmeath, 17 the second time and I'm still only 18. It has been built up that I have a problem with my temper, I get angry like everyone else gets angry. When I was younger I used to mouth at the referee and the opposition but that stopped when I was 14. I worked at it and grew out of it. People spoke to me about it and I knew I had to curtail it and I did. I never open my mouth to referees or to players or to guys marking me anymore; if I get in trouble I just deal with it myself."

Over the last few years, Heslin has made no secret of his fascination with the professional game. The lifestyle appeals to him. He is an agricultural science student in UCD at the moment and works on the farm at home and in Elverys Sports whenever he can to help put himself through college. He knows how important it is to have a job.

"Times are tough in general everywhere and that was a factor in my decision-making process. It wasn't the first thing I thought about but it was definitely up there. I'm going to have a job for two years but I hope that I'd have a job for longer. There is a lot to be said for that. I've always been

independent when it came to college and working."

Last year he was brought by a scout to the Essendon club in Melbourne for a three-week trial. It went well and Heslin enjoyed it. However, a few weeks after he returned, the managers and coaches were let go and like in the Premier League when a manager goes the players he was interested in often fall by the wayside too.

But that didn't spell the end for Heslin's Aussie Rules adventure. Less than a month ago, recruitment officers from the Richmond Tigers spotted him playing for UCD in the Sigerson Cup.

There was no agent involved this time round and within days they had Heslin on a plane to Melbourne. Jamie O'Reilly from Down is the other Irish player at the club and he was on hand to meet Heslin and his father when they landed in Melbourne. The week was spent training with the senior players, doing weight sessions and practising kicking. Education is mandatory there and Wednesdays are specifically allocated to college classes, which will allow Heslin to continue his studies.

Despite everything that is going on in his football career, Heslin is excited about his future. Richmond have a young team and that makes them even more appealing for the rookie. Only nine per cent of their squad are over the age of 25 and they have just opened a $25 million facility in Melbourne.

The club itself attracts big crowds to games, and has 40,000 paid members. They played Carlton last week in the MCG and there were almost 80,000 people present.

Heslin is a natural athlete. He has excelled at everything he has turned his hand to but there will be challenges for him to overcome. "It will be hard to read the game initially because it's so new, but the guys in the club were happy that I had played hurling because that is such a fast game too. And mentally it will be tough, being away from my family and friends."

John Heslin is still only 18 and admits he has a lot to learn. But he is a dedicated, hard-working athlete who is determined to succeed in the world of professional sport. He takes his punishment on the chin for the mistakes he makes. He may not be perfect, but who is? What he is, though, is the real deal.

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