Ciaran Kilkenny: nothing to fear
WHEN a 19-year-old feels compelled to issue a lengthy explanation as to why he made a particular choice about his sporting ambitions, he is obviously operating outside the usual environs of a promising teenager.
Ciaran Kilkenny has been in that territory for quite some time, hoisted there by an aptitude for football and hurling that suggests he could mature into something really special. He was already quite well advanced on that journey prior to leaving Castleknock and Dublin last November to test out a new experience in Australia as an AFL rookie with Hawthorn.
He departed with the best wishes of the Dublin GAA community, even if it had to hide its disappointment over losing such a gifted protege. Allowing for the high attrition rate among young Irish players who try their luck in Australian Rules, there was a general consensus that Kilkenny's prodigious skills would enable him to master the game relatively easily.
In that scenario, Dublin supporters feared they would never again see him in a blue jersey. Two months later, his Australian adventure is over, abandoned because Kilkenny prefers to play Gaelic games for personal fulfilment rather than Australian Rules for money.
As a marketing vehicle for the GAA, this is Rolls Royce territory. One of its brightest young stars has pledged his allegiance to the amateur game ahead of the possible riches he could earn in AFL while articulating it with unquestionable passion and loyalty.
"Sport has always been something I did for enjoyment and I have found that it's not something I can do merely because it's my job. The passion I feel for hurling and football is not transferable to any other team sport," he said.
It's the ultimate vote of confidence in the GAA philosophy and has added value when coming from a youngster who appeared set for a successful career in a professional sport.
Contrast that with the comments of another 19-year-old, Down's Caolan Mooney, now playing AFL with Collingwood, who unloaded a stinging attack on the GAA last year. He claimed players were being used and that expectations were far too high for amateurs.
He also said "a clean fortune" was being made out of the All-Ireland finals and queried where it went. Presumably, it never occurred to him that the infrastructure which enabled him to hone his skills to such a degree that AFL clubs came calling were funded, in part at least, by gate receipts generated by others. Mooney also suggested that unless GAA players were paid in the future, flights to Australia would be busy ferrying good youngsters Down Under on one-way tickets.
Not so. Indeed the doom-peddlers who claimed a few years ago that Ireland's involvement with Australia in International Rules was akin to the chicken inviting the fox over for a quick snack have been shown to be well off the mark. Yes, several young footballers have gone to Australia but many have returned, after discovering that they either weren't suited to AFL or didn't like living so far away from home.
Brendan Quigley and Colm Begley (Laois), Kyle Coney (Tyrone), Michael Shields and Ciaran Sheehan (Cork), John Heslin (Westmeath) and Michael Quinn (Longford) all went before returning to their native counties, a path now followed by Kilkenny.
His return is a big new year boost to Castleknock, Dublin and the GAA in general, with the latter enjoying the added bonus of the effusive characterisation of what football and hurling means to Kilkenny.
However, amid the delight in Dublin at his loyalty pledge to the county cause, one sentence in his statement points to a possible conflict later on.
"Achieving success and realising my potential as a hurler and a footballer with my club and county will always be more important to me than any of the benefits to be obtained from professional sport," he wrote.
Hurler and footballer? Does he intend to attempt a dual role at the highest level? Is there any significance in hurling being mentioned first?
It's impossible to see how any player can serve two masters in different codes in the demanding world of modern-day senior inter-county activity. And since Kilkenny is still only 19 years old, he faces a very heavy workload if he attempts to play hurling and football for the many managers who will want him aboard over the next few years.
In addition, 'Brand Kilkenny' will also have to be carefully managed because he will be in big demand commercially as his stature grows. Unquestionably, he is an exciting talent but it's important to remember that the real challenges are only beginning.
How he – and his trusted advisers – negotiate them, on and off the pitch, will be crucial to the development of his potential. That very definitely includes deciding on whether he is going to concentrate on football or hurling because both taxing masters cannot be served as senior level.