Wednesday 25 April 2018

Home is where the heart is for talented Heslin

Westmeath's Aussie Rules rookie returns to satisfy his passion for Gaelic games, writes Marie Crowe

In a week when Tadhg Kennelly ran an Aussie Rules training camp for young GAA players, one of Ireland's most talented Gaelic footballers has decided that life as an AFL player isn't for him.

On Friday, Westmeath's John Heslin said goodbye to the Richmond Tigers in Melbourne and flew home to Ireland.

The reasons for the 19-year-old's return are simple: he missed home, his family, friends, and his life in Ireland but ultimately Heslin came back because his ties to the GAA are too strong to break.

"Before I left I lived for football. My life revolved around it but playing over in Australia was very different to here; the crack and the banter just isn't the same," explained Heslin.

"There is a lot to be said for running out on to the field with the lads you have grown up with and are friends with. The buzz and excitement wasn't there for me when I played AFL, it made me appreciate the GAA and made me realise what game I wanted to play."

It all started for Heslin this time last year, recruitment officers from the Richmond Tigers spotted him playing for UCD in the Sigerson Cup. Within days they had him on a plane to Melbourne for a trial and within weeks he signed up as a rookie.

Heslin moved over to Australia last summer to train for a few weeks on his own before pre-season started. Initially everything was rosy, the excitement of starting a new life distracted him from the reality of the lonely situation he was in. He threw himself into training, he needed to improve his fitness and learn a new game so he kept busy doing that. But as time went by cracks began to appear and Heslin found he was spending a lot of time on his own.

When pre-season started, Heslin envisioned a GAA-like experience, serious sessions but plenty of crack too; however, he found out pretty quickly that wasn't the case. He loved the training and the lifestyle but the Australian culture is very different to what he was used to and it just made Heslin miss home more. In a way, he felt he couldn't be himself so he just kept his head down and got on with it.

The weeks turned into months and although his fitness and skills improved, being so far away from home wasn't getting any easier. But the teenager wanted to make it work, he'd put in the hard slog and got through the pre-season training.

He called everyone he knew who had been involved in the AFL: Brendan Murphy, Marty Clarke, Tadhg Kennelly, Michael Shields, Kyle Coney and Colm Begley. They all had the same advice, try and hang on a bit longer, play some games, but if you don't like it come home.

Heslin tried. He kept training and playing but for him it just wasn't the same as lining out for Loman's or Westmeath.

He even went training with a GAA team in Melbourne in his spare time just to try and replicate what he was missing but as the time went by he just became more homesick.

"It got to the stage where I couldn't hold conversations with people, I didn't want to talk about AFL; I wanted to talk about GAA. It's always been my life and I like it being my life," said Heslin.

"You have to have heart and passion when playing sport and that's what I had for the GAA. I always put my heart into everything I do but it just wasn't there for AFL so I knew what I had to do."

His decision to come home wasn't a shock to the Melbourne Tigers, they knew he hadn't settled.

"I went through three weeks of hell, nights of just feeling low and not knowing what to do. Then things started to get to me, people were trying to be friendly but they just annoyed me. The homesickness just became overwhelming, when you are suffering from it every little thing seems irritating," explained Heslin.

"The club knew it was coming. I was finding training hard, I just didn't want to be there. I was doing weights and it would hit me hard that I wanted to be doing this at home with my friends, not here."

In many ways deciding to return was a harder decision to make than leaving. He was giving up a secure contract to return to a life of uncertainty in Ireland, leaving his job as a professional athlete to be a an amateur GAA player. He may not have a job to come home to but Heslin feels he made the right decision.

Today he will line out for his club St Loman's against local rivals St Malachy's. In a few days he will rejoin the Westmeath senior football panel and then in September he will return to college in UCD. He doesn't know if he will ever regret leaving Australia but one thing that's certain is he's happy to be home.

Sunday Indo Sport

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