'He's something special' - Tadgh Kennelly hails two-time Kerry All-Ireland minor winner ahead of AFL debut
Former Kerry minors midfielder Mark O'Connor is set to make his AFL debut for Geelong this weekend when the Cats take on Essendon at the MCG.
O'Connor, who won two All-Ireland Minor medals with Kerry in both 2014 and 2015, has been called up to Geelong's senior side after impressing in just four games and two matches in the VFL, a subsidiary developmental league to the AFL.
The former Churchill midfielder comes into the side for Brandan Parfitt, who was placed on the club's long-term injury list, with O'Connor set to join former Laois half-back Zac Tuohy in the Cats side while former Tyrone minor Conor McKenna is set to line up in defence for Essendon.
Speaking ahead of O'Connor's AFL debut, dual premiership and All-Ireland winner Tadgh Kennelly said that he knew O'Connor was going to be something special after finding out that the midfielder had made his minor debut with Kerry when he was just 15.
“When you see that, straightaway you say ‘hang on a second — he must be something special’,” Kennelly tells foxfooty.com.au.
"He’s able to identify what’s needed right there and then. It’s hard to quantify it in terms of numbers, but he can run — he’s got really good endurance — and he’s got very good marking ability.
"He’s one of those players with fantastic composure and decision-making under pressure. Everything around him looks like it’s going in slow motion. He’s very calm and that’s what separated him in the under 18s in Ireland — every time there was a big moment, he was the one that took over the game.
“That sort of stuff is very hard to identify from a recruiting perspective, but when you’re actually watching him play live you can clearly see it. He’s got a great temperament to be a professional footballer.”
Kennelly invited to O'Connor out to an AFL Draft combine last October where he impressed the former Sydney Swans defender among a host of other AFL scouts.
Kennelly compared the Kingdom wunderkind to three-time All-Australian nominee and Hawthorn captain Luke Hodge, in terms of O'Connor's ability to recognise what's needed in a game.
O'Connor has an awful long way to go in his AFL career before any further comparisons to Hodge can be made, as for now they're just the thoughts of Kennelly, as O'Connor was seemingly surprised just to be called up to the senior squad.
“I was doing a bit of handballing this morning with Corey Enright and he told me that [senior coach] Chris Scott wanted to do some edits with me, so I rocked into the room and he pretty much just told me I’d be playing at the weekend,” O'Connor told the Geelong Advertiser on Thursday afternoon.
“I wasn’t even sure if he was being serious or not to be honest. But I’ve worked very closely with Shane O’Bree, he’s been amazing to me and has been so generous with his time, and Corey Enright as well.
“Cory Gregson has been injured and he’s really shown me (a lot) and given me a few tips, and gone through some vision and things like that.
“But they’ve all been very generous with their time with me and massively helped me out with the transition.”
O'Connor's family will not be able to make it out to Melbourne in time for his debut, which is more than understandable given the timescale of his call up and the distance to be travelled, however, playing at the MCG, Australia's most historic sporting ground, seems to be an acceptable form of compensation for O'Connor.
“They can’t make it over unfortunately but I rang them at 5 o’clock this morning and he (dad) was a bit groggy when he answered, but when I told him the news he was up and about,” he added.
“But to get out on a ground like that on the home of the AFL is going to be an unbelievable experience.”