Monday 22 April 2019

Jim Stynes: Trail-blazer who became an icon in his adopted land

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

They were the pioneers of what was known as the 'Irish Experiment,' the transplantation of young Gaelic footballers into Australian Rules football in the hope that they would take firm root.

And for more than a decade they blazed an impressive trail, surviving and succeeding where few thought they could in another country's indigenous game.

Many have tried since, but only one, Tadhg Kennelly, has ever come close to the impact made by Jimmy Stynes and Sean Wight.

But now they are both gone, the two iconic figures of Ireland's link with the AFL, losing their battles to cancer within nine months of each other.

Stynes was 45 on Monday when he lost his two-and-a-half year battle that involved six operations to remove multiple brain tumours. Wight was just two years older when succumbing to lung cancer that was first diagnosed this time 12 months ago.

Wight's profile was dwarfed somewhat by what Stynes achieved on and off the field, but he too made an all-Australian team, the equivalent of the All Stars, and played in a Grand Final in 1988.

The two men followed similar journeys at much the same time across the world on a sporting journey that had never been taken before. Their paths intertwined in life so much and now, unfortunately, they also do so in death.

That irony wasn't lost on the other prospective AFL recruits of that time, Paul Earley and James Fahy, who were also part of that much-heralded Melbourne experiment.

Earley, the former Roscommon player and now aTV and radio pundit, had answered an advertisement in a Sunday newspaper from the Melbourne club which was looking for recruits. Wight, Glasgow born, but of Kerry minor football pedigree, made contact through the same advertisement. Earley was already established with the Demons when Stynes arrived in late 1984.

"Our paths didn't cross much out there. I was offered a three-year contract extension, but I declined and came home. I had played one game for Melbourne. It was a tough environment. The same levels of communication didn't exist then as they do know. Clubs didn't fly parents out twice a year like they would now. You were isolated," recalls Earley.

Physical

"It was a much more physical game at that time and it took longer to adapt than it probably does now.

"But Jimmy cracked it. His great strength was his endurance. He could go longer and faster than most. His great height, 6' 7", was also a significant advantage. But he struggled initially and it took him three years to really establish himself. His dimensions probably made him more suitable to AFL than Gaelic football."

Fahy is very much the forgotten AFL triallist of an era that also saw the former Derry player Dermot McNicholl link up with nearby St Kilda a little later.

Fahy was Stynes' colleague on the 1984 All-Ireland winning Dublin minor team and made the initial journey to Australia within a few months of that success -- Brother Tom McDonnell from St David's Artane provided the link with Melbourne.

Now immersed in the activities of the Parnells club on Dublin's northside where he is juvenile chairman, Fahy stayed four and a half years in Melbourne, two with the club before being released; the rest of the time he used to complete a degree in theoretical physics and applied maths.

Like Earley, what struck him most about Stynes and Wight was their athleticism.

"They could both go forever. And they were real pros. Jim would win 10k runs at his ease in pre-season. He was renowned for it," he says.

"It was a tough life. You don't have many friends in a professional club. I knew Jim well from the Dublin minors but our paths went separate ways in Melbourne. He was studying to be a primary teacher. We weren't best friends or anything like that when we were there."

The success of Stynes and Wight has yet to be replicated, he feels: "Tadhg Kennelly has won a Premiership, but the failure rate is very high. It puts into perspective what they achieved."

Alan Larkin was manager of the Dublin minors in 1984 and often wonders if the Dubs would have gone 12 years without an All-Ireland title between 1983 and 1995 if Stynes had stayed at home, or even come back after a couple of years.

"He was a driven man. We left him off the team for the 1984 All-Ireland semi-final. He hadn't play well in the Leinster final and we found out why afterwards. There had been an issue of discipline. But he came on in the semi-final, made his point with his performance and stayed on for the final," recalls Larkin. "That was the determination he brought."

Irish sport has been littered with impressive individual double acts over the last 30 years, from Roche and Kelly to Higgins and Taylor and Coghlan and Treacy. Stynes and Wight deserve their own special niche too.

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