Caolan Mooney: AFL experience left a sour taste in my mouth
BY SHANE STAPLETON
There was 17,000 kilometres between the comforts of home and Melbourne where a callow Caolan Mooney had to fend for himself. Aged 18, and scarcely able to boil an egg by himself, the Rostrevor man had to fast-forward from dependent to full-functioning adult. Collingwood FC offered him a meaty contract, and the former Down minor captain bit on it.
Three years later, in 2014, he walked away from Australia after a tough time in a foreign land playing a sport he could never love. You get the sense that it’s been a difficult road from there to here, from AFL prospect to becoming a mainstay of the Mourne County team.
This Sunday, he’s looking to add an AIB Ulster IFC title to the Down county championship Rostrevor already secured. It’ll be far from easy though, as he may well find All Star Colm Cavanagh on his tail around midfield.
“I would like to be perched up a little further forward but, due to injuries, I am roaming around midfield, I enjoy it though,” says the 24-year at the launch of the AIB Ulster IFC final.
“I took a break after Down had finished so I missed the first (county championship) game. We played Leitrim in the third round and they beat us. There’s a backdoor system and we met Leitrim in the semi-final, and beat them by about nine points. Then we met Annaclone who are a pretty dogged team who don’t know when they’re beaten, and it was tight and it stood us in good stead going into Ulster. We played Brigid’s of Antrim and, though it was tight, we were comfortable. They had a breeze in the second half which kept them alive a bit. We were put under pressure in the semi-final and we held our own, but then we gave away cheap frees to get it closer, so now we’ve the final on Sunday.”
It must be a case of men against boys when an ex-AFL player comes up against intermediate club players, the odd one of whom might have a beer belly.
“I wouldn’t go as far as that,” Mooney laughs. “You get a bit more special attention when you’re playing county and (because of) your past accolades. Ulster has been a big step-up compared with Down, and each team has a few quality players. I always find one of them is running with me, and they don’t seem to be too worried about getting the ball. I enjoy it though; it makes it harder which makes it more enjoyable. I think I only played four of the six games in the Down championship. There were a couple of teams in Down that we wiped the floor with, who would be young teams so I wouldn’t say they have beer bellies. They just haven’t developed yet.”
What’s the town of Rostrevor like?
“It’s pretty small, a little village. But throughout underage, we’ve always been one of the more successful south Down clubs. The last ten or twelve years, we’ve had seven minor championship but we haven’t been able to pull too many players through to senior with us. A lot of people just get to minor and fall away. This year it’s a really young team, it’s probably the youngest team we’ve had in a long team so it’s good to have that youth to keep the ship rolling.”
What do you do for work?
“I’m working in Rockwell Collins in Kilkeel, it’s an aircraft factory. We build airplane seats. It’s all production, all different processes. I’m doing that to bide my time. Australia set me back a bit: I came straight out of school (to the AFL) and I didn’t get a chance to go to college and do my degree. By the time I came home, I’d sort of had no interest in going to college so I just found myself doing this here. I’m happy enough, it’s tying me over for now.”
Is college an option later down the line?
“I’m humming and hawing about it, but I don’t want to be wasting my time because I’ve wasted a few years already.”
Do you look at it that way, because surely it was a great experience in the AFL?
“Yeah, yeah, it was brilliant, but I came home with nothing. So I went out of school, went there for the three years, and came home with no college experience and nothing really to springboard me on. By the time I came home, I had no interest in being in college, so I’ve just found myself doing this. Kevin McKernan went back as a mature student; he didn’t know what he wanted until he was about 27 and now he’s a qualified teacher. So it’s never too late to go back.”
You don’t seem to look back too fondly on your time in the AFL?
“It was an experience at the time but maybe if I was a couple of years older, maybe if I had a couple of college years under my belt, I might still be there. Because I went straight from school when the old doll was still making my bed… and then I ended up in another country having to fend for myself. So I think I made an immature decision (leaving Australia) at 21 when I was like ‘this isn’t working, I want to go home’. Whereas if I was a bit older, I would’ve seen it more as a career choice.”
So what age were you when you went out?
“Eighteen, straight out of school.”
Was homesickness a big factor, and how did it manifest itself?
“Yeah. I don’t know (how it manifested itself). You’d literally be fine and then just gradually you might be facing some time without your parents, and grandparents, and girlfriend (Adair) — who wasn’t out there at the time — and you be wondering ‘am I missing something at home?’ But then you’d get home for the six weeks and be like ‘I’m missing nothing’. Then you’d go back out and it creeps in again that you’re missing something. It’s hard to explain.”
Is it that you’re missing people?
“Yeah, missing people, but just that you’re in a bubble of your own. You’re fending for yourself but then my girlfriend moved out… but even the two of us sort of found it hard as well. I was only 19 and she was only 18 turning 19, and we were living together in a different country. So it definitely made homesickness a regular occurrence because we were both out of our depth trying to fend for ourselves.”
Which comes back to the huge jump from your mother making your bed for you just a few months beforehand?
“Yeah. It’s a big slap in the face, I thought anyway.”
Did the AFL try to help you assimilate?
“Yeah, well they put you into a host house for the first year, and they have someone looking over you. They provided the shopping and stuff, but you were cooking for yourself and you had no cooking experience. So I was eating spuds more often than not.”
The experience, and how it panned out, really doesn’t seem to sit easily with you.
“No, it kind of left a sour taste in my mouth. I think I got the raw end of the deal over there.”
And do you put the sour taste down to your own immature decision to go to the AFL when you were so young?
“Yeah, I think when you’re coming out of school and you’re thrown X amount of money, you’re like ‘Jesus, this is…’. Before I left school, I was working for maybe 30 pound a week in a pub, so to be thrown into a salary that was X amount, it was hard to turn down. Ma and Da were like ‘it’s your decision’. They were happy if I stayed or went. I think that if I went when I was 20 or 21, after being up in the Holylands where you have to sort of fend for yourself a bit (as a student in Belfast), it might have made it easier for me to go over there and live.”
Based on listening to you talk about your experience, I’m starting to wonder if you like sport. Is that unfair?
“What? All types of sport? I love playing Gaelic but AFL wasn’t a sport I enjoyed playing. It was just a job. It was never as good as Gaelic football.”
Those four-month pre-seasons must not have helped your love for AFL?
“They were….” he groans, “I don’t even want to think about them, I’m even sweating thinking about them. But AFL, it’s not like Gaelic where you play for your club and then you’re playing for your county, that’s the plan. When you come into (an AFL) club, it’s all money-driven. If Gaelic became that way, it would probably take away that love and passion you have playing for your team.”
Have young Irish players who have been contacted or signed by AFL teams asked you for advice?
“Ones that I’ve heard are going out, I would contact them being like ‘if you have any questions on what club to go to?’ for example. ‘Like I didn’t enjoy my experience but I’m not taking that away from you, you have to go out and experience it because it could be completely different for you’. I was chatting to Conor McKenna (from Tyrone) before he went out and he’s now an established AFL player, but he told me a story that was similar to me. ‘The coach that signed me was different to the coach when I actually started to play’. One coach might like Irish people and for another, Irish people might not be his thing.”
Like the way Robbie Keane signed for Marcelo Lippi at Inter Milan in 2000, before the manager was soon replaced by Marco Tardelli...
“It’s a strange world, and it’s funny the amount of people who have said they know people who have gone to England and signed for a coach but he’s left, and a new man comes in and…”
Do you have any career ideas down the line?
“To be fair, I haven’t even stopped to think. Everything is pretty hectic still trying to get adjusted to life in Ireland again. This is probably the first year on the Gaelic field since I came back that I’ve started to get a bit of form.”
Finally, back with Rostrevor, you’ve won a county title but what would it mean to add an Ulster title against Moy on Sunday?
“Well, the Down (title) was good, it was the first time I won anything worth talking about with the club. This is the furthest we’ve got in Ulster as well, and to win it would be great. For the players there, we have a couple coming towards the end, so it would be great to send them off with an Ulster and prepare for an All-Ireland series, which would mean they’d have to play onto next year as well. There’s not too many times you can say you’ll play in an Ulster final with your club, and it doesn’t matter if it’s senior, intermediate or junior. It doesn’t mean anything, they’re all the same, it’s about going for the trophy.”