Sunday, October 10, 2021

It’s likely that Kilmaine and Mayo footballer Oisin Mullin will have a life-changing decision to make in the very near future given the expectation that a rookie contract offer is on its way from AFL club Geelong. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

If reports are to be believed, Mayo star Oisin Mullin is set to be offered an AFL rookie contract in the next couple of weeks. The Kilmaine man, the reigning Young Footballer of Year, has been on the radar of a number of AFL clubs since he stood out at a combine day in Dublin in late 2019, an event which was also attended by Mattie Ruane and Frank Irwin. The Geelong Cats, based in the suburbs of Melbourne on Australia’s south coast, are understood to be leading the charge for Mullin’s signature.

Mullin’s possible move to the AFL has been in the pipeline for a while. The pieces were in place for an offer to be made in early 2020, but the onset of Covid-19 and the subsequent tightening of Australia’s borders made a move impractical over the last eighteen months. Now though, with the global Covid crisis seemingly beginning to recede, the prospect of Mullin potentially turning his hand to Aussie Rules is set to come to the fore.

Speaking last March, James Horan insisted that Mullin was fully committed to Mayo GAA.

“Oisín had a brilliant year for us (in 2020) and is a very exciting prospect for us and will only get better with the mindset that he has. He’s fully focused at the minute on Mayo GAA and where he can go and how he can develop,” said the Mayo manager.

“There’ll always be noise around certain players, there’s no doubt about it, but at the moment Oisín is fully committed, enjoying his Gaelic, had a very strong year, and there’s plenty more to come from Oisín.”

He was proved correct. Mullin had a strong sophomore year as a senior inter-county footballer, moving away from the full-back role in which he earned an All-Star in 2020 to become Mayo’s first-choice centre-back. He missed the All-Ireland semi-final win over Dublin with a quad injury but recovered in time to play in the All-Ireland final, where he was one of his team’s better performers on what was ultimately a disappointing day for Mayo. A nomination for a second All-Star in as many seasons is a distinct possibility.

There’s a school of thought out there that says any attempt to lure Mullin to Australia must be repelled at all costs. Talk him round, sell him on the Mayo project, and if all else fails, chuck his passport into Lough Mask. He is one of the best young prospects Mayo has produced in recent memory and if the county is to continue to compete for All-Irelands over the next five to ten years, we simply cannot afford to lose him, the thinking goes.

That wariness has been hard-earned. The obvious parallel is Pearce Hanley, who was, like Mullin, an underage star for the county and touted as the man to finally lead Mayo to All-Ireland glory while he was still a teenager. Hanley played a single season for the seniors, under John O’Mahony in 2007, scoring two points on his debut in a qualifier win over Cavan and playing his second and final game for the seniors in a defeat to Derry a week later.

That autumn he signed with the Brisbane Lions and there began a long and successful AFL career that saw him play 13 seasons of professional footie – over twice the AFL average – and rank fourth on the all-time list of Irish appearance-makers in Aussie Rules, behind only Jim Stynes, Zach Tuohy and Tadhg Kennelly. He retired in September 2020.

Hanley was on the same Mayo under-21 team in 2007 as a raft of the players who would go on to backbone the senior side for the next decade or more. Players like Ger Cafferkey, Chris Barrett, Tom Cunniffe, Colm Boyle, Barry Moran, Tom Parsons, Seamus O’Shea and Mark Ronaldson. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Ballaghaderreen man was the brightest prospect among that group. His departure deprived Mayo of the chance to see him flourish as a senior Gaelic footballer in the 2010s, and it became a common refrain, after the All-Ireland defeats that littered that decade, to wonder whether a team with Hanley playing at centre-forward might have had those extra fractions needed to get over the line. But c’est la vie.

Pearce’s younger brother Cian is a more complicated example. Like his brother, he was an underage star with rare footballing gifts. And like his brother he went to Brisbane, in late 2014, selected as part of the international draft.

But a series of injuries crippled his early development with the Lions, and despite good signs of progress in the 2017 season, he made the decision to return home in early 2018. He was included in the Mayo senior panel under Stephen Rochford that year, making four appearances, but missed the 2019 league as he recovered from knee surgery and stepped away from the panel in June of that year. He has not been back in since, although he was instrumental in Ballaghaderreen making the Mayo SFC final in 2019. At the age of just 25, he still has a future in Green and Red.

Two brothers, two contrasting tales. Whether either of them has a bearing on the decision Mullin may be about to make is hard to know. Covid has changed the dynamic of international players in the AFL significantly. It was announced last week that Stefan Okunbor is to return to Kerry after signing with Geelong in 2018. Sligo’s Luke Towey also looks set to return home after two seasons with the Gold Coast Suns.

Laois native Tuohy, who played in the AFL Grand Final with Geelong last year, told last week that the flow of Irish players to Australia may be set to slow over the next couple of seasons as an economic consequence of the pandemic.

“Obviously a lot of clubs are under pressure here with their soft cap and what they can spend. Maybe some clubs might view going to Ireland to try to find players as financially not as viable as it once was,” offered Tuohy.

“I’m not sure. It won’t stop, I know that. It might take a bit of a lull for a year or two but it won’t stop. There’s too much talent and too many guys back home prepared to sacrifice to give you a shot.”

Which is all to say that if an offer does come Mullin’s way in the next week or two, the club making it won’t have taken the decision lightly. And if he were to reject it, there’s no guarantee that another one will follow.

It should probably go without saying, but alas: if an offer does come, then the decision on how to respond to it is Mullin’s and his family’s, and theirs alone. He owes absolutely nothing to Mayo football and the opportunity to pursue a career as a professional sportsman must be a tantalising one for any young athlete, especially a player like Mullin, whose talents seem like a natural fit for the Australian code.

He would certainly be a huge loss, both to Mayo and to his club in Kilmaine, but that isn’t Mullin’s cross to bear. He should be given the time and space to make a decision that’s right for him, and if that means taking up the opportunity to try his hand at a different sport and a different way of life on the far side of the globe, then so be it. If you were in his shoes, would you honestly turn down an opportunity like the one he is reportedly about to be offered?

It needn’t be forever anyway; a player like Conor McKenna, who played four seasons in the AFL with Essendon before returning home and winning an All-Ireland with his native Tyrone this year, is a perfect example of how a move to Australia need not be the end-point of a player’s Gaelic football ambitions.

Ultimately, if an offer does arrive, it will be up to Mullin to accept or reject. Mayo supporters with the best interests of a young player at heart should wish him well, whichever road he elects to walk.

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