IT ALL started with an email.
Having walked away from a foreign game in a foreign land, Mark Keane had settled back into his old life at home in Ireland, returning to a place where he could get back to his sporting roots by playing Gaelic football and hurling. But having left Australia and the AFL earlier than first planned, having turned his back on life as a professional athlete, Keane knew he still had more to give.
Adelaide didn’t have a spot open at the start of the year, but the surprise retirement of former No.6 pick Fischer McAsey and Paul Seedsman’s ongoing concussion battle that moved him to the inactive list meant they suddenly went from none to two.
Former Collingwood midfielder Tyler Brown, Keane’s one-time teammate at the Magpies, earned a lifeline and claimed the first spot, but the Crows were still in the market for a key defender to provide depth behind Tom Doedee, Jordon Butts and Nick Murray.
Adelaide list manager Justin Reid considered former Saint Darragh Joyce, another Irishman, as well as Port Melbourne star Ethan Phillips, the reigning Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medallist, before Keane landed on his radar. It lead to a flurry of long-distance calls, Zoom meetings and WhatsApp messages over the ensuing weeks between Reid in Adelaide and Keane on the other side of the world.
Keane had made the decision not to return to Australia at the start of last year, despite having a year to run on his contract with Collingwood. The 194cm key defender had played five games across three seasons at the Magpies, enough to show the club that the time invested in its Irish experiment had been worth it, and that he was up to AFL level.
But before the Crows settled on signing Keane via pre-season supplemental selection rules, senior coach Matthew Nicks sat down with him via Zoom on multiple occasions, first thing in the morning and late at night. Recruiting manager Hamish Ogilvie and Reid also spoke with him a handful of times, doing their due diligence in the background, making calls and analysing vision.
Meanwhile, Keane focused on leading his hurling side, Ballygiblin, in the All-Ireland club junior final at Croke Park, where they prevailed over Easkey.
After a whirlwind month, the 22-year-old eventually landed in a city he had never set foot in before last week. The Irishman is now back in the AFL and ready to re-launch a career that looked over not that long ago.
“I was chatting to (former Collingwood played) Marty Clarke and my old man after Fischer McAsey retired. The spot opened up and it all grew from there,” Keane told AFL.com.au.
“I was focused on my hurling club when I was back home. We won the All-Ireland, so I was focused on that. But after that, it opened up and the time was right to go ahead with it.
“I had a few calls with Nicksy and Reidy and a few others from the club. I enjoyed having a good chat with them and it went from there.”
Like many Irishmen, Keane understandably struggled living so far from home during the pandemic. It contributed to him turning his back on the final year of his contract at Collingwood, at a time when he was on the cusp of playing regular senior football.
But while Keane enjoyed the chance to live out his dream of playing both Gaelic football and hurling for County Cork in 2022, he kept a close eye on Collingwood from afar, watching their stunning late-season run with some envy knowing he could have slotted into Craig McRae’s back six given the club’s injuries in defence.
“I watched nearly every single Collingwood game last year. I was kind of fanboying and kind of jealous at the same time,” he said.
“It popped into my head a few times that I could have been there. I would have liked to have been there, especially when they went on that good run in the second half of the season. The Collingwood boys are super lads, too.
“I just wanted to get back into the professional life. AFL is a super game to play, but what I wanted to do was get back to playing a sport professionally and living a professional life. That’s what led me to put my hat back in the ring to play footy.”
Clarke is well versed in a stop-start AFL career himself, having juggled the pull of home with the opportunity to play professionally on the other side of the world. The former Collingwood dashing wingman/half-back played 73 games across two stints, returning to Ireland for two years in the middle of his time in Melbourne.
“I had really good conversations with Marty,” Keane said.
“I went to him when I contemplated going back and he was really influential. It was a no-brainer. I’ve become close with Marty Clarke. He has been super over the past couple of years, always staying in touch and asking how I was getting on.”
After arriving in South Australia at the end of a hurling season where the temperatures hovered in single digits for months, and after celebrating an All-Ireland victory, Keane has been eased into the program at West Lakes.
He played a quarter of match simulation at training last week and is set for a half in the intra-club this week, with the aim to feature in the practice matches against Fremantle and West Coast during the club’s time in Perth ahead of the season.
How far Keane goes from there will be up to him. He’s made his way back to the game, and while he might have to spend the early part of the year driving out to SANFL grounds like Coopers Stadium, Glenelg Oval and Prospect, it will only be a matter of time before he plays on Adelaide Oval.