Home is where the heart is for Rostrevor's Caolan Mooney
By John Harrington
Caolan Mooney didn’t have to think twice about turning down a late invitation from Ireland International Rules manager Joe Kernan to join the squad for the two-game series in Australia.
The Down footballer had attended trials during the summer and when injury ruled out Conor McKenna and club commitments forced Paul Kerrigan’s withdrawal, Kernan asked Mooney to step into the breach.
But club commitments of his own with Rostrevor, who contest the AIB Ulster Intermediate Club Football Final against Tyrone champions Moy on Sunday, meant Mooney quickly turned down the offer.
Having spent three years in the AFL with Collingwood before returning home at the end of the 2014 season, a trip to Australia wouldn’t exactly have been a novel experience anyway.
And his time there gave him a greater appreciation of just how much more it means to play for your club and your county compared to doing so for a professional club.
“Gaelic Football is more about your passion. Aussie Rules, you are there because you’re being paid to be there,” Mooney told GAA.ie.
“They’re all competitors and they all want to win but a county team winning together is far better than what you’d win in Australia.
“You go home to your own houses in Australia, you’re all living in different suburbs. In a county team it’s more local, you’d be going out together and celebrating together.
“So if Gaelic wants to go down that route of paying players, I think it would potentially ruin it.”
Mooney has mixed feelings about his three-year stint in Australia with Collingwood. There were aspects of the experience he enjoyed, and others not so much.
“It was 50:50,” he said. “As a city and living there, it was brilliant. As a sport, it didn’t really get me excited to be brutally honest. It’s not as good as Gaelic in my eyes.
“The first two years when I went, I was still naïve, and I thought ‘this is brilliant I’m getting paid to kick a football.’ In my third year, I thought this wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it was going to be.
“If I had of went out a bit older or if I had a bit of college experience...
“Being thrown out there and living away from home by yourself was a tough ask and by the third year I had my fill of it. I was sick of it and wanted to get home.”
Mooney trained as a professional sportsman for three years in Australia, but he still found it challenging to return home to Gaelic Football and adapt once again to its unique demands.
“Probably just the speed of the game,” he said. “The fitness coming home from Australia for off-season, playing club under-21s, I’d always find I’d be gassed after about fifteen minutes playing Gaelic.
“It’s a different kind of fitness. I think getting yourself tuned into that. I came back injured, so I came back to Down only 50% fit, and I was trying to do everything all the other lads were doing, and I tore the hamstring and I repeated that again after Christmas.
“This year, it was just about getting the body right. I’ve slimmed down a bit, I’ve shredded about 5/6 kilos for example. I think that took it’s toll on me, I didn’t need that weight.
“So I got myself trimmed down with some extra work with our Strength and Conditioning fella.”
There was a heavy weight of expectancy on Mooney’s shoulders when he returned home from Australia to immediately make a big impact with the Down footballers.
But a combination of injury and the process of adapting to playing Gaelic Football again at the highest level meant he struggled initially to live up to the hype.
“Aye, the great white hope!”, laughs Mooney. “Marty Clarke set the standard for all the boys returning. He got them to an All-Ireland final.
“I was put out of Ulster in the first round and then in the qualifiers. You have to be patient.
“Daniel Flynn (Kildare footballer and former AFL player) came out and said that he’s only starting to adjust. It takes a while to get back into the swing of things.”
After opting out of inter-county football in 2016, Mooney returned to the fold this year for Down and was a revelation in the unfamiliar position of wing-back having previously played most of his football as a forward.
“I was a bit nervous about going wing back but it’s probably the most attacking place on the pitch,” he said.
“You’ve a licence to bomb forward, but at the same time, you’ve to do a bit of defending. So that’s the next job, evolve the defending side more than the attacking side.
“I think it’s the first time since I’ve come home from Australia that everything has fell into place as such.
“I went a full season without getting injured, touch wood. I’m really enjoying my football and how it went this year.”
Helping Rostrevor to the Down Intermediate Championship has been the icing on the cake of a very satisfying year.
“It’s massive,” said Mooney. “We had a breakfast fundraiser on Sunday morning for the club, and it was absolutely amazing.
“There’s a lot of older ones who have won Championships back in the 50s and 60s, I’m not sure to be precise, when, but the last time we won the Championship was '98.
“There’s a good mix of them ones at the breakfast talking about what they’ve done, and Rostrevor has been a serious underage club.
“In the past ten years, they’ve won something like 7 minor Championships, but it never really translated to senior level.”
Winning an Ulster title on Sunday would change that narrative, but standing in their way is the formidable obstacle of Tyrone champions Moy who are powered by the Cavanagh brothers, Sean and Colm.
“Well, I’ve taken on the Cavanaghs this year already, and we know how that went,” said Mooney with a wry smile.
“We’ve watched the footage of their game against Newbridge and we know we’ll have to bring our 'A' game on the day. But we’re not going there to get beaten, we’re looking forward to the challenge.”