FORMER Collingwood defender Mark Keane is open to a return to the AFL, four months after the Irishman walked away from a contract at the Magpies.
The 22-year-old chose to remain in Ireland and part ways with Collingwood in January after returning home for the Christmas break, following another challenging year with homesickness.
Keane played five games across three seasons at the AIA Centre, including four in 2021, where he showed he had the toughness, composure and skill to have a future in the game.
Since returning to Ireland in December, Keane has coached in schools and pursued hurling instead of Gaelic Football on weekends, representing his hometown Ballygiblin before making his debut for Cork against Clare in the Allianz Hurling League last Sunday.
Keane has kept a close eye on Collingwood from the other side of the world, remaining in contact with some of his former teammates and coaches, as well as the AFL Irish contingent based in Melbourne.
Some inside Collingwood and within AFL circles believe Keane would have played the first seven rounds of 2022, given the absence of veteran Jordan Roughead and mature-age rookie Charlie Dean, and could have become the next Irishman to play regular senior football, just like Conor Nash has done at Hawthorn.
"I'd probably love to come back," Keane told AFL.com.au from Ireland this week.
"I still love AFL. I've probably watched every single game so far this year. I've been watching the boys and all the teams. I still kick around here at home.
"It is anyone's dream to go over and play AFL. I definitely wouldn’t rule it out to go back and play. Collingwood has been riddled by injuries, so I definitely wouldn’t rule it out."
Keane's struggles with homesickness were exacerbated due to travel restrictions and border closures during the coronavirus pandemic, like many of the AFL's Irish cohort.
Collingwood allowed him to return home in August last year, despite two rounds remaining in the home and away season, after permitting him to play Gaelic Football at the end of 2020, where he wrote his name into GAA folklore by kicking the winning goal in a semi-final with the final kick of the game.
The Magpies tried to be as accommodating as possible for Keane over summer, but it got to the point where GM Graham Wright was chasing him and needed an answer at the start of this year.
After putting so much time and effort into him – just like they had with Mason Cox – many inside the football department at the AIA Centre were disappointed Keane decided to turn his back on the final year of his contract, especially when he was poised to play senior football after three years of development.
Veteran recruiting boss Derek Hine was the one that found him and dedicated countless hours into setting him up in Melbourne and putting him on a path to success. Even new head of strategy Justin Leppitsch had seen enough in a two-week training block to be very flat when Keane decided not to come back.
If he had his time again, Keane wouldn't have returned to Ireland for the Christmas break amid another outbreak, but knows his heart wasn’t in playing on in 2022 with his family so far away in Ireland. Torn between two lives, the pressure of home won out.
"I came back to Melbourne in November for pre-season and I had missed the first couple of days. Then I tested positive for COVID and then I had to do 14 days and then I came out and had about eight or nine days before we were finished up for Christmas," Keane said.
"Then I decided I'd head back home for Christmas. I probably shouldn't have headed back home for Christmas. COVID was rampant again, so I had to enter another isolation period. My Munster team was in a hurling final so I ended up playing that and missed the first couple of days of pre-season in January.
"Then I made the decision that my heart wasn’t in it at the time. When I was ready to go back, my heart really wasn’t in it. It was unfair on the coaches, the club and the players as well. I decided to stay at home, where my heart was at the time."
Now the dust has settled, Keane knows he could have added something to Collingwood's undermanned and undersized defence in the early stages of the season, playing under new coach Craig McRae, who has led the Magpies to a 4-3 start.
"It's frustrating because I love 'Fly'. When I was in isolation in Australia he came and visited me and gave me a package and stuff like that. Then when I came out of isolation I felt like I was playing well in training and was getting my fitness up and felt like I was in for a big year," he said.
"It was a pity that love for hurling and football back home is probably something that Australians just don’t get. If you even come over for a weekend in Ireland, you would understand how much it means to your hometown. We don’t grow up transferring clubs and moving clubs and getting drafted into a team. The team you play for is where you grow up; you can't move; you have to stay there.
"It is frustrating knowing that I could have put my best foot forward if I stayed, could have put a really good pre-season in if I stayed there for Christmas and been available for round one selection. It just didn’t go that way unfortunately."
There was an expectation in Ireland that Keane would return to play Gaelic Football for Cork after helping them reach the 2020 Munster Final, but the 194cm defender wanted to test himself at hurling instead.
"Not many go and play intercounty in both at senior level, but growing up I always wanted to do both. When I came back this year, I thought why not give hurling a go while I can. I've opted to play hurling this season," he said.
"I'm trying to learn the game again because I've missed nearly four years. Trying to come back into a setup that is pretty much professional, you just don’t get paid, and trying to fit back in you have to be patient because I haven’t played the game for three or four years. That will come."
Collingwood is yet to discuss the prospect of recruiting Keane again, but have remained in contact the Irishman.
The Magpies lost another Irish import last year but for different circumstances, with Anton Tohill choosing between another season in the AFL or starting a medical degree at university, which couldn’t be deferred any longer.
Before Tohill and Keane arrived at the AIA Centre in 2018, Marty Clarke became a fan favourite in the famous black and white stripes, playing 73 games across six seasons.
Clarke returned home for two years in the middle of his AFL career to pursue his Gaelic Football dream, before coming back to Melbourne to resume his career at the Magpies. Maybe Tohill will follow a similar path back to Collingwood?