LISTEN to Ciaran Kilkenny for just a few moments, as he articulates his reasons for dropping his anchor in Dublin for once and for all last Christmas, and the old cynic in you quickly fades away.
Is this the game blighted by so much deliberate foul play that it has warranted six months of work from a committee to overhaul it, that he’s talking about?
Is this one of the games that has required tough legislation on sideline numbers to avert the potential for maelstrom?
Is this really a game under threat from other professional sports and suffering from the absence of a regular payroll?
Something else becomes apparent as you listen. Dublin football, and maybe even Dublin hurling, is in very secure hands for the next decade.
Kilkenny’s belief that he was “raised to win All-Irelands” and not Grand Finals many thousands of miles away is a chilling shot across the bows of all of Dublin’s potential rivals.
This young man, not yet 20 years of age, is sure of the direction he is taking in every aspect of life.
At Croke Park yesterday, where he was unveiled as one of the ambassadors for gaelicboots.com, a commercial initiative between the GAA and Gaelic Players Association – the profit from which will benefit player welfare – Kilkenny gave perhaps the most positive testimony for being a Gaelic footballer imaginable.
Even his intention to get an arts degree – Maynooth, UCD and St Pat’s will be vying for that enrolment – in Irish and history so that he can teach these subjects is a variation on the same theme.
At the end of six weeks in Australia doing pre-season with Hawthorn, who had won the race to sign him, Kilkenny just knew that the AFL wasn’t for him.
The lure of Gaelic games back home was too magnetic and that was the basis for his decision.
“Just the free-flowing flair that’s in the GAA, just the end-to-end, just the passion in the game is phenomenal,” he explained.
“That everyone out there is playing out of love of the game, and the love of their county.
“Just the passion, a jam-packed Croke Park, 82,000. It’s unreal playing out there in Croke Park and I couldn’t hide my love for the game at the end of the day.
“In AFL they take the mark and they go back and then when you’re tackled, it’s a ball-up or whatever.
“In GAA, it’s just so free-flowing and it’s so intense, and you can’t really beat that.
“I’m glad I went out because it made me appreciate how much I cherish Ireland and how much I cherish the GAA.
“Homesickness wasn’t an issue. It wasn’t that at all. I didn’t really miss my parents when I was out there!
“It was just the whole … the connections and interactions you’d make playing for five or six teams, your club, your county. It’s just brilliant.
“The whole GAA – you can go to the other side of the country and talk to a random person about the GAA, and you can be there for two or three hours.
“I could never hide the love or passion I have for the games. That was one of the main things that influenced my decision.”
The average AFL contract is worth Aus$180,000 (e140,000). As a young international rookie with all the qualities to make it and already in the lead group for any of the endurance tests he did at Hawthorn, Kilkenny could probably have risen above that in time to come.
But a professional life of sport just wasn’t for him, that realisation franked one day when he was checked from running out on to a field to do some extra kicking practice, a prohibition completely at odds with his free spirit.
“Just the whole professional lifestyle probably wasn’t for me, because I just enjoy playing so much just purely for the love of the game.
“I remember when I was out in Australia, it was because I wanted to do well that I was going to do extra kicking and they said ‘don’t go out and do that’.
“And I was kind of like, the only way I feel I can get better is go out and kick a thousand balls and perfect my game.
“So I’d rather play the game I love out of pure enjoyment rather than it being my job.
“I thought I would have had a good chance of making it because I was doing pretty well at all the endurance aspects.
“I would be in the top group fitness-wise over there, so I thought I would have had a good chance.
“But at the end of the day I weighed up would I rather win All-Irelands in football and hurling and titles with my club and college and all these other aspects or win the Grand Final.
“I was raised to win All-Irelands. That was embedded in me – the whole tradition of my dad playing and my cousins and everything.
“I’m proud about our history and our culture, and I’d rather win All-Irelands than win Grand Finals.”
Even before he left for Australia in late October, he admits he was having second thoughts.
“I think if I played any other game, I’d always want to just come back to the GAA because even when I was going, a week before I was about to go, I said to my parents ‘Look, I think I’m going to stay’.
“But they said you might as well give it a go and have no regrets.
“I’m just glad that I went out – it made me appreciate what I have here and made me realise how much I love the GAA.”
He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of hurling with the Dublin seniors in the future but said his priority on his return was his club, Castleknock, and their All-Ireland junior club semi-final and then the Dublin U-21 footballers. Later this year he will commit to the U-21 hurlers.
“When I came back it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. I’ve never hidden my love for the hurling, I love the hurling game and I’m not ruling that out.”