The Alarm blasts just after 3.30am every other Wednesday, but it isn't one Conor McKenna dreads. Within half an hour, the Irishman is tucked inside the Heathcote Racing Stables at Eagle Farm Racecourse, ready for trackwork at a time when Brisbane is still under the doona, hours away from its first coffee of the day. 

McKenna is back in Australia and back in the AFL, adjusting to a fresh start while settling into an old role at half-back, where he played 79 games across six seasons for Essendon before walking away from the game amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. 


After making the decision to uproot his life for a second time in the second half of last year, McKenna toured St Kilda, Essendon, Port Adelaide and Brisbane in November – and attracted late interest from three other clubs – before choosing to join the Lions on a one-year rookie deal via the pre-season supplemental selection period. 

The 27-year-old has played the first eight games of 2023 for Chris Fagan's side, quickly proving he can still play at the level and play a role in a side that is hunting its first premiership since 2003. 

But it isn't just about football this time around. The Lions have tapped their network to help provide McKenna with something fulfilling during his time away from the club, something that has made him feel at home, a long way from home. 

"I went back and started training horses when I went home. That is another passion of mine, so I went back and bought a couple of horses and started training them. That made me realise how much I love it," McKenna told in the rooms after the 26-point win over Carlton on Friday night.

"I've started working with horses in Brisbane with a trainer called Robert Heathcote a couple of times a month. Just learning off him – which I love – is something I want to build on in three or four years, whenever I go home and start training horses. 

"My grandad trained horses, my dad trained horses and I rode horses my whole life. I got back into riding horses when I was home. I put it on the backburner when I was at Essendon, but it is something I love and something that keeps me happy away from the club."

When McKenna departed the hub in 2020 his AFL career looked over. He returned to Melbourne to pack up his belongings and swiftly fled a country in lockdown to return home to Northern Ireland. But despite battling homesickness and ugly media persecution for his false positive COVID-19 test in June of that year, he left the door ajar for the right opportunity at the right time.

The time was right last year. McKenna achieved what he wanted to accomplish back home when he helped County Tyrone win its first All-Ireland crown in more than a decade in 2021. And while he was content running a café with his brother back home and preparing for greater involvement in horse racing, he had unfinished business.

"I suppose when I went home in 2020, I was just ready for a break, ready to play some Gaelic Football again," McKenna said. "I went back and was lucky enough to win the All-Ireland, which is what I wanted to do. After I won that I sort of made the decision that I would come back out. I'm very happy with that decision. Myself and my girlfriend are really enjoying living in Brisbane.

"I thought I would always come back at some stage. I knew it was the right decision at the time and I'm very happy that I did go home, but I probably knew at some stage if Gaelic went well – and it did – I would be drawn back towards the lifestyle and the opportunity to play somewhere and go deep into finals and hopefully win a premiership."

When he was being chased by a handful of suitors in 2022, Brisbane's long pursuit didn't go unnoticed. The Lions first made an approach to McKenna's manager, Tom Petroro from TLA Worldwide, back in 2018 before he re-signed with the Bombers. Then Dom Ambrogio went to visit him at home in July last year.

The Lions' list manager was in London with his wife and three children when he boarded a flight on the day the mercury reached 40 degrees for the first time on record in the capital, landing in Belfast 90 minutes later to be greeted by rain and McKenna waiting for him out the front of the airport wearing equestrian boots and a beaming smile.  

Brisbane had a lot of balls in the air last year. It needed to accumulate enough points to match bids for father-son pair Will Ashcroft and Jaspa Fletcher. And it needed to find a way to broker deals to secure the services of Josh Dunkley and Jack Gunston in October. When it came to McKenna, it investigated the ability to recruit him via the next SSP and knew it could land him without using the draft capital it simply couldn't afford to spend in 2022, as long as other clubs didn't hijack that idea.

The Lions just needed to understand what was driving McKenna's intention to return. Was it a financial decision? Or did he actually want to achieve something? Ambrogio found the answers he was looking for in the few hours he spent driving to and from the airport with McKenna and while sitting around the table with his mum and dad inside their home in Northern Ireland.

When McKenna eventually committed to Brisbane, it was a collective effort that secured his signature. Joe Daniher had kept in touch and provided a trusted voice. Pro scout Shane Rogers had tracked his form closely via GAA GO, the Gaelic Football streaming service, and knew he was still physically capable. Head of football Danny Daly's fingerprints were on the move along with Fagan's – they had spent time pitching on long distance phone calls and Zoom meetings – while CEO Greg Swann was involved in the background, helping connect the dots. 

Having lived and breathed life in a football obsessed city, playing for a traditional powerhouse, the opportunity to play off-Broadway at the Gabba appealed to McKenna, but it wasn't the only appeal. After playing in two losing finals during his time at the Bombers, joining a side that had reached the penultimate weekend last season – the second preliminary final in three years – and is primed for a deep September run this year was part of the lure of heading to Brisbane. 

"At Essendon, I played in two or three finals and never won any. That was always a goal of mine. Ideally, I'd love to win a premiership, but to play deep into finals is the goal. That's why I chose to come here to Brisbane. It is a long season, but we have started well and hopefully we can do that," he said.

"Queensland was definitely appealing because it's not as AFL focused, so you can fly under the radar a bit more, which is really enjoyable. My girlfriend had a few friends up there which made it easier for her, but it was also about the change from Melbourne – that was one of the main reasons."

McKenna only has a contract for 2023 and hasn't thought too far beyond this season. Other clubs offered more lucrative and longer terms, but he wanted to prove himself first after the way things ended last time. There is no timeframe on his second stint in the AFL, but now at a more mature point in his life, and with his partner Amy based with him Brisbane, this is a different McKenna to the one who lived in Melbourne.

"The first time I was here I always wanted to get home, whereas now I'm a lot more settled," he said. "If it's two years I'm happy, if it's five years it doesn't bother me. That's a big thing for me, because previously, as soon as the season was over I was just gone out the door back to Ireland. I'm a lot more settled now with my girlfriend and in Brisbane. If it's two or five years, it doesn't bother me, to be honest."

With Zach Tuohy and Mark O'Connor becoming just the second and third premiership players from the Emerald Isle last September, McKenna is on a mission to become the fourth after Tadhg Kennelly got there first in 2005. 

Whether he returns home at the end of his career with a premiership medallion or not, McKenna will return ready for the next phase of his life. And that's doing what is in his blood. That's why he is spending so much of his spare time at Eagle Farm. That's why he doesn't mind the early morning alarms.