Farewell, Tadhg
Farewell to Tadhg. Fair play to you.

The end of an era. Oh, we use that phrase too readily. But today, with Tadhg Kennelly apparently due to announce his retirement from AFL football, an era of my life truly has ended.

I swore, after last night’s wank-fest, to put a moratorium on personal pretentions on this blog for a while, and try to focus more on politics. Parliament is sitting for the first time in 2009 next week, and it will be interesting to check out what is on the agenda.

But Kennelly’s retirement trumps any personal oaths, and so I shall, for the last time, tell the story of how I followed the career of Tadhg Kennelly.

It’s a story I’ve told a thousand times, part of my own personal mythology. Kennelly is a figure that looms large over my teenage years and early twenties- not the man himself, but the time I spent following his career, and the strange places it led my life. Now, with my aspirations to work in professional sport thoroughly behind me, I can write the story publicly for the very first time.  Oh, I’m undoubtedly embarrassed by it- but it my story, and I will publicly admit to being a reformed fangirl.

On January 14th, 2000, we returned to Australia after living in Vancouver, Washington, for almost three years. I was truly heartbroken. In Vancouver, I had found friends for whom I cared deeply and a lifestyle I loved. Plus, I was studying for the International Baccalaureate at a public school, an opportunity I knew would not be available to me in Australia. I was sad.

We stayed in an apartment block in Wollongong, right near North Beach. Michael Bevan was still playing then, so watching the One Day International cricket was a salve to my teenage wounds. Lying on the floor one day, in that little apartment, I was watching Channel Ten news, when an segment about a young Irish lad who’d just moved to Australia began. He was featured with members of his family: his former football star father, onto whose back he playfully leapt, his mother and his younger sister.

“There,” I thought. “There is someone who is going through what I’m going through.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but his move must have been immeasurably worse than mine. I was returning to a country I knew well, where I had family and friends and history. And I was returning with my parents and my brothers. He was alone, apart from his family. As I was to discover several years later, it’s a horrible, horrible feeling.

From that moment on, I followed his career- though I did pronounce his name Tad-hig, rather than Tieg (like Tiger, without the Rrrr). I remember when he made his debut, some 18 months later as I was rapidly approaching my HSC trials. I watched it on TV at our home in the Blue Mountains- they were playing Carlton, and when he was interviewed, I could hardly understand a word.

I finished school, and went to uni. Strangely, I decided to attend the University of New South Wales- the only student from my year at school to do so. It was a long ol’ trek from Hazelbrook to Kensington every day, but I liked the vibe at the UNSW open day so much, it didn’t seem so far- and remember, these were in the pre-iPod days.

Around the time I started uni, my dear friend Bron and I went to the Adidas International Tennis Tournament to cheer for our favourite tennis players, Arnaud Clement and Sebastien Grosjean. We painted our faces and put ribbons in our hair and made dresses from the French flag. It was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

The highlight was undoubtedly meeting Grosjean and Clement, having photographs with them and getting their autographs. We were probably a little old to be doing it, but it was just so much fun.

On the way back to the Mountains, on the train, we came up with a game: we’d each list 10 famous sportspeople (no more than 3 from any sport, and at least 4 non-Australian international representatives), meet them, and get photos and an autograph with each. My list was as follows:

  1. Sebastien Grosjean
  2. Arnaud Clement
  3. Marat Safin
  4. Arnoldus (Andy) Blignaut (Zimbabwean cricket player)
  5. Mat Rogers (then still a Rugby Union player)
  6. Ian Thorpe
  7. Matt Welsh (long before he was Bert Newton’s son-in-law)
  8. Brett Lee
  9. Michael Bevan; and,
  10. Tadhg Kennelly.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe the relentlessness with which I pursued my goal. Clement and Grosjean were easy. Welsh and Thorpe followed soon after, at a swimming tournament at Sydney Olympic Park (entry fee: $2. Still remarkable). Mat Rogers released a book soon after, so he was easy to catch at a signing. Lee and Bevan both played for NSW in the cricket, so that wasn’t difficult either.

The story of how I met Andy Blignaut is for another day (my brief tenure a Zimbabwean cricket fan truly is a funny story), and Marat Safin, which epic in status, stature and sexiness, was remarkably easy to meet. So I had them: nine sports stars, nine autographs, nine photos. There was only one left.

Six months into my tenure at UNSW, as I was well on the way to crossing those nine names off the list, I sat in our pool room on our family’s sole computer, using the dial-up internet to search for information about Tadhg Kennelly. And there it was. An article- and I remember the title, “Six Swans seek their goals by degrees”- informed me that Tadhg was studying at the very same university at me… in the same faculty… in the same department.

Oh dear.

The discovery certainly complicated my plans to meet him. What if I went to meet him and then discovered him in a lecture? Or worse, a tute? The shame would be unparalleled.

But my attendance at uni improved, and every time I sat on the library lawn, I wondered: could Tadhg be here. My fascination bordered on obsession. But I was young, and thus obsessiveness is excusable.

In the second semester of my second year of uni, my family moved to China. Everyone but me. It pretty much wrecked me. I was devastated. Though I had a long time to prepare, and my parents did provide me with financial support, the shock of being separated from my whole family- and of them leaving me alone- was far greater than I ever anticipated. I feel to pieces.

But the weekend after they left, I went to a Swans game- just my second. It was Swans vs. Collingwood, at then-Telstra stadium. It was the wettest night imaginable, the rain falling in sheets, almost painful as it hit. The teams were competing for second place on the ladder. It was close, but the Swans lost.

And my tears began.

I cried for hours in the car, waiting for the rain to be light enough so that we might drive home. I didn’t know what I was crying about: was it that the Swans lost or that my parents had left? Now, of course, it’s abundantly obvious, but football offered a way for me to purge that emotion, and momentarily forget the loneliness I felt, being far away from those I loved best.

And so it began, my obsession with the Swans. I attended the rest of the season’s games, and bought a membership the next year. At the football, I found a community I sorely needed and a way to emotionally engage with something other than my own problems every week. I started travelling to away games.

But still, I’d not met Tadhg.

In the first few weeks of the first semester of my third year of uni, I again looked around every new class, hoping that Tadhg might be there. He wasn’t. After meeting Safin the previous summer, Tadhg was the only one left on the list. I would have to swallow my pride. I would have to go and meet him.

So, one day, on my way home from uni, I stopped to watch the Swans train outside the SCG. I had no camera, nothing. I called Mum in China from my spot in the sunshine, and she wired me $50, so I could go and buy a camera. I raced over to Fox Studios, bought a disposable camera, and raced back. To my great disappointment, the group had gone inside…

…Except for Tadhg and Adam Goodes, who lagged behind. I went over to Tadhg. I spoke in the tiniest, girliest voice imaginable, such were my nerves and excitement. He asked my name. “Erin,” I said. “Oh, that’s a good Irish name.”

Thank you, mum, for giving me that name.

Adam Goodes took the photo. Then he took another, just in case. “You’re my favourite,” I blurted out, in that tiny voice. Tadhg offered to take a photo of Adam and I, but in my embarrassed ecstasy after meeting him, I said no.

I had the disposable camera photos developed that night- all three of them. I went to Colours with Bron and the girls that night for dinner, and proudly took my photos. I was just impossibly happy.

The following week, I went to uni as usual, on Wednesday. It was a good day, right from the start, and I was wearing my favourite new pink 50s-style a-line skirt, which were all the rage. Wednesdays were my best day- only two classes, separated with a good three hours or so of talking to friends and drinking amazing Library Lawn coffee. In my earlier years, I’d spurned library lawn coffee because of the line, until I realized the line was there for a reason.

This particular Wednesday, I was walking up the stairs from lower campus when who should walk by me but Stephen Doyle. Stephen Doyle! A real, live Sydney Swan at Uni. Oh, the excitement!

I couldn’t stop grinning. I flashed my pearly whites to every person I walked past. Random stranges, lecturers I knew, this tall guy with dark hair.


I looked back. He looked back.

It was him.

After two years of avoiding embarrassing fan-girl antics in the fear that I would see Tadhg at uni, I finally saw him, just a week after our meeting.

To be continued…

*Next time* Friendship, Honours, Glory: the 2005 Premiership

*Later* A Real Live Swan: my time as a professional Sports writer.

6 Responses

  1. This is such a beautiful story. I mean, I’ve heard it several times before, and it’s STILL gorgeous.

    A story for another time – you MUST tell me how you met Marat Safin.

  2. You left out the part about sitting in an Irish Studies tutorial and meeting one of the most awesome friends as a result of asking about the links between Gaelic Football and AFL as a way of not having to discuss the book none of us had read….!

  3. a swan through thick & thin (hair), we will miss you tadhgy. Slán!
    (geez way to make someone sound dead heidy..)

    lovely story miss riley. can’t wait for episode ‘next time’.

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