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Heslin returns to give Westmeath football a much needed boost

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 22nd February, 2012 5:30pm

It's Friday on Facebook. The news feed tells us that the 'Westmeath U21s' group has added a new member to its ranks - one John Heslin.

It was a low-key confirmation of a rumour that surfaced around Christmas: that one of Westmeath GAA's brightest young prospects - just months after signing a professional Australian Rules contract - was coming home.

The plane had hardly touched the tarmac at Dublin Airport when the prodigious forward wanted to tog out in his beloved blue and white.

Still jetlagged, the 19-year-old joined his St Loman's colleagues on Sunday morning for a league game against St Malachy's. The Mullingar outfit won, and Heslin chipped in with a point.

"This is what it's all about for me," said Heslin after Sunday's game. "

"I have to enjoy what I'm doing. If I didn't enjoy playing football for Loman's or Westmeath, I wouldn't do it, simple as that."

Homesickness brought him back to Ireland, the national press told us last weekend: missing his family, friends, the Irish way of life, and most of all, the round ball game.

"There were a number of other reasons," Heslin said. "It all came to a point where I knew that Australia wasn't the place to be at this stage in my life.

"It's not all rosy over there. People have to work very hard to have a great lifestyle in Australia, and it's that bit more easier if you're with people you know."

Unlike other young Irish ex-pats living in Australia, who work with and meet with each other on a weekly basis, Heslin felt cut off from any ties to home during his short career with AFL club, Richmond Tigers.

He just couldn't settle into the AFL culture, and thoughts of home weighed on his mind.

"I didn't have a problem with the training in Richmond. It was just the atmosphere and the culture. I couldn't get used to it," he said.

Living in a comfortable house with four Tigers colleagues, Heslin spent his tenure in Australia "driving a brand new jeep".

"I had a TV that I never had in my life, a bed with a couch built into it. I was getting paid good money. But none of that interests me if I don't enjoy what I'm doing."

With his fellow Loman's forward, Conor Lynam having recently announced his decision to travel this summer, Heslin's return comes as a welcome shot in the arm for manager Kenny McKinley, ahead of this year's championship.

It is understood that Westmeath senior and U21 football manager Pat Flanagan came to see Heslin on his return to action with St Loman's last Sunday. Indeed, he rejoined the U21 panel for their challenge against Longford on Tuesday night, and is expected to return to the senior panel soon.

But he's taking it slow.

"I just need to get a bit of football under my belt, and fine tune how I read the game again," he said.

Heslin doesn't regret his move to Australia, and learned a lot from it. Positive thinking plays a huge part in that learning experience.

He feels that negativity has become all pervading here - not just in Westmeath and not just with regard to GAA, but "in the whole country".

Heslin is determined to keep his approach positive, and is buoyed by developments like Garrycastle's qualification for the All-Ireland club final.

"I'm delighted for them," he remarked. "I'll go to Croke Park on Paddy's Day to cheer them on. It's great for football in Westmeath, and a great opportunity for Dessie Dolan to win an All-Ireland senior football medal. He's an idol of mine."