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A football career without peer: Aaron Kearney

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Roar Rookie
4th June, 2019
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Want a career in sport? One bloke thought he could fulfil his dream of creating a sporting career through belting a tennis ball against a wall for hour after hour at his parents Hunter Valley farm with a cricket bat.

His three younger sisters no doubt thought their brother was nuts, but this kid saw a glorious future for himself that included many thousands of Test match runs and leading his team to Ashes glory with the bat!

It never happened, but who’s to say what did happen was any less glorious? Aaron Kearney has gone on to carve a long career in sports journalism that not only enabled him to report on some of the finest moments in Australian sporting history but also enabled him to build programs to assist in the development of communities and dramatically change the lives of individuals.

Very few career athletes can make such a claim!

Sport was everywhere as Kearney grew up. His high school not only produced champion football (soccer) teams but it also produced some of the nation’s finest ever rugby league footballers (Andrew and Matty Johns, no less).

Kearney established himself as one of the region’s best cricketers (he went on to play local first grade for several decades) and, in his spare time, established himself as a state championship tennis contender.

Kearney warns against anyone mistaking him for a gifted athlete, however. He believes that any sporting success that came his way was “hard-won.” Despite his self-proclaimed lack of natural ability preventing him from forging a career in the professional sporting ranks, he discovered writing and talking about sport enabled him to stay close to the world he loved.

It is a strange quirk of fate that the one sport Kearney avoided like the plague as a youngster became the sport that he not only grew to love passionately, but also became the sport he was able to build a wonderful career around.

Why did he avoid football as a kid?

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Because “I was no good at it … and it’s hard enough devoting time to sports that I could make a fist of than to one that I couldn’t”, says Kearney.

Much later in his life, he did take up competitive football and he wasn’t half bad at it considering he didn’t kick his first ball in anger until he was well into his thirties. But he is pretty sure that he had been reporting on and commentating football matches for some time before he finally took the game up himself.

Kearney’s football (reporting) career commenced around 18 years ago, when he approached a local radio station in the hope of getting a gig doing some rugby league commentary work. Only weeks after starting at the station, management were approached by Con Constantine, owner of the Newcastle United National League Soccer team, in the hope of getting his team’s games broadcasted.

As the station’s football ‘expert’ the finger was pointed straight at Kearney to make local live broadcasting happen in the Newcastle area. Kearney was fine with being offered the new challenging role but, given no-one in Australia was doing any live football radio broadcasting at the time, he didn’t have a single model to base his own presentation on.

“I had to have a friend in Ireland press record and play on a cassette player when the BBC was calling a football match and then send the cassette tape out to me,” says Kearney now.

Kearney used those BBC tapes to teach himself how to commentate radio football and he has now been serving the Newcastle region’s football fans with their team’s home-and-away games – around 700 games in total – since then.

“I have sat on barbeque plates at Melbourne United, drilled holes into walls of grandstands, crawled underneath seating to plug into fax machines… all to enable me to bring Newcastle games to the local punters. It’s funny that of all the sports I have been obsessed with, this is the one that has delivered my working life.”

In recent years, Kearney’s career has taken an interesting turn. Instead of merely commentating and giving expert reports on the game here in Australia, much of his career is now centred around teaching people from far-flung communities about television broadcasting and how they can take sports to their local communities.

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For him, sports broadcasting has turned to teaching sports broadcasting for community development.

Kearney’s interest in community work was stimulated over 20 years ago when he worked with a documentary team that travelled off-road for the full length of Africa. The poverty and violence he saw along the way had a huge impact on him and made him determined to, at some stage, apply his skills toward assisting communities.

Back in Australia, he set about growing his sports journalism career, but a brief stint in Papua New Guinea in 2008 working with a documentary team on the Kokoda Track reminded Kearney of his desire to assist communities.

His chance came on Christmas Eve 2012, when his ABC employers advertised a job for an Australian sports journalist to assist the sports department of the Papua New Guinea Broadcasting Commission with broadcast training.

Kearney was thrilled to get the job but on the completion of the posting, despite the effusive praise showered on him by his PNGBC hosts and the joy he found in working there, he regretted taking on the role with such limited knowledge and skills in relation to how adults learn and how skills and knowledge can be passed on across cultures and of Pacific cultures in general.

Kearney’s feelings of inadequacy led to a ground-breaking research Masters degree that focused on how broadcasting can be effectively used as a tool for community development.

Post-university studies, Kearney applied his Masters findings to the real world firstly, when he co-executively produced the Papua New Guinea national coverage of the 2015 Pacific Games, and secondly, when he was offered a full-time appointment within the ABC International Development unit working on Pacific sports partnerships.

The greatest spin-off from Kearney’s thinking about the importance of sport as a social activator and from his university studies was his “Commentating for Good” concept that has now manifested itself over several international community development programs.

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Central to “Commentating for Good” is the training program developed by Kearney to empower people to produce a professional standard broadcast of a sporting event.

“Women in News and Sport,” a program run jointly by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and the ABC International Development unit, jumped at the chance to apply Kearney’s concept and training program to their work and this culminated in him leading a team of gifted women from Papua New Guinea, Ni Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands to successfully provide coverage of the football World Cup qualifying tournament in Lautoka, Fiji, to the Pacific Region.

Kearney explains that sports commentary is something that many people think is easy to do but very few people are genuinely good at it. His job became enabling people to achieve proficiency at this complex and difficult skill. This aspect of his work gives Kearney enormous satisfaction in that it not only provides life-changing skills to deserving people, but gives the broadcasters the opportunity to impart critical community information while their punters are enjoying an exciting sporting experience.

“If everyone is going to be tuning into a netball final you are broadcasting, you can advertise details about the upcoming vaccination clinic as part of that. It’s a good example of a possible sustainable community development strategy that might come with the goal of developing commentary skills!” says Kearney.

The wonderful work achieved in the Pacific through the “Women in News and Sport” program has now been given an even larger and more exciting task.

“FIFA heard about this aspect of the WIMS program and they approached me at the beginning of the year and said how about we take some women to the World Cup and we broadcast games in hybrid English and indigenous languages back to the women’s countries in the Pacific,” Kearney explains!

As a result, Kearney will be coach, advisor, mentor, supporter, facilitator and chief dog’s body to three women – two from Vanuatu and one from Fiji – and they will travel to France to commentate all the New Zealand football team’s World Cup matches back to the Pacific.

“Our coverage will broadcast back to the Oceania Football Federation web site, but we also have nine simulcast deals with nine countries throughout the Pacific as well! It’s going to be women from the Pacific broadcasting back to the Pacific. It’s kind of awesome when you say it out loud. It’s huge. I keep on saying ‘wow’ to myself!”

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Exciting as the opportunity is for Kearney and his team, he admits that he is terrified. Kearney is the first to admit that while philosophising about community development goals is right up his street and that he can do a bang-up job at commentating and teaching commentary the technical stuff is not exactly his strong point.

“Here is what is absolutely certain,” he says.

“Three women from developing nations in the Pacific who are highly talented will be given the opportunity to perform on the biggest stage in the world and they are going to do a superb job – and they are going to be the pride of their nation – and they are going to believe that anything is possible – and they are going to show the people around them (their daughters, their brothers, their fathers, even their haters) that they are capable of anything.

“That much will be achieved. That is the micro truth of it. It will change the lives of those who are directly involved and those who see what they are capable of achieving.

“With some investment talented people from any environment can be brought up to a standard where they will present the game in a brilliant light that will attract new fans and that will provide a model for the broadcast future of football.

“That is local people, with local knowledge with world-class training presenting their local version of the world game to their local area and I really hope that that will prove to the world that this is a viable model for the future. That we have struck on something here that is very special.

“For all of this, I have no doubts around any of it, other than can I connect the computer and make sure that the signal gets to New Zealand to be distributed! That’s the stuff that is giving me anxiety! Not the training. Not the capacity of the women. Not the travel. None of that. Just – will the signal go?”

Not only is Kearney’s latest project showing the world a model for the future of sports broadcasting, he is also providing a model of how a fanatical sports lover can aspire to a rich, varied and satisfying career in sport.

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Through his writing, reporting, broadcasting, studying, promotion, teaching and social activism he has demonstrated that sports lovers do not have to tightly fit into a single sporting box. This multi-award-winning journalist and sports social worker is showing us just how many ways it is possible to leave a worthwhile mark on the world.

It wasn’t that many years ago that Kearney found himself on the sideline only metres away from John Aloisi as the big striker ripped his shirt off after banging a penalty shot into the back of the net rocketing Australia into its first FIFA World Cup finals series in decades and thus witnessing one of Australia’s finest ever sporting moments from very close range.

Things are no less exciting for Kearney right now. Few people would realise that the managing of the micro-details of a trip to France (like ordering special headphone jacks online and booking railway tickets between Grenoble and Le Havre) is exciting but his journey started on June 4 so there were thousands of tiny details to be organised in a very short period of time.

He had the get the details right!

Even though “plugging **** in” is not his strength, Kearney will be ready.