‘I wanted my AFL career to go on for 10 or 12 years but everyone has a different journey. I’ve accepted that’

Glass competes for possession with Sam Powell-Pepper during an AFL game last August.

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ASKED TO DESCRIBE the lowest point of his four-and-a-half-year Australian odyssey, Conor Glass’s mind immediately jumps back to a 2019 AFL game against Collingwood.

Hawthorn won 67-63 on a night where Irish housemates Glass and Conor Nash both appeared for the winning team in front of 66,407 supporters at the historic Melbourne Cricket Ground.

On a personal level, however, the Derry native was deeply unhappy with his performance.

“I had a shocker of a game,” he tells The42, ”it was just one of those days where you can’t do anything right.”

Returning home to his Melbourne apartment and feeling “pretty low”, Glass made the mistake of flicking through social media. As an athlete in the spotlight, not least a professional player, it can be a dangerous game.

Some comments under the club’s accounts were targeted at him and did not make for kind reading. 

“I did the stupid thing of going on social media and I wasn’t getting nice things said about me.

“That obviously put me in a pretty shit spot so after that moment I just made sure not to look at social media because it can be pretty bad at times. 

“You’re kind of scrutinised in everything you do. You’re scrutinising yourself, the coaches are and the fans on top of that. So it can be pretty hard to build that motivation and confidence up again.

“But that’s where the resilience and mental toughness comes in. I feel like I’m better off for it now that I went through it and I’ve learned how to deal with it.

“Hopefully it’s something I can pass onto other players in the county (Derry) if they’re struggling with it because I’ve lived and breathed it for five years.”

Thankfully for Glass, he endured nothing like the intense media scrutiny directed at Tyrone’s Conor McKenna during his false positive Covid-19 saga at the tail end of his AFL career. 

“They were all on about him getting Covid and it was just a false test,” he says of the notoriously critical Australian media. “They were kind of putting up posts as if it was a bad thing and they didn’t care about his mental health or his actual wellbeing.

“They all just want to make the best story so they’ll go to any depth to do so and have no real thought about the person they’re writing about. Thankfully I’d nothing really to that extent.”

Glass attempts to make a catch during a 2019 showdown with Collingwood.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Glass worked closely with the club’s in-house sports psychologist Tarah Kavanagh to help him regain his confidence during those tough days. 

“She would have helped me through those tough times after that Collingwood game when I was feeling a bit down she would have helped me get out of that spiral I was in,” he recalls.

“So it was good in that regard of helping you in times when you were finding it tough but then also putting in steps of how to get better and not lose your concentration during games.

“So it’s just the small thing that people don’t really think about but they make a hell of a difference.”

It’s an experience he is confident will stand to him as he resumes his inter-county career with the Oak Leafers almost five years after his departure. A hot-shot minor, he left after finishing 6th year at St Patrick’s, Maghera.

Hawthorn had been tracking Glass since he was 15. He’d already made three trips to Melbourne to visit the club’s facilities before he signed as an international B rookie in October 2015.

By the time he was 18, the Glen man had won three county and Ulster club minor titles with the Watty Graham team, in addition to two MacRory Cups and a Hogan Cup with Maghera and an Ulster minor crown with Derry.

Glass tackles Donegal’s Jamie Brennan during the Ulster MFC quarter-final in 2014.

Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

He live many sportsman’s dream in enjoying a professional lifestyle in a sun-drenched paradise. But it was no holiday. It’s a punishing game, one that many GAA players struggle to adapt to physically.

The training is extremely demanding and it’s a highly pressurised environment competing with elite young Australian talent who’ve played the sport all their lives.

Moving to the far side of the world on his own as a teenager undoubtedly helped build a mental resolve and maturity in Glass. 

There were injuries along the way and sure, he’d have liked to have made more than 21 top-level appearances for the club, but such is life. 

“Obviously I wanted my AFL career to go on for 10, 12 years but everyone has a different journey,” he remarks. “I’ve accepted that.”

The pandemic ultimately played a role in his decision to return home last October.

“The club and I had a number of conversations about what was best for me in the future,” he explains.

“The whole unknowns in the AFL with salary caps and list sizes, they couldn’t really offer anything at that moment in time because they just didn’t know.

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“Then they was a waiting period of one or two months where I had to wait. They said they still wouldn’t know until the AFL came out and implemented the list sizes.

“To be honest I could have stayed out and pursued another few clubs and seen what that had to offer but at that moment in time I was keen to come home with the whole Covid situation and growing up wanting to play Gaelic. My heart was then in the GAA.

“So we thought the best decision for me was to go home and pursue Gaelic.

“With Derry being a young team and my university and stuff as well, it because pretty clear that I was probably going to head home and pursue what I’m doing now.”

Glass has nothing but good things to say about Hawthorn, the same club Ciaran Kilkenny had a brief stint with in 2012.

“Hawthorn has a rich culture and it’s known as the family club. That’s exactly what they are. Never once did I feel out of place or like I didn’t belong there. 

“They’ve a rich history of success as well and they didn’t let that success get to their heads. They treated everyone on the same level and focused more on the person rather than the athlete.”

Delving deeper into the club’s philosophy of developing people first, Glass says: “No-one wants to play with someone who’s a dickhead. You want to be playing with someone that you’re friendly with, who you can get along with.

“If you have that relationship off the field, it’s a lot easier on the field as well. I think that’s something we can definitely bring in and it will only make the team better.

“It’s in the All-Blacks book Legacy that there’s no dickheads. Everyone’s there for the same reason, there’s no real individuals there. They’re all striving towards the same goal. And then your culture is just what you stand for.

Glass runs with the ball during a team training session at the Ricoh Centre, Mulgrave, Melbourne.

Source: AAP/PA Images

“You live and breathe it on and off the field. It’s kind of what you’re known for, so that’s something we need to bring. So it’s just about striving towards that each year and living and breathing it, on and off the field.” 

Managed by the league’s longest-serving head coach Alastair Clarkson, he became the first Irishman to represent the club when he made his debut in 2017. 

As it happened Glass’s family were visiting from Ireland when he got word he was in line to make his first AFL appearance the following weekend.

“They were originally going to head home the week before but then they extended their stay for another week because I was playing that weekend,” he recalls.

“It was in Perth as well, I’ve a few cousins over there as well. It was just the whole occasion of making my debut and being the first Irishman to play for Hawthorn, having the family there to celebrate it with me.” 

The club housed him with Meath native Nash from the get-go and the pair formed a close bond over the years.

“We’re friends for life,” he smiles. “We’ve actually been chatting pretty much everyday about a few small things. We spent pretty much five years living together so I can’t get rid of him now.”

Housemates Glass and Nash train together during the lockdown.

Source: AAP/PA Images

He left as a boy and returns as a man, ready to become a leader for Derry. 

Glass made his senior debut just days after flying back into the country. It came almost five years to the day when he signed on the dotted line with Hawthorn.

An October league game in a cold and empty Celtic Park against Longford couldn’t have been further from lining out in sunnier climes at a packed MCG, but Glass felt at home.

“I was chatting to Rory [Gallagher] and I wasn’t sure if was able to play that week because I was fresh off the plane.

“He said he’d give me some game-time and it was probably the best thing he could have done just giving me that experience of playing at the elite level again and chucking me in at the deep end.

“It was something I grew up wanting to do and pulling on that jersey for the first time was pretty surreal and hopefully there’s plenty of good days to follow.”

He is not shy about stating his ambition when it comes to this Derry team.

 ”A lot of the boys playing now I grew up playing with through school, club and even county level. We did it tough going down to Division 4 but hopefully it’s going to be a big year for us now. For myself and a lot of people in Derry, we’re not a Division 3 team.

“We should be pushing for All-Irelands and getting back to where we were in ’93.”

Glass reacts after Armagh knocked Derry out of the Ulster SFC.

Source: Lorcan Doherty/INPHO

So that’s the aim, to compete for Sam Maguire with Derry?

“I think so. The amount of success we’ve had through college level and minors…we should be pushing for Ulsters, 100%. And if we’re pushing for Ulsters at the elite level then there’s no reason why we can’t go on and do the whole thing.” 

Chrissy McKaigue spoke in the past about bringing ideas from his tenure at the Sydney Swans and implementing them in Slaughtneil, who subsequently enjoyed remarkable success.

Glass is determined to have a similar impact with the Glen and Derry.

“It’s something I want to bring in and it’s probably something I’ve noticed ever since I got back to Derry that there is a good culture and it’s a good group of lads,” says the 23-year-old.

“I suppose just the standards around training. The extras before and after training – the extra touch sessions everything like that is massive over in Oz. Just the 1 percenters that you can get to get ahead of other counties, just doing that extra touch and having that ball in your hands more than anyone else.

“So it’s just the training standards of training those extras, not physically but more just smarter and probably the mental IQ as well rather than just running up and down the pitch. You have to be smart on the field.

“One thing I’ve noticed ever since being back is they’re doing everything right at the moment. They’re pretty much a professional set-up. It’s not as if they’re doing the wrong things, they’re doing everything right and everything they can to get out of the players. So it’s pretty good to see.” 

Conor Glass after kicking a goal for the Hawks in round 12 of the 2020 AFL season.

Source: AAP/PA Images

Now taking lectures as a first year accountancy student in Ulster University, he’s still adjusting to living back at home and training on his own in winter conditions.

“My dad won two Sigersons [with UU], that’s one of my reasons for going to Jordanstown was to try get more Sigersons than him,” he laughs. “I think that’s the only thing he has over me.”

It’s all up in the air at the minute, but inter-county action has been slated to return at the end of next month.

“Back living with the parents now. Obviously would have enjoyed not being in lockdown, spending a lot of time in the house.

“It’s not ideal but it’s good being home and being around family and friends again. Just being back in my hometown and living this lifestyle, I don’t mind it at all.  

“Originally when I got back Derry were allowed to train away because of their elite status.

“When the season ended and the second lockdown started, just having the motivation to get up and train in the mornings with the unknowns of when we’re going to be back training and playing.

“Hopefully the date of the 27/28 of February when the league starts goes ahead and at least it’s something to work towards rather than the unknowns of going out and training for no real reason.

“A lot of the boys I’d be friendly with from Hawthorn are back training at the minute. They’ve sunny days of 30 degrees and here’s me sitting about with lockdown in -3 or -4. I guess there is a bit of jealousy.

“But it’s the decision I made and I don’t regret making it at all.”

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