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Conor Glass still enjoying AFL life, despite challenges

PARENTS know, they always know. If it were day-to-day then maybe Clare and Cathal Glass wouldn’t have noticed the change in their son Conor as much. But an Australian Rules career had brought him to Melbourne and face-to-face contact was limited to weekly Sunday night video calls between two parties 10,000 miles apart. Week-to-week is harder to hide.

To his friends back in Derry, Conor Glass was living the dream. In reality he was in a hole but the boy who had to become a man fast was not for hiding. He never has hidden.

In Ulster, schools’ football is the place where you keep your ear to the ground in order to find out who the next potential superstar is and over the last 20 years a number of candidates have been talked about in the corridors of educational establishments across the province.

Sean Cavanagh was ear-marked for greatness early on while the legends of Mark Lynch and Michael Murphy grew rapidly as the school years progressed, two players who possessed strength and size that didn’t seem fair to the pupils they would face.

St Colman’s speedster Caolan Mooney – the man who couldn’t be caught – quickly built up a reputation while a few years earlier across town, Abbey CBS had a potential wunderkind in Stephen Sands before injury curtailed the Saval man’s career.

Perhaps the most talked about though was this rangy kid from Maghera with a mop of red hair that made him impossible to miss.

Excellence on the field was matched by a modesty and humility off it, ensuring that his meteoric rise was never going to be disrupted by any attitude problems.

From representing St Patrick’s, Maghera in the MacRory Cup as a fourth year through to kicking his first AFL goal against Essendon two weeks ago, Glass remains the same grounded, confident and respectful individual that came up through the ranks of Watty Graham’s.

Glass has already racked up five appearances this season and looks set to better the 10 showings that he accumulated over the 2017 and ’18 seasons.

His contract runs out at the end of the 2020 season but if he keeps impressing like he is currently, a renewal could very well be on the table – although it’s something that he’s keeping at the back of his mind.

“I signed an extra year last year so that extends me through to 2020. It’s up in November of that year,” said 21-year-old Glass.

“The manager (Alastair Clarkson) will be in touch at the end of this season or midway through next year but I don’t really want to focus on contracts at the moment, I just want to focus on getting to play.

“At the start of this year I didn’t really think that I would be playing that early because I changed positions this year.

“I originally was a defender and half-back but at the start of the year they just wanted to focus on my development and see where I could go as a player.

“They moved me into midfield (in the VFL) and that’s one of the hardest positions to play and I was up against a lot of the best players.

“I managed to hold my place and that’s what got me back into the AFL side. When I came into the AFL side I ended up playing as a forward, something I had never done in the VFL.

“I was chucked in at the deep end but I managed to play my role each week. That’s all they ask, that I play my role and I don’t have to do anything outstanding.

“If I can keep doing that in different positions it will be good because there aren’t many players that can switch positions from defence to midfield to attack.

That’s very rare and they are very happy with that side of the game.

“As a forward, I can run patterns that I know I don’t like defending so I know both ways of it, what the defenders don’t want and what the forwards don’t want.

“They’re happy also with my athleticism to play against tall forwards and backs and even small ones as well.

“I’ve a rare combination, they say, of speed and endurance so hopefully I can use that to my advantage and play a lot more this season.”

If you think that Glass sounds like he is in a good place right now then you’d be right.

Rewind the clock to 2018 and you’d be wrong for the player was in a bad place, a very bad place.

Here he was, a professional athlete getting paid well to play a sport he loved in a city regarded as one of the finest in the world. Life could only be good.

But a dark cloud was hanging over the youngster, but he certainly wasn’t going to sit and wait for the rain to fall.

Sift back through the interviews about the player from those who know him best and one word keeps cropping up, ‘maturity.’ It was a characteristic instilled in him by family and coaches and it shone through last year when he fronted his problems head on.

“The mental toll of playing is massive over here now, especially over the last two or three years,” Glass continued.

“A lot of AFL players are coming out and saying that they are mentally stressed and need to take time away from work because of it.

“It’s a job but when you don’t perform in this job then you have all the media on top of you about it, the fans too. You’d have your family and friends asking you what’s wrong.

“You kind of get into this bubble of mentally draining yourself.

“Personally last year I wasn’t too happy with my performances and I was in and out of the team.

“I felt down, I had to talk to a psychologist at the club. I had dug a massive hole for myself and the further you go down it the harder it is to get out of it.

“I catch up with her regularly this year as well just to stay on top of things. Obviously living away from home makes it tougher too.

“She’s full time at the club and she’s very good at her job. You just go and chat for half an hour and you might talk about something that you didn’t know was there.

“It’s also about getting stuff off your chest really and creating an environment where you can talk to each other as teammates.

“We’re all very friendly with each other at Hawthorn and when you know something isn’t right with someone you go to talk to them and ask them about it.

“The boys at the club obviously know that I’m living away from home and they’re very easy to chat to.

“My parents are coming out this week too. They come out once a year and that’s something I really look forward to and it breaks up the year.

“At the end of the season I get to go home as well so it’s not as if I don’t see them but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t tough.

“It’s just about how you deal with it, getting out with friends and keeping yourself busy and not sitting in the house thinking about it.”

Clare and Cathal Glass land in Melbourne today they will no doubt meet a son that is much more compatible with life in Australia compared to 12 months ago.

Those isolation issues have also been helped by the arrival of fellow Oakleaf AFL hopefuls Callum Brown (Greater West Sydney Giants) and Anton Tohill (Collingwood).

“I’ve been to pretty much every city in Australia now and I reckon that Melbourne is the best city there is here, apart from the traffic.

“The weather is a wee bit colder in Melbourne but I don’t mind that, I’m used to that.

“There’s a massive café and coffee culture and it’s the sport capital of the world, I’d go to tennis, rugby, soccer, anything like that.

“I watch a bit of Gaelic at the weekend if it’s on or I’d go down to Gaelic Park to watch some. I can’t fault the city at all.

“We get a few four-day breaks throughout the year and you get to go explore.

“I met up with Callum Brown, Anton and myself went up to Sydney to see him. We spent a few nights in the city out together which was good. We had a bit of craic and that was a good trip.”

The thought of three of Derry’s greatest young hopes sitting in a Sydney bar supping a few pints (of dilute in the case of pioneers Brown and Tohill) rather than kicking through the dirt at Owenbeg may feel like a dagger through the hearts of Derry fans reading.

It’s unlikely to be a permanent pain though as Glass said that he would “definitely” be returning home to play for his club and county at some stage of his career.

“Obviously I grew up with the sport and still love the sport,” he said. “I’ll definitely be back to play it.

“Every time you watch it you’re wishing you were out there playing. I’m biding my time, but it’s obviously going to happen at some stage so I’m just taking it one speed-bump at a time.

“I’m enjoying myself here while I can. At the end of the day when I first came out here I said that your career could last one day, one week or 10 years, so I’m kind of playing with it and seeing how it goes each year.”

While Glass may have a brief outline in his head of where his sporting future lies, he is also taking time to consider what may be ahead of him should sport not always proving a livelihood.

“I’m studying currently,” he said. “I’m doing a bachelors in Commerce.

“Originally I went to a college but it took too much time and effort to actually get there when trying to fit it around training.

“I just study online at the minute. They’re pretty good about it and they come to the club as well if I need any help.

“There’s a massive emphasis on outside study here, which is another good thing about the club.”

It all adds up to a man with his head screwed one with purpose and direction in his life. Most importantly, he’s content.

That first goal against Essendon means that he can “retire happy without a doughnut to my name” while posing for pictures and autographs with young supporters at training brings real joy to him, even if he still can’t wrap his head around the attention.

Most of all he is just trying to live his life in a manner that makes those around him in Melbourne – and those back home in Ireland – proud.

“I’ve been brought up well by my parents and they always taught me to remain humble. I’ve brought that out here and I’m obviously very happy with how my career is going.

“I feel that I’m doing mum and dad proud and I speak to them every weekend. They’re up watching the games, texting me every day to see how I’m going and how training is going.

“Personally I’m happy with myself. The excitement that my friends and family get when I’m going well brings a massive smile to my face too.”

n.mccoy@gaeliclife.com

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