‘Opportunity’ is a word which peppers any conversation with Conor Glass about his impending relocation to Melbourne to pursue a professional career in the Australian Football League.
Derry’s 2015 Ulster Minor Championship winning captain is now only weeks away from his July move to the Hawthorn Hawks. It seems a long way from a clandestine meeting with club officials three years ago in the Glenavon Hotel, Cookstown.
“Yes, that was the first time I had met anyone from the club and the first time I had kicked an AFL ball,” smiles the Glen teenager recalling that initial meeting.
“I was playing MacRory Cup at 15 years old in fourth year - I think your name has to come up four or fives times before they act on it - but it came up and they came over. Now I have this amazing opportunity and I’m lucky to get it but I’m under no illusions that the hard work starts when I get there.”
That grounded optimism is the hallmark of Glass. Earmarked as a future star for almost as long as he has been able to kick a ball, the Watty Graham’s player has been one of Derry’s most talked about footballers for years despite not yet reaching his 19th birthday.
An Ulster champion with his club, school and county, as well as an All Ireland winner with St. Patrick’s Maghera, Glass has met every sporting challenge laid out in front of him to date but he knows the move to south Australia on a two-year contract is his biggest challenge.
It’s been difficult to balance everything with the school, AFL and Glen. At the minute I am concentrating on exams. I need to get them over first and then it’s time to focus on Hawthorn and get ready for the hard work ahead.Conor Glass
“Hopefully, I can get a couple of games,” adds Glass. “I’m not going to be pushing into the first team for a couple of years. The AFL is very tough to get into, especially the Hawthorn first team, so my target will be to keep improving my skills as an AFL footballer, get a contract extension and then, hopefully, I can go on to make my mark as a Hawthorn player.
Alongside New Zealander Shem Tatupu, Glass is one of two International Category B rookies drafted in by Hawthorn and he knows he will face as many challenges off the pitch as on it.
“(I knew) absolutely nothing (about Australia) but, from the first time I went out, it has been an amazing country. I have loved being out there and am looking forward to living there.
“The pressure has come off a bit since I’ve been able to talk about the AFL stuff, that helps,” he adds.
“It’s been difficult to balance everything with the school, AFL and Glen. At the minute, I am concentrating on exams. I need to get them over first and then it’s time to focus on Hawthorn and get ready for the hard work ahead.
“I watched AFL highlights sometimes when I was younger, concentrating on high catches and things like that, but, obviously, Hawthorn’s interest changed that and I’ve been keeping on top of what goes on in the club and the AFL”
So, what differences does the Derry player see between the codes and how does he think he will adapt?
“It is quite different to be fair. The kicking style is fine. People talk about the shape of the ball but, once you get used to it, there is no problem. The style of play, the stop-start nature of AFL is a change, though. Gaelic football is very free flowing so that will be different.
“It’s not as much of a physical difference, they are both very physical games. Aussie Rules is more tactical with the different systems and code words etc., Strength and conditioning in Gaelic football has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and it is now almost as professional as the AFL. I have experienced both in recent years and compared them and I can’t make too much of a difference.”
Glass is following in the footsteps of former Oak Leaf stars Anthony Tohill, Chrissy McKaigue and Dermot McNicholl who taught the player at St. Pat’s and who has been able to offer some valuable advice.
“The first couple of months after Hawthorn made contact, I talked to Chrissy and he gave me some good pointers about what it’s like and what the move consists of. I also spoke to Dermot who was out there in the 80s. He gave me some good tips and I have had a few kick-abouts with him. They’ve both provided some good advice.”
It is ironic that one of Glass’ last appearances in the red and white of Derry was last July in Clones, as captain, when he lifted the Ulster title for Damian McErlaine’s team. That run to provincial glory showcased to some outside Derry exactly what most inside the Oak Leaf county have known for quite some time. Glass is a huge talent and will be a major loss to his county.
“It was an honour to lift it for all the boys. The crowd and everything was great. It was an amazing day.
“Hopefully there will be senior titles to come because I’ll be back. Your playing career can last one day, one year but I will always be back and can maybe help win the John McLaughlin one day with Glen.
“Whatever happens I won’t be coming back as a worse player. I will return as a fitter, more developed player. I won’t be missing out, this is a great opportunity.”
So, considering how taken he has become with life ‘Down Under’ and having already graced Croke Park in the blue of St. Pat’s, could we one day see one of Derry’s brightest back in the yellow shirt of Australia?
“No chance, I’ll be wearing green!” he laughs.