Conor Glass celebrates Derry's league final win. Leah Scholes/INPHO
conor glass

'If you are not performing, you will get the chop' - From AFL exit to the rise of Derry

After two Croke Park triumphs already this year, Conor Glass is set for championship.

A WET MARCH EVENING in Belfast and the world has locked up and turned its’ back to the outside.

The sparkling new building that for University of Ulster is a planting of the flag in Belfast city centre. More courses and more opportunities to supplement their long-term base out in Jordanstown.

As journalists wander around, staring at the brushed concrete surfaces, the glass ceilings and enormous investment in education, silently contemplating life choices, something catches the eye.

It’s the fire engine red presence of Conor Glass, sitting bolt upright at a computer, frantically taking notes and studying hard.

He’s here to represent Derry at the Ulster championship launch. Glass has been used and put up for and tortured with interview requests all year. And still he does them.

You imagine it might suit him, coming from a professional sports background with Hawthorn in the AFL.

conor-glass-of-the-hawks-in-action-during-the-round-12-afl-match-between-the-west-coast-eagles-and-hawthorn-hawks-at-optus-stadium-in-perth-sunday-august-16-2020-aap-imagegary-day-no-archiving Conor Glass in action for Hawthorn. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Selfishly, you know that it suits the media because, although he is in danger of being over-exposed, he still manages to bring up fresh, stimulating thoughts every time. He looks people in the eye and treats them as adults. You never know, it might catch on.

Right now though, he’s making the most of a sliver of time between playing football for Glen and Derry, nurturing his relationships, running his hectic and manic Café 3121 in Maghera, to study for accountancy exams.

The question sits up like a beacon; how does he manage it all?

“I have always had that,” Glass says.

“I was chatting to my parents or to Neamh (his fiancée) a couple of weeks ago and I was like that when I was 17 years old. I had too much on my plate but I was able to perform even with so much on.

“The more I have on, the better I perform. It’s just been ingrained in me from such a young age to have so much going on.”

He will concede that, at times, it’s a lot. Not to the point of overwhelming, but all the same.

“Being able to go into the café and chat to people about football after say, a defeat. After the Kilmacud All Ireland defeat, to go into the café and people wanting to talk about football… It’s the last thing you want to do!” he says.

When you have a wide range of commitments, your moods cannot come into it. The Café needs to open on time. The toilets need to be cleaned.

Lost an All-Ireland final in extremely controversial circumstances? Tough shit. Open the books. Make your notes, fire up the computer.

Some of this is natural. Some of it is learned, and in his way, he opens the book on that too.

“I have worked with a few psychologists. It feels like I am always giving energy to people. And once you give energy to people, your tank is just going closer to empty,” he says.

“You have to find ways to make time for yourself. Have a twenty-minute walk to just fill up the tank. There are ways to do it and I am still learning.

“When you give energy, you are investing emotionally into the café. Same as University, you want to be getting your degree, you want to be doing well.

“Football, you want to be performing at the best you can be. So you are always investing, but you have to get time to put stuff back in the tank.”

If there was a pinch point, it came around the time of the All-Ireland club final on 21 January.

He strapped Glen onto his back for the second half when they were listing against St Brigid’s and dragged them to victory, his booming goal arriving at the perfect time to provide a slipstream of momentum and overtake their Roscommon opponents.

malachy-orourke-and-conor-glass-celebrate-with-the-trophy Malachy O'Rourke and Conor Glass celebrating their All-Ireland club final victory. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Six days later he was in Tralee, playing for Derry and beating Kerry in the opening round of the league. It was a statement win for Derry, for many, including Glass, getting a rare win over the Kingdom.

A number of commentators took offence at his workload on his behalf. He didn’t.

“Now, if I had have got injured, that would have been a different story but going down there and winning took the edge off it. Because we did win, it gave that bit more satisfaction, made you feel like it was worth it,” he says.

“But after four days on the drink you are just glad to get back out at it.”

It appears that there is no more footballer to have had a bigger impact on those around him than Conor Glass.

Before returning from Hawthorn, Derry were bumping around Division 4. His club Glen were the epitome of soft townies, without a single Derry championship to their name.

Since his return they have won three Derry titles. Two Ulster titles. One All-Ireland club title. He won the club player of the year award.

He has captained Derry to two consecutive Ulster titles and a National League. He was an All-Star in 2022.

Across any career, it would be a significant haul. And yet he will admit to the occasional pang of regret around how his career with Hawthorn ended.

“I would watch the sport, AFL every night it is on. I love watching it. The players I have played against, I love figuring out what way they are setting up and taking it back to Gaelic,” he says.

“I would love to have been playing AFL still. I just had to accept that my journey is different.

“I invested everything into it and gave it all I had. I have probably underachieved to a certain extent, I just wanted to be the best.”

In his first year he was loaned out to Box Hill Hawks in the Victorian Football League for some experience and they won the league.

He made 21 appearances for Hawthorn, and yet…

“I was very up and down and in and out of the team. I knew I could play at that level but I was too inconsistent and it is a cut-throat business. It is a business at the end of the day so if you are not performing, you will get the chop.

“Covid came round, there was an unknown of squad sizes, panel sizes at that stage and the AFL was taking a big hit with the unknowns. I had to just accept it.”

Accept it, and move on. He heads to Celtic Park this Saturday with Derry’s place in the world utterly transformed from when they met in late 2020. Then, Glass faced criticised for not kicking a late chance that would have forced their Ballybofey meeting into extra-time.

Now, Donegal are looking to cause the upset. Glass has captained Derry to become an elite side looking to create history, and they are not shying away from the idea of an All-Ireland.

The Ulster championship starts now.

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