Derry GAA revival symbolised by one man more than any other

Glen's Conor Glass with his AIB GAA Club Footballer of the Year and Football Team of the Year awards
Glen's Conor Glass with his AIB GAA Club Footballer of the Year and Football Team of the Year awards -Credit:Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

In his own words, Conor Glass has always had too much on his plate. An All-Ireland colleges’ winner (Hogan Cup) at 15 years of age back in 2013 - a bit special, he’s always been a boy/man in demand.

Professional sport with Hawthorn in the AFL was nearly a doddle compared to what he’s had going on over the past couple of years as the instantly recognisable figurehead of a Derry football revolution. An accounting masters on the go.

At the recent Ulster Championship launch at the Belfast campus of the University of Ulster, Glass came out of the library to do press, before heading back down the motorway home. Running ‘Cafe 3121’ with his now fiance, Niamh in Maghera.

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The 26 year old All Star midfielder got engaged at Adare Manor (Limerick) back in January on the same weekend Derry played Kerry in a Round 1, Division 1 game in Tralee. Even by Glass metrics, it was a crazy week.

A handful of days earlier he had turned Glen’s All-Ireland final encounter with St. Brigid’s at Croke Park upside down with a wonder goal as the Watty Grahams triumphed at the death.

Then throw in the mental and physical demands of Glen’s run to back to back All-Ireland club finals - and all the controversy of the 16th man finish back in January 2023.

It was a lot to deal with.

Glass and Glen handled it well, their response an emphatic one on the field of play.

Derry's Conor Glass lifts the Anglo Celt Cup following their Ulster SFC final win over Armagh in Clones
Derry's Conor Glass lifts the Anglo Celt Cup following their Ulster SFC final win over Armagh in Clones -Credit:©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Appointed Derry captain in late 2022, he has big commitments on that front too, running in the background alongside everything else.

Your head would be in a spin listing it all out.

Fortunately - although the list of trophies would suggest otherwise - he has the silverware to show for it.

An All-Ireland club title is top of the pile for him.

Then there’s back to back Ulster crowns with Derry and Glen, the Club Player of the Year, and now a Division 1 league title to go with a Division 3 win.

It was like that when he was a kid. Busy, busy, busy. Win, win, win.

Seven times Glen played deep into the winter, winning four Ulster minor titles and three under-21s. Christmas had a different feel to it.

They never lost a game with Glass front and centre, backboning an astonishing run of success.

“I have always had that,” he remarks. “I was chatting to my parents or to Niamh 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.

“But, it takes its toll. Socially, 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!

“Then, to have the motivation to go study the next day or a couple of days later.

“Then to have your social life away from football. It is hard at times.

“But it’s having the right focus. Saying to yourself that you are going to put a certain amount of energy into your university work, the café or whatever it is.

“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.

“You have to find ways to make time for yourself. Have a 20 minute walk to just fill up the tank. There’s ways to do it and I am still learning.

“When you give energy, you are investing emotionally into the café. Financially, anyway.

“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.

“Even my experience through Hawthorn, having psychologists there. 100percent, I am learning. I am learning all the time and certain situations you apply differently.”

Glass doesn’t make any bones about his four years in the AFL.

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

Glen manager Malachy O'Rourke, pictured with Conor Glass after the All-Ireland Club final, was the early frontrunner for the Derry job
Glen manager Malachy O'Rourke, pictured with Conor Glass after the All-Ireland Club final, was the early frontrunner for the Derry job -Credit:©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

“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.

“Over my four or five years, first (year) I played six games, second I played four. Then I was two and whatever else.

“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.”

coronavirus>Covid put the tin hat on it with draconian cuts in spending in the AFL around salaries. Rosters were cut with staff and players let go.

His decision to come home has been transformative for Derry in particular, and the final piece in the puzzle for his club.

There’s still one piece left for the county.

The Glass/Malachy O’Rourke factor and the Glass/Rory Gallagher axis have been the key to unlocking senior success for Glen and Derry.

“Covid came round,” remarks Glass. “There was an unknown with (AFL) squad sizes.

“The AFL was taking a big hit. I had to just accept it.”

Glass could “100 percent” have landed a gig at the next level down, the Victorian Football League (VFL), but he chose a different path.

“I was more than happy to come home and thankfully it has more than paid off,” he says.

Back with his childhood friends and among family, he has thrived on and off the field.

“In the professional environment, you might have a person whereby you are friendly with them,” he says.

“But he and you might be going for the same position. That’s cut-throat. When it comes down to it, it’s me v you.

“Whereas in Glen and to some extent Derry, it’s about the boys you grew up with, you went to school with and there’s that community aspect to it.”

Conor Glass during his time with Hawthorn in AFL -Credit:Getty
Conor Glass during his time with Hawthorn in AFL -Credit:Getty

Glass says he never experienced an unhappy dressing room in professional sport..

“I didn’t actually, thank God,” he continued.

“It was probably that Irish thing in me, or you might have been sensitive to people if they felt it was wrong, this Irish boy coming over and thinking ‘he can play our sport.’

“But there was nothing like that at all.

“You do have it at the back of your mind that you want to be playing ahead of them. But that’s long gone now.”

Glass is on a different path now, littered with obstacles and challenges but also opportunities

It’s one that he’s negotiating.

He has a lot on his plate. It’s nothing new.

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