Collingwood international rookie Anton Tohill takes aflplayers.com.au through the process of moving back to his native country of Ireland after finding out the 2020 AFL season was suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.
Season suspended and where to next?
As I sat with my housemate, and recent draftee, Jay Rantall, watching the Hawks and Lions game on Sunday March 22, the news came through that AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan would be holding a press conference at half-time.
Being aware of the news that had come out earlier that day in regards to South Australia and Western Australia closing their borders, the announcement that the AFL was going to be put on hold wasn’t a real shock to either of us.
Still, when it was confirmed, your thoughts immediately start to swirl about what the ramifications mean for you and the wider footy world.
So Jay and I went to the driving range, something I love and something I was trying to get him into.
Halfway through hitting my bucket of balls, the phone went off.
Calling was Mannon Johnston, our Indigenous and Multicultural Player Development Manager. He called to try ascertain my initial thoughts, which was something I was unable to provide at the time.
I, as anyone who knows me can testify, do not struggle with communication or voicing opinions.
The whole scenario that had brewed for a couple of weeks brought to conclusion by Gil at his presser, had brought my mind to its knees. I told “MJ” I’d give him a call back after the range.
At home, pacing relentlessly around my garden, I called MJ back.
He’s a sensational fella and has had a very positive impact on the Player Development space at the club this past six months.
He was still reeling a bit as well from the announcement himself and basically outlined the club’s thoughts.
Collingwood outlined its intention to support all the players in whatever they wanted to do, in regards to heading home or not.
This was something I had briefly considered in the whirlwind of my own head and couldn’t get past the glaring concern that Australia had closed its borders until September, and because I don’t have permanent residency, had no guarantees of re-entry.
I voiced these concerns to MJ, who vowed to check with my VISA lawyer.
I called my parents to fill them both in on the situation. They would support me regardless, and just wanted me to be content and happy.
They voiced concerns about flight availability, which Mannon had brought up but I let them know I was in safe hands with MJ to reassure them. This settled them a bit, they trusted the club given how they’ve supported us during this 18 months that I’ve been on their list.
MJ outlined that the club was committed to getting me home, VISA or not, and he started to look into possible flights home.
With so many people in the same situation, he tried the 12.30am flight out that night (Sunday) and the 6.00am flight the following morning to no avail before locking me in on the 5.15pm flight that afternoon.
Ironically, it was the same flight my parents were on just a week previous.
Within a matter of hours I set about packing my bags. I packed as much of my life up as I was able, not knowing when I’d be back. I left the following day after breakfast with some of my closest mates at the footy club and said goodbye to Melbourne.
Moving back to Ireland
After the usual period of reset, from a jet-lag perspective, I have settled in well.
It’s hard not to when surrounded by loved ones.
I live on a farm here at home, with a grandmother up the lane and an uncle two fields away, all of whom I have been able to see, albeit from the advised two metres until I’m positive I’m clear of any symptoms post-travel.
They are all delighted to have me home given the circumstances. They are great for support too, as well as some of the guys from the club who are great for a chat.
I called Roughy (Jordan Roughead) one jet-lagged morning to congratulate him on his recent foray into written journalism, and a catch up to see how he and his wife were going. I have also been chatting to Brodes (Brodie Grundy) for something similar.
As usual both of the great men left me feeling more content with myself and the whole situation than I was before.
It’s invaluable to have such great people helping lead the club in a year such as this, and even more invaluable for me as friends and colleagues.
The restrictions here at home are serious, you are only allowed to leave home for four reasons, which is similar to what Australia are facing at the moment.
This makes it a very different trip home than I have been accustomed to, with no in-person contact with my close friends or members of my family.
These special people make home what it is, the average to poor weather and green surroundings aside, they are your reason for loving where you come from.
However, the current circumstances render meetings not only irresponsible but potentially dangerous to members of our families.
Social media is a great alternative to remain in contact with those around you. This pandemic would’ve been significantly different with our world fifteen years ago, so we must be thankful for the virtual connections we can have.
getting back to training
From a training perspective, our Head of Performance and proud Irishman, Kevin White, sent our new training programs to use.
He has prepared running sessions in line with the Christmas break pre-season sessions, in a bid to keep our fitness levels where they are without risking breakdown away from the medical team at the club.
They are great workouts and haven’t varied much from the usual.
Weights, however, are a very different scenario.
With access to gyms not possible and every player having access to such different equipment, we were provided an outline of the exercises we complete regularly and what to do if the norm was impossible.
I personally have little or no gym equipment but am trying my best to follow the regime.
The training comes with the territory of the professional athlete you become when you sign the contract.
As fortunate as I am to have been granted the opportunity to play Australian Rules Football, I am infinitely more fortunate to be doing it at such a fantastic club in Collingwood.
The history, which you can appreciate, is brought to life by an amazing supporter base. The love people bear for the organisation makes you realise the opportunity you have been graced with.
The people who make the organisation function are also one of the reasons why it’s such an amazing place to work and live your dream.
reflecting on early career and a period of homesickness
In my time at Collingwood, there have been numerous challenges and hurdles to jump over as I try to reach my own goals.
Deployed last year as a key forward with ruck time, I played 12 games of VFL football, missing six through a series of minor injury setbacks, a concussion, quad overload and a torn hip rotator.
This and my lighter frame, along with playing in a struggling VFL side didn’t yield the “results” that maybe my own lofty expectations had set.
I found my footy improved considerably towards the end of the season, with some confidence allowing me to express myself in my role.
I leaned pretty heavily on my development coach Tarkyn Lockyer, an incredibly dedicated individual who went above and beyond his requirements consistently for me, and was a key catalyst for this upturn in form.
When Tarkyn moved to take up a role at the AFL (as the AFL Academy’s head coach), that probably capped my worst period of home sickness.
I had just departed Ireland for the start of pre-season, saying goodbye to all my family and friends in the process, and now had to say goodbye to my coach who had done so much for me in my time there.
I struggled through those first couple of weeks of preseason, trying to show the coaches where I felt I had made my strides in the off-season.
The feeling abated.
As it does when you have such a good network of friends inside and outside the club.
Homesickness as a topic with Irish players was never more prominent when Conor McKenna, one of my friends in Melbourne, headed home. This woke the rest of us up a bit that although we may feel fine one of our friends may not.
We made a great effort to catch up more often, and I have spent a lot of time with (Hawthorn’s) Conor Glass who hails from the same part of Ireland as me. Those support networks all help.
I’ve been lucky to have support from my father, Anthony, too. He spent time with the Melbourne Football Club in the 1990s and was a well-known Gaelic footballer in Ireland.
He’s been in my shoes and then went on to achieve so much in sport.
I call him regularly to update him on how my day went, not just from a football perspective, but life stuff too.
He’d definitely be one of my closest friends and his insight into the football side of things has allowed me to develop to where I am now. And, if I go on to reach my potential in sport, a lot will be owed to him.
aims for 2020 and beyond
I was very keen for this year, especially in the past three months.
I was coming off the biggest injury of my career, I took about 10 centimetres of skin off my shin falling off a treadmill while at home over the Christmas break.
I wasn’t allowed to participate in full training, given risk of infection.
This went on for about two and a half weeks before I was allowed to resume full training, where upon I was informed I would be playing on the wing.
I am 199.5cm but can run reasonably well and I had discussed the transition to this role with ‘Bucks’ (Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley) in my exit meeting and again at the start of preseason, so I was very keen to sink my teeth in and see what happened.
The results were pretty good.
Over the next couple of months and two practice games I tried to learn the role and bring my strengths to the table when playing in it. This is probably where I see my opportunity arising in the AFL side in 2020.
Australia has been an amazing country to call home for the past 18 months and hopefully the future.
I’ve lived in a couple of places around Melbourne and seen quite a large chunk of the East Coast and then the Northern Territory, Adelaide and country Victoria as well.
It is a beautiful place and one I hope to explore some more very soon.
As I’ve been writing this piece, my soundtrack of choice has been Triple J’s Hottest 100 of the decade, so I basically qualify for Residency now I reckon!
I drive a Holden too, so that’s pretty Australian.
Australia, however, is very different to where I call home. I grew up on a farm about a mile from a village of 500 people, and went to school in the next town.
Melbourne has a population almost the size of Ireland all in a city so it’s very different, but it’s all part of the experience.
With time away from the game now, the next couple of months with be centered around maintaining fitness, and my skills, while keeping my brain ticking over with some education.
I enjoy learning about many subjects as I have always been incredibly curious, fascinated with how things function or why things are how they are.
This being the case I plan to study medicine and become a doctor.
So, I am filling my time with study on anatomy and physiology, among other things, and a really good binge on a couple of TV series that I enjoy.