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The unlucky Irishman

Most players are lucky to get one chance, let alone two, to make it as an AFL player in such an excruciatingly tough environment.

Believe it or not, I’m now up to my third chance, although there was no luck involved.

Back when Zach Tuohy came over to Australia in 2009, I was approached by Carlton as a potential player to move over as well.

I was offered a contract but at the time I refused it due to the fact that my mum was back at home on her own, and all of my friends were going off to university so I made the decision to stay home.

In 2013, I received a second offer after playing reasonably well in the International Rules series. At that time, Carlton approached me and let me know that I had another chance if I wanted it.

Perhaps it was always going to be my calling? Whatever it was, something was telling me that I knew I had to go for it.

As soon as I stepped foot inside the Carlton Football Club I felt like I was at home. Everyone was very approachable and chatted to me and showed genuine care which helped me to fit in and feel relaxed about what I was doing.

That helps when you’re going over to the unknown. One flight across the world changes your life and it’s daunting.

The 2014 pre-season came around and I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my AFL journey. The games came a lot quicker than I expected.

I played 14 VFL games before I played my first AFL game which may come as a surprise to most.

It was a lot easier than people would have imagined because the club has invested so much into Irish players.

That’s proven given our past with the likes of Setanta O’hAilpin and Tuohy.

They understand the journey we take and they made me feel right at home and helped me with the skills and the systems of the game and fast-tracked me.

What happened next was something I couldn’t control, and could never have expected.

It would be fair to say I’ve had a few setbacks in the last few years, all starting at the beginning of 2015.

The first one came midway through the pre-season of that year where I sustained some hip issues. I still managed to play in our first NAB Cup game, but I gradually gained a case of osteitis pubis and that really set me back.

I tried to manage it for a while but eventually the club and myself came to the decision that I needed to go for surgery so I got both hips done and was looking forward to having a fresh start in 2016.

Unfortunately, I had more issues the next year during the pre-season. I sustained a hot spot in my foot and was forced to wear a boot for six weeks.

Off the back of being in the boot, it flared up my hip again which led to another surgery and that ruled out the front half of 2016. I did all of my rehab and did everything possible to resume playing in the VFL and strung four games together, but then I tore my hammy and ruptured my lateral ligament in my knee as a result which ruled me out for the rest of 2016.

All of the injuries that kept me out for large stretches were structural and were freak incidents, and I guess you could call it the luck of the draw.

I had a lot of moments where I was up and down but I tried my best to remain upbeat and to soldier on through it all.

One outlet I had was through the other Irish boys who are plying their trade in Melbourne for various AFL clubs.

We have a WhatsApp group called ‘The Takeover’ where we provide lots of banter.

It’s a way to keep in contact and it’s important for us because we have all made the same move and we can all support each other and catch up.

I’d view it as an outlet for us to stay in touch with one another if someone needs to chat or needs help with anything.

At the end of 2016, I was de-listed so there was a bit of uncertainty around whether I would go back to Ireland or stay here, I really didn’t know what my next move would be. But I was lucky enough to get another shot with a rookie list selection.

To be perfectly honest, it’s hard not to think negatively and to want to go home after so many things didn’t go my way, particularly when I did my knee in 2016. I thought that was the last straw.

Thankfully, I had my girlfriend out here who gave me a huge amount of support, I had my friends here, the club were great from a welfare point of view and also from my teammates and coaches.

They kept me in a positive mindset and they kept me motivated. I always felt there was a little bit of a chance that I could get back and that kept me going.

I was doing everything I possibly could to get back out on the track and get my body right after I was re-selected. I did a lot off the field to help me understand the game and help others out and that extra dedication led to the club backing me in.

This year, I was able to get through a full pre-season and get some form together in the VFL.

I had a medial strain in Round 2 of VFL and missed two games, but I got back in after that and haven’t looked back since. For me, that’s a good result given my history!

When Brendan Bolton told me I was returning to the senior team last weekend, I had that feeling of massive excitement because there was a sense that all the hard work had paid off. I felt like I’d finally gotten to where I needed to be.

It was also a case of relief because I was in a position where I was playing at the elite level again. It was a feeling of excitement, too, and a little bit of nerves.

The team showed they understood how much it meant to me and that gave me a massive lift as well. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m grateful to the club and for Bolts for giving me that opportunity.

From here on in, the big thing is to get the best out of myself and to perform at the level that’s required.

My goals are more short term than long term until I establish myself as someone who can perform consistently at the highest level.

But that’s a great challenge to have.