In March 2020, Anton Tohill was sitting in his Melbourne home with Collingwood team-mate Jay Rantall watching Brisbane take on Hawthorn when the news broke: the AFL season had been suspended.

A day later, he boarded a flight back to Ireland.

That's just one of several unexpected obstacles encountered during his career so far. The Derry native is now in his third season with the Pies. As he sits in a South Yarra café and reflects, he can't help but smile at the absurdity of it all.

During his debut campaign, he suffered a concussion, a quad injury and tore his hip rotator. He then went home for Christmas break and tore 10cm of skin off his shin after a fall on a treadmill. Pre-season training was restricted given the risk of injection.

Subsequently, Covid wreaked havoc and the AFL suspension was suspended. The VFL, the reserve league where Tohill and his fellow Irish prospects cut their teeth, was cancelled entirely. It meant a mishmash of scratch games was all that was available when the season eventually resumed in June.

At one stage, Tohill played against Essendon's second side at the famed Melbourne Cricket Ground in a 12-a-side game.

Over the course of the year, he operated as a tall forward, a ruckman, on the wing and as a half-back. Versatility and resolve that proved worthy of a one-year extension.

It hasn’t all gone precisely as planned but that’s understandable given this was never the plan anyway.

Anthony Tohill celebrates winning the 2000 National League with son Anton

As a child, Tohill wanted to be a doctor. He was offered a place at Belfast University to study medicine, but deferred to pursue a career Down Under. When it ends, he will return to the original path.

Anton's father and Derry legend Anthony also spent 1990 in the league with Melbourne. AFL may be a family affair, yet it remained a foreign concept until recently.

"I had a different upbringing to most of the Irish boys here. My father obviously played for Melbourne and later had coaching involvement in International rules. He got me a footy from the 2008 tour.

"I had no interest really; I’d rather play soccer or Gaelic.

"When I was 16, Conor Glass was picked up by Hawthorn. I thought then, 'if Glassy can do it, I’ve got traits that would surely be good too. It’d be great to experience professional sport…’"

Tohill playing for the Derry U20s in 2018

That is an understandable reality given the upheaval endured in 2020. It is a testament to their fortitude that all earned one-year extensions and club development reports continue to be positive. Still, there is a perceived pressure to soon play at senior level; to become a success and avoid failure.

Tohill does not abide by those binary terms. This is about the journey more than the destination.

To me, the success of this won't be measured in a 200-game AFL career, a Premiership and a Brownlow. Those accolades don’t drive it. My motivation is to get the best out of me as an athlete

"They still call it the Irish experiment. Look, there is a body of work there that proves it is not an experiment anymore. The boys have been very successful. It is not a massive gamble.

"To me, the success of this won’t be measured in a 200-game AFL career, a Premiership and a Brownlow. Those accolades don’t drive it. My motivation is to get the best out of me as an athlete. Sport is a small part of my life. It is what I do but not who I am.

"People who cast opinions on how we go without any real knowledge of it, you can have your opinion, but it is irrelevant. The people’s opinions I care about are in a close bubble, informed opinions.

"There are always assumptions and statements that are totally incorrect. They can say whatever they want but I don’t care."

Athletically he is now ready for senior football. There is no doubt initially there was a gap, but that is merely a reflection of maturity, not nationality. Every 18-year-old entering a professional environment needs time to develop.

He is quick to credit fellow Irishman Kevin White, who is High Performance manager at the club, for crafting a conditioning routine tailored to the sport. That work is standing to him now as he continues to deliver strong showings in the VFL and push for a debut.

On the field, the Melbourne based outfit have had a rocky start to the season with one win in five. Off it, several players, including Tohill’s former housemate, had to be moved on in the recent offseason due to salary cap constraints, while in January an independent review found the club guilty of "systemic racism".

The report was commissioned after former player Héritier Lumumba spoke about his experiences from 2005-2014.

In the midst of the storm, Tohill is content to control what he can. The Irish players can contribute in more ways than one, he stresses.

You can build more of a well-rounded culture with difference, I believe

"We provide a point of difference being from a different place and offering a different perspective. Not even in game but outside, just shaping the club. You can build more of a well-rounded culture with difference, I believe. People like myself and Mark, both very different. I am quite methodical, and Mark goes about it his way.

"Different inputs, it is only good for a team. Cultural differences.

Collingwood team-mate and Cork footballer Mark Keane

"You spend so much time with everyone. Look at any business. You have the workforce, if you have people all the same, you gain no betterment. If you start to include people who are different, different backgrounds and viewpoints, you will see spike in how teams perform.

"Diversity is the only thing that can bring that betterment. More people of minorities. More internationals. More women in sport. More LGBTQI in sport. It will bring the game on. As opposed to the status quo, white blokes."

As for his personal ambitions, Tohill just wants to take it one day at a time. It has been a rollercoaster of a career so far. At the very least he wants to be able to sit back and enjoy the ride.

No matter what happens, it has been the best thing I will ever experience, bar having my own children

"My goal setting is to be the best I can be. Games you play, touches you get, marks, that will take care of itself. I will control what I can. Games are outside of your control. Coaches, injuries, there is no point getting tied up with that stuff.

"I came out at 18 and I’m now 21. I was living on a farm a mile away from a village of 500 people, going to a Catholic school from four to 14.

"No matter what happens, it has been the best thing I will ever experience, bar having my own children. For me to develop as a person and learn how the world works. It is invaluable."