Right man in the right place
Anthony Tohill won't be fazed by the task of managing Ireland, writes Dermot Crowe
AT Croke Park on Thursday, last Anthony Tohill found himself fielding again -- only this time media queries, not the high balls that were once his trade.
Having just announced the squad to face Australia in this year's international rules series, which opens with the first test at Limerick on Saturday, the Ireland manager was asked about the omission of Paul Galvin. He had to see that one coming and if he didn't relish it, he had his homework done.
Did Galvin's absence, the question implied, bear any relevance to earlier television criticism by the Irish manager of the same player? Tohill dealt with it calmly. Some players were not deemed ready for trials, he explained. When pressed he admitted that Galvin had been part of this category. There are no home-based Kerry men on the squad. Did Kerry players boycott in protest? No, came the reply. Declan O'Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy had trained before withdrawing due to club commitments.
Tohill has never been known to court controversy and some of his early observations as an RTE pundit on The Sunday Game earned rebuke for not being sufficiently tough on indiscipline. But he has grown into the role and earned his keep with a sober and studied analysis of what he sees before his eyes. He is not an extrovert character, the kind who tends to divide opinion. But when faced with another Galvin misdemeanour during the summer, he commented unflinchingly and showed admirable strength in his own convictions.
By then, he was Ireland manager, of course, and the outcry in Kerry went so far as to demand that no local player answer the country's call when Tohill began picking up the phone later in the year. As often happens in cases of indiscipline, the focus of attention shifted from the culprit on to some other target; another incident, another player, a pundit, the media. Of the three analysts on duty that evening for RTE, Tohill was the one who stood the most to lose; he was acutely aware he would be upsetting some people and there could be some grief down the line. But he remained honest and unblinking and did not play the cute hoor.
Speaking after the press conference last Thursday, Tohill said that the issue of his position being compromised by his job as a pundit had been discussed "at the outset" with the GAA president Christy Cooney. "It's not as if anybody who has watched me on The Sunday Game doesn't know I am not someone who goes out deliberately to create controversy. Or to create headlines. It's interesting as well when the management team was appointed here on March 31 the only person who asked me the question, thought it relevant, was a young guy from FM 104 in Dublin. No one else thought it an issue. But Christy and I discussed it and felt it wasn't an issue. There was always the chance something would crop up. Sometimes people take exception to what you say. But now it is water under the bridge."
The referee did not see the incident involving Galvin and Eoin Cadogan but it was clearly visible on television replays. That night Tohill felt Galvin, a repeat offender, had a case to answer. "I have total respect for Paul Galvin the footballer but why he keeps finding the need to get involved in this sort of thing is beyond me and what he does here is totally unacceptable and has no place on a football pitch," Tohill said in studio. "Certain things are taboos and you do not do them to another player on a football pitch."
Following this incident, the CCCC suspended Galvin for two months and charges of trial by television began to emerge with Tohill accused of influencing the decision. Joe Brolly, another tv pundit often in the firing line, talked to Tohill about the episode on the phone the next morning. "If punditry becomes straitjacketed by notions of political correctness, then it becomes a waste of time," states Brolly. "We talked about the thing whenever he started and I said the way to proceed is say what is on your mind."
Brolly laughs at various recollections of Tohill over the years which reinforced the notion of there being no chink in his armour -- a wonderful Gaelic footballer, a Manchester United triallist, a first-class honours student, and now international manager. "He is very bright and articulate. There is nothing he can't do well -- apart from dancing. He is immersed in football. It's not going to be difficult for Anthony to talk about football. He would prepare for his analysis with military precision, he would have all the facts at his fingertips; he is very earnest about it. He is a perfectionist, that is his nature and that is the way he will be. But there is nothing anal about Anthony; he is not up his own arse, he is friendly and open and modest."
Tohill first started to make headlines as a footballer in 1989 when he was part of the St Patrick's, Maghera team that won the All-Ireland colleges title.
The same year he won an All-Ireland minor medal with Derry and soon after was invited to Melbourne to team up with the local Demons outfit in the AFL. He stayed 18 months and would have endured had they agreed to foot his college fees. He had completed his second-level education in Australia but university fees were prohibitive, around Aus$800 at the time. Determined to finish his education, he came home and completed a masters degree in civil engineering at Queen's.
During this spell in Belfast, he won the Sigerson Cup, and after a brief spell at half-forward for the Derry senior team, he formed a powerful midfield alliance with Brian McGilligan to help steer Derry to a first ever All-Ireland senior title 17 years ago. They later became the first and only All Star midfield pairing from the same county since Jack O'Shea and Sean Walsh in 1981. Tohill continued playing for Derry until 2003 when injury forced him to retire and he was never able to scale the heights of 1993. He captained the Ireland team to a series win over Australia in 2001 and later became a selector under Seán Boylan.
A few years ago, the GAA asked him to join a delegation travelling to Dubai to meet AFL officials to see if the international rules series could be saved following violent flare-ups in 2005 and 2006. "I played the game, was involved with Seán in '06 and with my nerdy head on me had read the rules in detail and had a good understanding and I guess was well paced to advise -- they weren't my ideas, they were ideas we were taking back from the management team in '06 and certainly from the players who had played in '06 -- trying to see what we could do. And I think the discussions in Dubai were central in putting it back on the right track. And '08 (series) was the last-chance saloon. The series is too precious to both countries for us to wreck it now."
He was hardly a surprise choice as manager given those connections to the series and his natural tendency to lead from the front. "He had leadership qualities on the pitch," says Brian McEniff, the Ireland manager in 2001 when Tohill was captain, "that was what the Australian game was all about. He was a good ball winner and good striker of the ball. We put him in full-forward and needed that aerial presence in there. I am not surprised to see him as manager, I think he will do a hell of a job."
Mickey Moran was manager at the end of Tohill's Derry career in 2003 when he came back after a year recovering from a serious knee injury to play against Tyrone. "He will plan very meticulously," says Moran, "and has all the experience. He will work well with fellow selectors. The subs are a big thing (in international rules) and the stats. (Knowing) who is tiring and who is making the runs. He has that type of brain, he will be well tuned; that won't throw him at all."
Tohill's delay in naming the captain and the squad little over a week before the opening test won't have helped the series' promotion but he does believe unconditionally in its merits. "The value is in giving our players a chance to play for Ireland and I know it's not perfect and it's not Gaelic football but the pride those fellas have and the pride I experienced as a player, to walk on to Croke Park, the Gaelic Grounds or wherever it is, that is a huge thing. It's too important and we are fully aware of our responsibility to ensure we don't mess up. We have had to ring up (excluded) players who have never been left off a team in their lives and you could hear their disappointment."
Brolly jokes that Tohill is "always very fashionably clothed" and "positively regal". But he quickly adds that he is is "very, very popular and a very good fella and person.
"It took him a while to find his feet (as a player); that was natural, he had been out to Australia. It was obvious he had a couple of extraordinary gifts, the most extraordinary being his speed and endurance and his finishing. He might well be the best midfielder-attacker player that the game has had."
Mickey Moran recalls the trip to Australia in 1999, a successful tour, when they needed to rest Darren Fay after three 20-minute spells at full-back. The man they chose to fill the gap was Tohill and he managed it expertly.
One of his abiding memories is Tohill snatching a potential winning score from above his own crossbar against Antrim in the Ulster championship. They survived and won the replay. Managing Derry looks a distinct possibility one day. But first, the nation.