Alan Brogan: 'As the players gathered around Anton's coffin and sang 'Raglan Road', the incredible bond struck me hard'
A couple of things struck me on Monday morning sitting in Mount Argus in Harold’s Cross as I looked around the church, picking out Dublin footballers of various generations around the congregation at the funeral of Anton O’Toole.
I obviously don’t know first hand but I can’t imagine there are many counties where the link between the current team and a side from the past is so strong as it is between this current Dublin team and Anton’s group from the 1970s.
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When I played for Dublin, we regularly had the likes of Pat O’Neill and Tony Hanahoe come in to speak to us about what it was to wear the jersey.
There weren’t many sportspeople in the world that could have commanded our attention like the Dubs from the 1970s.
Young lads are cynical about everything these days but we hung on their every single word.
What they did, how they did it and how they carried themselves all resonated with us.
It wouldn’t be stretching it to say that for a certain vintage of Dub, no matter how many All-Irelands the current Dublin team win, they won’t be revered quite as much as Kevin Heffernan’s men.
Their legacy is measured as much in moments and memories as trophies and medals.
They weren’t just a team, they were part of a movement.
Going to watch the Dubs wasn’t a thing before the ’70s team came along. Then it became an Irish sporting phenomenon when they won in 1974.
And for a lot of people, it started a love affair with Dublin and football and the GAA in general that they have continued and passed on.
As Jim Gavin always says 'we stand on their shoulders.'
Then, as the ceremony came to an end, and each of the players from that team gathered around Anton O’Toole’s coffin and sang 'Raglan Road' together, the incredible bond that those men have struck me hard.
Forty years after they played, three generations after coming together, they’re still a brotherhood. More so than any team I ever played on or have witnessed.
I wasn’t exactly sure how that happened although I knew a man who did... so I asked him.
Alan Brogan: Tell us a little bit about the sort of footballer Anton was?
Bernard Brogan: He used to wear these pair of big heavy rugby boots. He was a left-footer. And he played like a left-footer. People knew he would only kick with his left foot but he always succeeding in getting his shot away. And he was gangly sort of footballer, he was 6’ 1’’ or 6’ 2”. Quite athletic in his own way. He played wing-half forward for the county but midfield for his club. Good fielder of the ball. And he contributed a lot to the team.
AB: He was a strong runner?
BB: Dublin at the time had introduced a new tactic. Bobby Doyle would come out from corner-forward – not really a third midfielder because he didn’t play like a midfielder. More a roving corner-forward.
He was supposed to come out and make space in the corner and fellas like Anton then were supposed to bear down on goal into the open space that Bobby created. That was the first time that sort of tactic was introduced in Gaelic football.
And you could see the results, with people scoring goals. Tony (Hanahoe) played at centre-forward but he would move out to the middle of the park to create space for the other guys. So we did a lot of running with the ball. And we had the players, like Anton, to play that.
AB: He made his League debut in 1972 but he didn’t play Championship until ’74, which I think was your first year as well?
BB: Yeah. I started training with the team in October 1973. Unlike today, when unfortunately the Leinster final isn’t quite the competition it was in the 70s…playing against Meath in the 1970s, they were pretty tough battles. Tight games. In ’74, Dublin played seven matches to win the All-Ireland whereas Kerry (generally) played three matches to win the All-Ireland.
AB: He scored seven Championship goals, so he definitely had an eye for goal? And in ’77, in that game you got the goal in, he scored four long-range points?
BB: Yeah and the ball was a bit heavier then, so it was more difficult to kick long-range points. He was a big kicker of the ball, so he took shots from out the field. But he scored so many of them, he was a good shooter of the ball. And a lot of the qualities that you’d say a good footballer today needs.
AB: In ’77, Synge Street got to their only county final?
BB: That Vincent’s team they played was bedecked with Dublin players. I think there was seven of them. And guys that were past their best as county footballers but were still very good club footballers. So if I recollect the game, Vincent’s big job was just to stop Anton. It was very difficult for Synge Street to win that game because of the depth of the Vincent’s team.
AB: Tony Hanahoe mentioned yesterday in his eulogy about the old galvanised shed in Parnell Park where Heffo used to have his team meetings. We haven’t heard too much about the shed?
BB: The shed, you came in the big gate. The shed was on the left hand side. There was no stand in Parnell Park at the time. It hadn’t been built. It was just a bank behind the wall. But Dublin at the time did all their training in Parnell Park.
We did all our training in Parnell Park under four small floodlights. Christy Thompson was the groundsman at the time and he used to make us tea in a big aluminium kettle.
AB: It’s still there I’d say…
BB: It’s still there. It’s a relic. We used to get Marietta biscuits and a bottle of milk. So that’s where all our team talks were held. In the shed. I can’t really remember Anton talking too much. I wouldn’t have been into talking too much myself at those meetings.
AB: Was he a quiet character in the dressing room?
BB: He always had something to say but he wouldn’t have been very vociferous. He wouldn’t have been one of the real talkers on the team.
AB: Judging by chats he had with a lot of current players and ex-players over the few weeks before he died, he obviously still had a strong love for Dublin football. You could see that from his funeral. In a way, his character mirrors the character of that Dublin team. Very humble. Very unassuming. And I know from meeting these guys, fellas like John McCarthy…for him looking at us, we became his heroes when we played. Like James is John’s hero now.
BB: Anton’s attitude was his thing was in the past. It was all about the present. He wanted to go and watch the current team play. He would never sit down and dwell on his own success, even though as you say, when you look at people who turned up (at the funeral) and the ceremony, it was very much about his achievements as a footballer and as a person.
But in himself, when you met him, even to get him talking about his shots at goal. It just wasn’t something he wanted to talk about.
AB: He’s not the first member of the team from the ’70s to say that when Dublin beat Kerry in 2011, that was bigger than any of his All-Ireland wins. Do you think he meant it?
BB: Yeah, because we all live in the present. It’s forty years since the team of the ’70s played and even though people remember that fondly, we live in the present.
He would have loved to have seen…I think he said it before he died, that he didn’t think he’d live to see the five in-a-row.
That would have been a big wish of his to see the five in a row. But that wasn’t to be.
AB: Which modern player would you pick to compare him to?
BB: That mercurial thing that he had, when you talk about the current Dublin football team, people say Diarmuid Connolly was the same sort of fella to Anton in that he would take shots that are really not on. But they still went over the bar.
Anton would get the ball and you’d know he would kick it with his left foot. It would go up in the air and it would go forty yards over the bar because of the way he moved.
And Diarmuid was very similar like that. He ran but he was very good on his feet. He had that ability create the space to get the shot in.
AB: For me, looking at the team of the ’70s, you’re still remarkably close long after the thing that brought you all together has taken. Probably more so than any team that has ever played Gaelic football, I believe anyway. How has that happened?
BB: It’s funny. There’s a couple of people that have to take credit for that. On a day-to-day basis, Alan Larkin takes a lot of credit because he keeps people informed of what’s going on, as he did when Anton was ill. And when things went on, he just kept people abreast of stuff.
It’s funny. Six different groups carried the coffin yesterday. The second group, the golfers group were the group of guys who play golf in Hollystown. And I was asking the lads had they played golf since Anton got sick.
Anton collapsed on the golf course in May of last year on the tee box. And that was the first time the diagnosis that came in. It was Anton who organised all the golf and checked the weather forecast and rang all the guys.
And his influence on those guys is such that I don’t think they’ve played since. And it’s things like that that keep a group together. Because people make an effort, little things like that.
AB: The team of the ’70s is intertwined in every Dublin success since then – in ’83 when Anton was playing and in ’95 with Pat O’Neill, Jimmy (Brogan) and Fran Ryder and on to 2011, through parentage: myself and Bernard, James McCarthy. It’s an amazing legacy that that team have left, in the All-Ireland wins that have come since then.
I wonder will any Dublin team ever leave a legacy like that again?
BB: It’s hard to know. If you look at the current Dublin team, Jack McCaffrey is Noel McCaffrey’s son. John Caffrey was on the ’83 team and his daughter (Leah) is on the ladies team. I think because of the interest in the game…the chances of it happening, it’s likely to happen.
The Brogans as a family, we’ve been involved in every All-Ireland since 1974, except 1983. But I think it will happen. The legacy of that team is that people want to play the game now. More people than ever want to play the game.
AB: The current team look back to the team of the ’70s for inspiration – I know Jim Gavin is big on it, he would have had a number of that team in to talk to the group. Are that team aware of how important you are to this current Dublin football team? Or the respect that exists for them? Or does it take a funeral like yesterday or the death of a team team to see the turnout he gets?
BB: I think the team understand that there is that respect and so on. But do the team understand that they have such a big influence on it? I think you’re right. The funeral for Anton, where all the different teams came together to show their respect. Do I think people really understand it? I don’t think so, no.
AB: When you met after the funeral for a few pints, did you get a chance to look back? Was there a bit of nostalgia? Thinking ‘what we did there was pretty special?’ Six All-Ireland final appearances in-a-row. But probably more so than that, reignited GAA in the capital and producing this great legacy that still clearly exists 40 years later?
BB: It’s funny. We went back for a few drinks after the funeral but there was no discussion about our team at all. The focus was very much on Anton. And on the Synge Street guys that he played with. There are no guys on our team that would dwell on the past or dwell on the things we did.
And that came out about Anton. Anton’s thing, one of the lads in the paper wrote that somebody said to him; three All Stars, four All-Ireland medals, eight Leinsters – that’s an amazing achievement.
And Anton basically said ‘so what?’ Today is today.
AB: Dad, could you sum Anton O’Toole up?
BB: He was gentleman and a gentle man.