Sunday 16 June 2019

'And a single tear rolled down that lovely, generous face' - Roy Curtis remembers his great friend Anton O'Toole

Anton O'Toole of Dublin. Photo by Sportsfile
Anton O'Toole of Dublin. Photo by Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

HE wore his fame as lightly as the Sky Blue shirt that was his superhero cape, the uniform from which he delivered a golden sunburst of euphoria to the city of his birth.

Anton O'Toole, that apple-cheeked colossus, a bottomless reservoir of kindness, was Dublin in the rare oul' times.

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An immortal footballer; a once-in-a-lifetime human being. A gentleman and a gentle man. A wellspring of generosity. A pillar of the city. Among my closest friends.

A foundation stone of the listed building designed by Kevin Heffernan, one that rose up in 1974 and became a symbol of hope and renewal for a town grown scarred and forlorn. 

As much a thread of the city's tapestry as any Georgian Square; as timeless as Anna Livia or Molly Malone herself.

The Dublin team with which he won four All-Ireland titles – 1974, '76, '77 and '83 - opened a sluice gate through which sped a fast-flowing river of joy, an unstoppable damburst of delirium, a wondrous, engulfing sense of proud identity.

To the foot-soldiers on Hill 16, hypnotised by his snake-charming left-foot and selfless leadership, he was the Blue Panther; to his old comrades in Synge Street, he was Anto; to his dear, dear family, he was Anthony.

To me he was always, Tooler; a hero, who became the fastest of fast friends, dispensing wisdom and wit in that self-effacing, humane, forever cordial way of his.

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Little things: He always, always, got up to offer his seat when my wife, who instantly loved him for the goodness that colonised every atom of his being, joined our company.

His hands were immense, like the paws of a brown bear, yet the fingers were the delicate digits of a piano player; when he sipped a pint of stout, he would somehow make the head go immediately flat, defying and defeating Arthur Guinness as, at the very peak of his powers, a lithe figure who seemed to move in slow motion yet always arrive at his destination first.

Oblivious to fashion, he wore this lovely old hat that made him look like a cross between Inspector Morse and somebody who had just spent the afternoon deer-stalking.

Anton O'Toole, Dublin in action against Liam O'Connor, Offaly in 1983

In restaurants, he would strip the Michelin star from any place which thought itself too uppity to serve spaghetti bolognese.

He took in wild cats, fed them and would be visibly upset when, as felines do, they disappeared again, never to return. Because he oozed fidelity, his mind couldn't compute faithlessness.

In reflective mood recently, he flicked through the immense catalogue of his sporting days and identified the day that stood out above all the rest. Typically, he chose an afternoon when the stardust fell on others.

September 18, 2011. Kevin Mac's goal. Stephen Cluxton's buzzer-beating free. A city bursting its own banks: "The best day of my life," he said, his mind and eyes passengers in the same time-machine.

Without fail, he would call into Briody's pub on Marlborough Street before the All-Ireland final to present a ticket to a regular called Larry, an octogenarian and fanatical Dublin supporter. Random acts of kindness were his calling card.  

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His sense of humour endured to the end. When his brother, Peter, a rock by the side of the sibling with whom he shared a boyhood bedroom, would wipe dribble from his mouth, he would turn to us, a glint in his eye, and murmur: "OCbloodyD".

He approached his daily Placepot bet as studiously as a bookworm taking up the crossword. He loved his pilgrimages to those horse-racing Meccas: York, Chester, Goodwood, and, of course, every March, the valley cradled in the Cotswolds that so reminded him of Croke Park.

He was, unequivocally, the world's worst tipster. I can still recall the day in 2009 when he rang me, breathlessly, from the Cheltenham paddock, cancelling the advice he had texted the night before from the Bee Hive pub to put the mortgage on Dunguib.

"False alarm," he said, "don't go near it, whatever you do."

I didn't. Dunguib won by the better part of a furlong. 

Glen Hansard serenading a plainly ailing Anton with Raglan Road on Christmas Eve is, perhaps, the most beautifully touching thing I have ever seen on YouTube.

He revered David Hickey.

As a team-mate, a brilliant transplant surgeon, as the bottomless well of good humour, the friend who flew back from the Middle East and, for three sun-kissed days over the Easter weekend, made his home in Skerries the venue for one last reunion between Anton and his second family.

The giants of the 1970s with whom he ran and made history and gifted Dublin something beautiful and imperishable.

Just a fortnight ago, seriously ill, Anton called me to his hospice bedside, an urgency in his voice: "Tell the people about Hickey. A man who just gives and gives and gives. Please tell them. An incredible human being. An extraordinary footballer. The finest man I have ever met."

He might have been talking about the man in the shaving mirror. But then down all the years, I never once heard a single word of bravado, not a solitary boast from this GAA hall of famer, this legend of so many Septembers, the first Dub to win three consecutive All Stars.

He deflected acclaim as adroitly as his pal, Paddy Cullen, in that launch-pad 1974 moment that sent Dublin football into glorious orbit, pushing Liam Sammon's penalty to safety.

So, he would re-direct the spotlight to his friend and golfing buddy, John McCarthy: "Unbelievably brave, got his jaw broken so many times by putting his head where other players wouldn't put their foot. He always had your back on the pitch. How he never got an All Star I don't know."

Tooler valued bravery. And loyalty.

So, for years, each Sunday, he would climb the stairs at JJ Smyth's bar on Aungier Street, to offer his support to the now deceased jazz guitarist Louis Stewart. It affronted Anton that a genius should perform in front of an audience numbering scarcely three dozen.

Self-sacrifice was the gold standard of qualities he valued. He was suspicious of oversized ego, despised self-promotion.

In life, in politics, in football, he championed the underdog, always talked up those who dwelled in relative shadow: Paddy Reilly, Georgie Wilson, Stephen Rooney. And, the two Templeogue Synge Street players to whom he was a guiding light and father figure, Denis Bastick and Eoghan O'Gara.

Eoghan O'Gara, Dublin, celebrates with team-mate Bernard Brogan after scoring his side's first goal as Tyrone's Justin McMahon in 2010

Perhaps the only occasions I saw any hint of darkness pollute those forever giddy, kind eyes was when some random punter would say something negative about O'Gara. What Anton valued about Eoghan were the things others declined to see: The work-rate, the blue-collar graft, the tackling, the supreme loyalty to the team.

The last time I saw Tooler, last Friday, O'Gara and James McCarthy had just visited.

In a laboured whisper, Anton told me how moved he had been when O'Gara thanked him for all he had done for his career. And a single tear rolled down that lovely, generous face.

It was a beautiful, heartbreaking, heart-soaring cameo.

That was him right there. The love and tenderness that dwelled within in him was as dazzling and huge and unmissable as any Times Square billboard.

For so many years, we would meet up in the old and glorious pubs that sit like a necklace around the city centre. Here was his social stomping ground: The Palace Bar or Grogan's or McDaid's or The Long Hall or Cassidy's on Camden Street, where his old 1970s compadre, Fran Ryder, was head of house. His destination after Dublin games was always Mulligan's, a kind of forever Poolbeg Street dressing-room.

Neary's of Chatham Street, that gorgeous red-draped wonderland where he felt most at ease, he called "HQ". He would sit there, on one of the just two barstools with a back support, and joust with the lads on the other side of the country, Dave, Gareth, Martin, Paddy.

One December night a decade ago we left Neary's at closing time, still thirsty. With Tooler's assurance that there was a restaurant in Temple Bar that stayed open until dawn, we summoned one of those iffy rickshaws that patrol the late night city streets.

Somewhere close to Dame Street, the contraption buckled like a jaded horse at Becher's Brook. Anton had only one piece of advice for the ambulance ferrying me and my badly broken arm to St James's Hospital.

"Don't let them operate on the gobshite until he sobers up."

There was Mayo and Cork blood in his DNA, but the three castles of the capital city were tattooed to his soul.

Dublin football was as vital, as elemental, to his existence as oxygen, as the blood that for 68 too-short years, kept his mighty and kind heart beating.

In recent weeks, as his 15-month battle with illness entered its final days, the old warriors who soldiered alongside him in the 1970s visited and shared stories.

As the lights declined on Anton's life, here they were, these all for one blue musketeers, reliving the rare oul' times, the deeds that transformed the city's sporting canvas.

That Jim Gavin was among those calling to his bedside was apt. Because the towering achievements of Dublin's current team of the ages have their genesis in the 1970s.

Cluxton and Fenton and Kilkenny accepted the baton from Cullen, Mullins and O'Toole.

A fortnight ago I saw two of the granite blocks of Kevin Heffernan's team dissolve in tears, struggling with the enormity of the impending loss of their kindly, courageous brother-in-arms.

For a troop that was so close, all parts of the same whole, this will feel like the ripping out of a piece of their essence.

It brought to mind Liam Clancy's voice, pouring all of himself into those powerful, haunting lines from the final verse of And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.

"Now every April I sit on my porch/And I watch the parade pass before me/And I see my old comrades how proudly they march/Reliving their dreams and past glories/I see the old men all tired, stiff and sore…"

Except Anton and his blue platoon are the very opposite forgotten heroes of a forgotten war.  They are immortals, giants who bequeathed the city and the nation such a collection of priceless, timeless, eternal art.

Some of the most glorious brushstrokes were painted by one of the finest men I have ever known.

Anton O'Toole, the gentlest of giants, armed with a magical left-foot, a heart as broad as the rectangle of grass off the Clonliffe Road where he forged so many masterpieces, and a smile that floodlit any and every road he walked.

If you get the chance, raise a pint to a titan this weekend. 

To the Blue Panther, Anthony, Anto, Anton, Tooler. Forever a prince of the city, sleep well brother. You are loved.

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