Sunday 16 June 2019

Martin Breheny on Anton O'Toole: A quiet inspiration in an era that transformed Dublin football forever

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

Martin Breheny

Other than the colour of the jersey – and there have been subtle changes there too – resemblances between the Dublin for whom Anton O'Toole made his championship debut in 1974 and the current scene are so tiny as to be virtually invisible.

It's ironic that he died just eight days before Dublin begin their bid to win five successive All-Ireland titles, a target which, if achieved, will create a legacy that endures forever.

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Exciting times for Dublin, yet none of it might be possible if it weren't for the 1970's revolution, presided over by Kevin Heffernan and executed by a group of players who bought into a vision that most people in the capital – and everyone elsewhere – thought was fanciful.

O'Toole made an enormous contribution to the re-birth of Dublin football as it emerged from a decade of decay, during which there was real concern for the GAA's future in the city.

Dublin hadn't even reached a Leinster final since 1965, so when they set out on the 1974 Leinster championship trail against Wexford, the match was considered so low-key that it got curtain-raiser status to the Kerry-Roscommon National League final replay. Less than 23,000 spectators turned out for the double-header.

Dublin won easily and while their success didn't exactly send tremors through the football world, it nurtured some hope among their small band of followers.

The No 13, in his first senior championship game, played his part.

"A significant factor for Dublin was the deep-lying play of Anton O'Toole, but the remaining forwards were so scattered to permit a smooth link-up in the follow-through," wrote Donal Carroll in the Irish Independent.

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O'Toole had been handed a roving commission, regularly drifting out to midfield. However, Heffernan didn't deem it as much of a success as he would have liked and, as the season progressed, Bobby Doyle took over that role, with O'Toole reverting to a more orthodox forward role, where he thrived.

His long, raking stride, while soloing at speed, increased the threat level for opposition defences as Heffo's work-in-progress refined rapidly throughout the summer and into the glorious autumn, which ended with Sam Maguire back on Liffeyside for the first time since 1963.

O'Toole's contribution to the much-needed breakthrough, which required seven wins (Wexford, Louth Offaly, Kildare, Meath, Cork, Galway), came as no surprise to those who watched him with Synge Street over previous years.

Two years earlier, he had played for Dublin U-21s, having been selected by an unlikely Dublin manager, Eugene McGee, who died two weeks ago.

McGee was handed the Dublin job because of his involvement with UCD and apart from O'Toole, had future stars, Robbie Kelleher and David Hickey on the team.

However, like so many Dublin teams in all grades at the time, it was a short-lived campaign, ending against Meath in the first round of the Leinster championship.

The 1974 senior triumph changed the Dublin landscape forever. O'Toole remain a central part of the attacking plans as the Dublin-Kerry rivalry enthralled the sporting world in 1975-79, when they met in five successive championships.

Apart from his ball-winning and carrying skills, he was a consistent marksman. He scored in all seven championship games in 1974, the most important coming in the All-Ireland semi-final against All-Ireland champions, Cork when he fired in a first half-half goal which sent Dublin's confidence soaring.

A year later he scored two goals against Derry in the semi-final. Indeed, a glance at his record right throughout his career shows that he nearly always got on the scoresheet.

An All Star winner in 1975 (left full-forward), 1976-1977 (both at right half-forward), he remained at consistently high levels over subsequent years, but with Kerry overtaking Dublin at No.1 awards became more difficult to win.

A changing of the guard occurred in Dublin in the early 1980s and by the time the new army began to emerge as a formidable force in 1983, only Tommy Drumm, Brian Mullins and O'Toole remained from the 1977 All-Ireland winning squad.

They were the leaders in defence, midfield and attack, guiding the new brigade in a campaign which ended in glory with a remarkable win over Galway in the All-Ireland final.

Down to 13 men for much of the second half, the experience of O'Toole, Mullins and Drumm was crucial as the 'Defiant Dozen' won by two points.

In the Irish Independent, Donal Carroll described O'Toole's role in the win as ‘never less than inspiring.' O'Toole took it all in his calm stride.

Sitting in the dressing-room afterwards (journalists were allowed into dressing-rooms immediately after games back then) and contentedly swigging from a pint of milk, he gave his version of a crazy game.

"They (Galway) didn't seem quite sure what to do with two extra men but I knew that whatever ball came up to us in the forwards, there was an even greater responsibility on us to get it and give out defence a breather," he said.

It was typical O'Toole. Working things out for himself in the whitest heat of battle and getting them right.

His last championship game for Dublin came when they lost to Kerry in the 1984 final, thus ending the brilliant career of one of Dublin's finest.

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