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12 May

LiveGaelic Legends – Anton O’Toole

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Posted by Connor Murphy in LiveGaelic Legends | May 2013

This week I speak to Dublin’s Blue Panther, Anton O’Toole.

Anton was part of Dublin’s all conquering team of the 70’s that appeared in six consecutive All Ireland finals. A three time All Star in 1975, 1976, 1977, Anton was also listed in the GAA’s 125 Greatest Stars. A constant in the Dublin Forward line throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, he was a stand out amongst many of the games true greats.

In this interview Anton talks to me about the vital role Kevin Heffernan played in reinvigorating Dublin GAA, rivalry with Kerry, and that infamous All Ireland final in 1983.

LiveGaelic Legends – Anton O’Toole – Dublin

Following 1963 Dublin fell into an eleven year dry spell was there someone who pushed you to pursue Gaelic Football, or was it just the sport you felt most comfortable in?
I would have started in the school in Synge Street, in the Christian Brothers. All that was played in those days was Gaelic and I obviously might have played a little bit of Soccer on the streets, but for me it was really always Gaelic games and that’s where it really all began.

Brother Kelly who was the main man behind it, we learnt there from the age of 10, 11, and 12. We would be playing up in the field and playing for the club at that stage as well, but it all started in the schools basically.

In 74′ Dublin won their first All Ireland in over a decade, how important was the appointment of Kevin Heffernan in changing the team’s fortunes?
It was obviously the main thing that set us off. Kevin had been manager I think two years previously and then he left and had a year out. He obviously had pedigree, he had played himself, he had won an All Ireland in 58′, he had captained the team, he won Railway Cup medals, his list of honours was incredible, and he brought with it serious pedigree to the game.

He was vital to success, because he put a great organisational structure in place, he had two great assistants in Donal Caulford who was from my club Synge Street and Lorcan Redmond and they were seriously committed to the thing and they didn’t bring any ego with them. They had a real passion for the sport and it shone through.

anton o'tooleIn the final that year you faced off against Galway, with the eleven year period that came between the two finals, was there a sense of nervousness before the match?
There was a sense of nervousness, but whether it was because of the eleven years. For us basically we had really not achieved anything up until that point. I’d say for all the players on the team or on the panel I’d say there was very few with Intercounty medals of any type. I had played in an All Ireland Junior final, which we lost, and have two All Ireland Junior Leinster medals. We had won no Inter County titles of note up until that stage, so we were basically heading into a cauldron.

Luckily that year we were in it, we were a Division 2 team so everything happened by progression. We got to the Division 2 final, we lost that to Kildare in Croke Park, we then played our first Championship match against Wexford. We played five matches to win that Leinster Championship, we played Wexford, then we played Louth, then we played Offaly who had been All Ireland Champions two times in the previous four years I think, then we played Kildare and then we played Meath.

So we played five teams to win the Leinster and every game we played brought us on a bit gave a bit more experience and the teamwork gelled together. We got to the semi final, we were playing Cork who were the champions and strong favourites and we managed to overcome them, so every game helped to bring on our teamwork and our self belief.

When we got to the final, obviously it’s a huge occasion, but generally when you get out on the pitch and you get the game started and get yourself involved early on you settle down. It was huge, the county had gone crazy and the atmosphere around was fantastic and it worked out ok on the day.

In 1975 you met a strong Kerry team in the All Ireland final, that game sparked what was one of the greatest rivalries in Irish sport was there a sense of animosity in that match or did the rivalry develop as the decade wore on?
There wouldn’t have been any animosity, because we had no history, I know Dublin lost to Kerry in the 55′ final, and Kevin Heffernan was on that team, but for us it hadn’t got any real difference to it.

It was a final and we were there to win it and Kerry were the better team on the day and they beat us well. They got a great start mind you they got a goal early on. We lost and we were well beaten and obviously you suffer the disappointment as we went in favourites, but that’s the nature of sport, you win and you lose.

That year despite losing the All Ireland final you picked up the first of three All Stars, how does it feel to receive such a huge honour?
It was great, because it’s an acknowledgment of your achievements and it’s always nice to get, but obviously the supreme accolade is the winning the All Ireland, because that’s done on the field. The awards come from a panel of people that decide you are worthy of it but it was great to get it.

anton o'tooleIn ’76 you beat Kerry in the All Ireland by a considerable margin, did the team go out seeing it as a chance of redemption?
In 74′ when we won it there was a lot of talk about making records and all sorts of outside activities wanted to come on board, but Kevin Heffernan just said no way. He said in 74′ “you may never get another chance to play in an All Ireland and you are not going to be distracted”, as it transpired we played in five more to make it six in a row. He set the ground work.

We wanted to avenge the 75′ defeat, but we wanted to win an All Ireland basically, so getting to the final, we had the added incentive to beat Kerry. The marker was laid down early in that game, I think Kevin Moran went down the field and the ball just went by the upright, it didn’t go in the net but it showed our intent on the day.

Following that game Kevin Heffernan, to the shock of many, stepped down as manager. Was it as much a shock to the players as it was to the public?
It was really, because we didn’t really have any warning of it, but it’s an amateur sport and his career was taking him somewhere else and he didn’t have the time to do it. We obviously were surprised, but we were lucky at that stage, that was after three All Ireland finals, so we were a very mature team and the players knew what they had to do. We had a very good structure in place, as I said we had the two selectors, who were key men in the set up as well. We made the right decision and appointed Tony Hanahoe as the coach.

We all had the same philosophy about it, you worked hard, you trained hard and had a passion for the game. Tony took on the job of manager and coach, Donal Caulford took most of the sessions, but it didn’t really upset anything, it wasn’t like bringing in an outsider to take over. Everything was run from the set up and it didn’t have any great effect on us that year.

The 1977 All Ireland against Armagh was probably over shadowed by the semi final that year against Kerry. It’s widely regarded as one of the greatest games of all time. What are your memories of that day?
To my Kerry friends I say that was the rubber match between the teams, they don’t necessarily agree with it though. It was a great match, the intensity was there from the very start, and there was no let up. Kerry were certainly in control in the first half, they were very much on top and got a goal early on and they had numerous chances to take more scores.

We were on the back foot that day for a good long time. It went down to the wire in the second half and it wasn’t until the last seven minutes that we got the two goals that basically sealed it, so it was in the balance up until the very end.

You had another tussle with Kerry in ’78 and lost by a large margin, what went wrong that day?
’78 was our fifth year in a final and we were just getting that bit old. Some of the guys were well into their thirties at that stage. Kerry were still very much a very young team still.

We didn’t really feel we got a fair crack of the whip in that final. We were getting on a bit, but we were very much on top in that first half and if certain refereeing decisions had gone our way we would have gone in at half time, maybe with a significant lead. It wasn’t to be and I think in the second half the legs finally gave out.

It was a game we wouldn’t have fond memories of, not just for losing, but because we felt that decisions were going against us.

anton o'toole1983 was the last All Ireland final you won, but the game is remembered more so for the dismissals and the scenes during the match. What are your individual memories of what happened that day?
It was probably one of the worst days weather wise I’ve ever played, there was a tornado blowing around Croke Park. It was actually impossible to play football on the day, it rained, and playing into the Hill you could almost score from the fullback line. The ball was slippy, the ground was slippy, and there was an intensity there to it.

I can’t say it was any meaner a game than many a game you would see. I mean you can go out and play in an All Ireland and there is a natural tension there that has to be released and I wouldn’t blame the referee, but I thought maybe he was a bit finicky on certain things. At the end of the day we fell over the line with twelve against fourteen, but I don’t think that it was as a bad a game as some people made it out to be.

Do you think it may have been a case of players doing the usual and getting stuck in and it overflowed a bit because of poor decisions by the referee?
I can’t really say. It’s hard to know. I don’t think it was a particularly dirty game, there was one or two incidents that were controversial, but I thought on the day players were being penalised when they were trying to go down and pick the ball up.

I can’t say he wasn’t right to send players off, but I don’t think it was a bad as people made out to be. That’s my own opinion and there is probably some who would disagree, but you could probably take any match, even today and say there should have been four sent off. The referees don’t always take the ultimate decision to send players off, but he did that day.

After your playing days finished you managed Templeogue-Synge Street to Intermediate Championship in 2008, how did it feel to lead your old club to such a historic victory?
It was great in a sense, because that’s a very difficult championship to win. You are coming up against the really strong teams in the city, we met Kilmacud Crokes in the final and they basically had their second senior players in that, so they had a lot to pick from. It was a great achievement, because it is so hard to win it and it gets you back up playing Senior Championship, which is vital for any club.

I was involved in running that team with Reggie Smith, he did most of the work, so he has to take a lot of the credit, but we won it and it got the club back up the grade list and they are now back up playing Senior Championship ever since.

Two very good players have come out of that environment in Denis Bastick and Eoin O’Gara, who have won Junior All Ireland medals and Senior All Ireland medals and hopefully they will win another one this year.

Do you think that the huge number of clubs and the huge player pool Dublin has works against the county?
I wouldn’t say that, there are a lot of people playing football in Dublin who wouldn’t be eligible to play for Dublin. Having a big player pool doesn’t mean you will have a strong county team. Meath and Kildare have had population growth in the last ten years. In Meath’s case it hasn’t really done anything for them, Kildare have been knocking on the door.

If you look at Kilkenny and you ask why have they been so successful? Well it’s the most important game in the county. It’s the same in Kerry, football has always been the only game. In Dublin it’s probably not so. The fact that we have won so many All Irelands over the last forty years, but that we have only won one in the last two decades shows it doesn’t mean you will have success.

What is your opinion on the way that football has developed in the last five or six years?
I don’t like it. It doesn’t bode well for spectators, the Dublin Vs Donegal semi final two years ago was an awful spectacle. If it keeps going along those lines people won’t be spending their hard earned cash on tickets.

I think Dublin have played the best football this year. They deservedly won the League, because they played the type of football that people want to see. The League final was a very good game with the two best footballing teams contested it and it was a flowing game. Ok, near the end Tyrone pulled players back, but the only way to counter act that is to have the ability to knock the ball over from just over the half way line, so players will have to try and develop that art.

There are also an awful lot of players diving at the moment. A back cannot tackle a forward these days because they just go to ground, especially in football, it doesn’t apply in hurling. You can’t tackle a man because he immediately goes down and referees are handing out very easy frees, which to me isn’t right.

The idea of shouldering a player now is nearly gone out of the game, generally speaking a free is given against you if you shoulder a player. I certainly don’t know what the answer is, but hopefully this year we will have a free flowing Championship.

Do you think the introduction of the Black Card will help stop cynical fouling and the diving that you are talking about as well?
It remains to be seen, I’m not sure. Hopefully it will and it’s worth giving it a go and let’s see, but I think we need to define the rules very simply. Referees all have their own interpretations of what’s a foul. It’s uniformity in the whole thing that’s important and for players to know what they can do and they can’t do. Maybe we need to have a symposium with Referees and the whole Intercounty scenario and players and put it out and say this is what’s acceptable and this is what isn’t.

What are your thoughts on Dublin’s chances this year and in the years to come?
Well I think these things come in cycles, at the moment things look good for Dublin, in so far as they have won a couple of Minors, a couple of Under 21’s, and probably have one of the most talented forward lines that Dublin have ever had. There is some very exciting players coming along.

They won the League with a very young team. I think they are one of the favourites for the All Ireland, but the Championship is a different ball game, there is a higher level of intensity, it’s warmer, it’s basically more or less a knockout competition.

I think their chances are good, but it’s not going to be easy. Donegal are there, Tyrone are still there, you have Cork, you have Mayo, you have Kildare, a possible resurgence in Kerry, so it’s not going to be easy, but they deservedly are favourites.

Anton provided real insight into his time as a footballer, during what many consider the golden age off Gaelic football, as well as an insight into some of the games other leading figures of that period. His passion for the game still holds strong, whether it be with his club Templeogue-Synge Street or with his county. We at Livegaelic.com would like to thank Anton for sharing his thoughts and memories with us and our readers.

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