By PJ Cunningham
He was the Liam Brady of Gaelic football – a beautiful footballer with an elegance off his left side that few could hope to equal.
Anton O’Toole lifted the old game of football to another level entirely with his grace and movement – that ciotóg of his (left foot) was like a wand conducting the ball to do outrageous things that few of his peers could match.
Many people believe that only for Kevin Heffernan and the likes of Brian Mullins, Jimmy Keaveney and Anton, fondly known as ‘Tooler’ by his teammates, the game would never have kicked into the modern era and become as popular and fashionable as it has become.
Before that breakthrough in the mid-seventies, football and indeed the GAA was very much a rural game which arrived in Croke Park a few times a year.
‘Heffo’s Army’ changed all that with supporters kitting out in blue and presenting witty banners at games, particularly on the Hill.
Dublin first and foremost were a manly crew, hewn out of the tough granite that Kevin Heffernan loved in his teams.
Based on this artisan characteristic, he added the artists, and none played that role more than the Synge Street star.
Skill and strength
When you think that he invariably was playing against Kerry in winning the top prizes – and here we are talking about the greatest team of all time up to the present Dubs – his achievements are all the more commendable.
This man could torment the best of markers and could create or take a score thanks to his own skill and strength to pass those man mountains who were on the Kerry wings of defence.
The 68-year-old, who became known affectionately as ‘The Blue Panther’ for his prowess to move onto possession and give colleagues defence-splitting passes, began life in the Dublin colours in ’71 and two years later won the first of his four All Ireland celtic crosses – the others in ’76, ’77 and ’84.
Indeed himself and Brian Mullins were the pre-eminent Dubs until Jim Gavin’s recent run in that both were the only Leinster players to hold four All Ireland senior football medals each.
His last game was against Kerry in the 1984 Centenary All Ireland final when the Dubs came up short as O’Dwyer followed up on his four-in-a-row of ’78-81 by beginning a hat-trick of Sam Maguire wins between ’84-86.
‘Tooler’ in all played in six All Ireland finals and earned two All Stars during his stellar career. However as his playing colleague, Tony Hanahoe, said last week, it was the “total gentleman off the field” that endeared him to all who met him.
“He was a refined and intellectual kind of guy,” claimed the former St Vincent’s star.
Sometimes, in moments such as these, you get a different perspective from those who battled most with him on the football field.
Bomber Liston, the Kerry great put it simply and humoursly when he declared: “As a footballer, by God he had it all. He was a fabulous fielder. He used to wear big ugly rugby boots, but he could deliver with them.”
The enduring memory is his ability to isolate his marker on his right side as he penetrated close enough to kick those vital scores when the Dubs most needed them.
That was one of his great traits, he fronted up when the team needed him unlike the sunshine players who are great when you are winning but nowhere to be seen when the going gets tough.
Anton hadn’t been well for a while yet news of his passing was a shock – you think such heroes will live forever.
And in a sense they do because when you hit the rewind button, you see him in his pomp and glory, sashaying through the tightest of defences as if they were stuck in treacle while he caused panic as he bore down on goal.
Or maybe the memory is the one where his left foot swings effortlessly and the ball essays on an arched journey before sailing over the black spot for another typical score.
People blessed with such virtuousity never walk with feet of clay and ‘Tooler’s’ entry to the pantheon of greats means that for those of us privileged to watch those thrilling games – particularly the ones against Kerry – he will forever be a star from Dublin in those rare ould times.
Ar Dheis De go raibh a anam.
Awful times for once-proud Offaly hurlers
So what’s happened to the world of hurling? Only 21 years ago, Offaly were All Ireland champions after putting Kilkenny to the sword in 1998.
The younger generation coming through had real home grown heroes with the likes of Brian Whelahan, John Troy and Johnny Pilkington all Cúchulann-like figures with hurleys in their hands.
The new reality is hard to take on board if you are a casual hurling fan but for someone who fed at those victory feast in the eighties and nineties, the recent fall from grace is shocking.
Bad enough that last year we lost our Leinster Championship status but the hope was we would breeze through the Joe McDonagh and reclaim our rightful spot with the big fish.
Fat chance. After suffering successive defeats to an Eddie Brennan-inspired Laois the previous weekend and then Westmeath (a rout) last Saturday, the Faithful is now looking over its shoulder wondering will the county be relegated to the third tier before the month of June is out.
The next two games against Antrim and Kerry are no pushovers and with morale at an all-time low, Kevin Martin’s side could indeed be heading for Christy Ring Cup fare in 2020.
How the mighty have fallen indeed! You can only congratulate the Laois and Westmeath teams for the strides they have made – a 13-point win over Offaly must be something the Lake County never imagined would ever arrive on a scoreline of 3-18 to 0-14.
Yet it did on Saturday and sad to say the only way is down for Offaly by the looks of things.
Michael Duignan, the former Offaly star and well-respected RTE pundit, thought last year that he saw in a few performances the suggestion that maybe they might be on the upward rung.
I’m sure he is as deflated as any this morning as the prospect of playing the next two games without one or two key players becomes almost as defining for the future as the victories in ’81, ’85, ’94 and ’98 defined the past.