Ahead of his Legends tour at Croke Park this Saturday, the first of the 2015 season, we spoke at length with former Derry midfielder Anthony Tohill.
So the Man United scout said he would come and watch me play in that game. We won 3-1, I scored the third from a trademark header from a corner. So after that, he asked me - why don't you come over to United?
By Arthur Sullivan
One of the finest midfielders of his generation, Tohill enjoyed an outstanding 12-year inter-county playing career.
During his time in the Derry jersey, from 1990 to 2002, Tohill won multiple team and individual honours. As well as the Celtic Cross he won in 1993, the Swatragh clubman also won four Allianz League titles, four All Stars, two Ulster titles and numerous Railway Cup medals playing for Ulster.
Anthony also had an outstanding playing career at underage, schools and university levels. In 1989 he won a Hogan Cup with St. Patrick’s, Maghera and an All-Ireland minor title with Derry. Success continued at third-level where he won a Sigerson Cup with Queen’s University, Belfast.
Outside of Gaelic football, Anthony’s proficiency at other sports also made him stand out. He spent time with the Melbourne Demons club in the AFL and went on to have a long and successful period with the Ireland team in the International Rules Series against Australia, as a player, captain and manager.
He also spent some time playing soccer with Derry City, and in 1995 played with the Manchester United reserves during a two-week trial with the club.
On a professional level, Tohill was appointed as chief executive of the new Mid Ulster super council last year, one of 11 new councils formed to lead local government into the next phase of development in Northern Ireland.
See below for details on how to book the tour.
Q: Describe your youth in Swatragh, Co Derry.
A: Swatragh is a fairly typical, rural village that you could find in any county in Ireland. We were brought up a mile outside the village on a small farm, an essentially rural place. My introduction to sport came via my elder brothers, I was the fourth in a family of eight. So my older brothers brought the sport back into the house and many's the day I spent getting a kicking from my older brothers and that certainly hardens you from a young age.
As well, it was typical of most nationalist areas of the north in that Gaelic football really was the only sport that was played. It wasn't that you had a big choice of competing sports, the only show in town was Gaelic. At primary school, it was the only game that we played. We played soccer in the playground at lunch time but Gaelic was the game. When we went on to St. Pat's Maghera, GAA was the only show in town from a sporting point of view.
The local club, Michael Davitts Swatragh, in those days was probably more famed for success on the camogie field rather than Gaelic football or hurling. But everything was natural, it was part of your environment and it was what everyone else did and grew up with and was involved with. Those early years shape you as an individual and they do shape your sporting career.
Luckily enough, the headmaster of the local primary school, Dessie Cleary, was a mad sportsman and then our coach at St Pat's, Maghera was a guy called Adrian McGuckin who was very famous in terms of colleges football in Ulster and I really got a tremendous grounding from an early age in all that was required to be a decent Gaelic footballer.
Q: Was Gaelic football a big part of your background?
A: My Dad would have played Gaelic football for Swatragh as well. He won junior championships with the club and that. I think he was a corner back or a full-back. He just wasn't blessed with as many inches as I was! With him being involved in GAA, like many others in the area, when you were 14 or 15, they were taken out of school and sent out to work. My mother did lots behind the scenes and there were three of us that were quite close together and I had a couple of sisters playing camogie as well so there was a lot of background support needed to keep all that on the road.
My father tended to let us get on with it without being actively involved himself, and having a small farm that needed to be taken care of, there were plenty of days when I'm sure he would have liked to have had the three sons there to help on the farm and we were off playing football! But in fairness, he let us just go and play. We were never pushed and we were never denied the opportunity to play either - we were just allowed to get on with it. There's something to be said for that in the modern era. Nowadays, every mother and father, aunt and uncle, granny and granddad, are all out on the fields now and it's much more difficult for them in some ways compared to our day, when no one went to the games.
Q: You were still young by the time you were an established senior footballer. Were you always ahead of your peers?
A: I wouldn't say I was at all. A lot of times, I was nothing more than average - people might say that's all I ever was - but I really think in my early years I was nothing more than average. I think it was only really when I started to grow to my height that that gave me the added attributes needed to start to make a real difference on the pitch. I didn't really start to grow big until I was maybe 16 or 17. I started to notice that fellas who were taller than me at school, suddenly I was three, four or five inches taller than them. And in the role on the pitch that I was starting to play in, that was a good advantage to get. But I was a bit of a late developer. I didn't set the tone and I don't think people looked at me and said, yeah, that guy is going to play for the county.
Q: How did your underage career go with Swatragh?
A: We did OK. Our primary school won the local blitz - it was the infamous Castle Cup, organised by St Pat's, Maghera - and our primary school won that. We had a good bunch of fellas growing up, when I was going through Swatragh, the age above me, two years above me and the one below, there was a core, critical mass of players coming through that enabled us to win, at our age group, U12, U14, we did OK at u16, and then we got through to the county minor final for the first time ever in Swatragh's history in 1988 and we beat Ballinderry in the final. That was a massive thing for the club to have achieved. For a pretty small club with limited resources to win a county minor title was a big achievement.
Q: 1989 must be the foundation stone of your senior career in many ways in that you won a Hogan Cup with St Pat's, Maghera and an All-Ireland minor title with Derry. What are your memories of that season?
A: It all came following on from the 1988 county minor success with the club. We went back to St. Pat's, Maghera that year and confidence levels would have been up. We were going into our second last year, and again, we had a decent group of players together. When we came into St. Patrick's, Maghera, as first years, Adrian McGuckin sat us all down in the dressing room, having looked at us playing for a few weeks and he said, "You boys will be the first group of players in the history of St. Pat's, Maghera to win the Hogan Cup". Now a lot of us in the room didn't even know what a Hogan Cup was, but it sounded like something we wanted to do.
As soon as you came into that environment, your thoughts are starting to be shaped, that you are expected to achieve and you are expected to be successful. Maghera were on a run of something like being in 17 MacRory Cup finals in 20 years so it was a natural evolution. Failure just wouldn't have been acceptable in that environment. You were expected to win and expected to achieve. Our age group hadn't won anything through school so to go and be part of a MacRory Cup winning side...
We played St Colman's, Newry in the final in 1989 and Maghera had never beaten Colman's in a MacRory Cup final. So even people before the game were saying, "there's no point in you boys even going to that match because Maghera never beat Colman's, they never beat them in a final". So 15 minutes into the game, we're nine points down. So we began to think, this record is going to continue. How do you get yourself out of a nine-point deficit after 15 minutes?
So we got a goal and then immediately, Colman's got a goal back again. So we had got it down to six and then they got it back to nine again! But we kept chipping away, and kept going and kept working hard. We eventually turned that deficit around and with the last kick of the game, Éamonn Burns pointed a 40-metre free - James McCartan had fouled me, I'll never let him forget that by the way - but Éamonn Burns pointed the free and we won 4-10 to 4-9, one of greatest MacRory Cup finals that was ever witnessed. That was a huge thing for us and a huge thing for the school to have broken the hoodoo of Colman's. And to go then and win the Hogan Cup. We beat Tuam CBS in Cavan in the Hogan Cup semi-final and then we beat Chrióst Rí in the final. Those were teams that you never knew anything about. There wasn't much access to footage then, and so you really were in the dark.
Chriost Rí took us to a replay but we beat them in a replay in Pearse Park in Longford and it was a great relief, a realisation of the dream we were given at the start and the ambition that was set out to us at a very early age by Adrian McGuckin. For us to be the first group of players from St Pat's, Maghera, with all the illustrious history of great footballers who had come through Maghera, for it to be our group won won the first, it was a great achievement. And it's something that we all remember. We had a reunion there earlier in the year. When you achieve something with a group of fellas, it can never be taken away from you. They were great times.
But we didn't have much preparation or training done with the Derry minors. There was probably seven or eight of that team on the Derry minor team, and I think we trained just once before the first round of the championship with the rest of the squad. We were managed by John Joe Tierney, John Joe was in charge of Slaughtneil this year. John Joe had his work cut out with us young lads coming in full of our own importance. In the first game, we could have been turned over by Fermanagh. As young lads who had just won a Hogan Cup, our heads weren't where they needed to be. But we beat Fermanagh but then against Cavan in the semi-final, we were dead on our feet. But John Joe brought on a guy called Eunan O'Kane and he scored 2-1 and set up a goal as well.
So we got to the final by the grace of God and we beat Armagh, an Armagh team that included Kieran McGeeney and Neil Lennon. From there on, we won it handy enough. We played New York in a quarter-final and won that comfortably. The semi-final was against Roscommon, that was comfortable, and then the final itself was also comfortable. But once we got our heads right and got refocused, it was quite a natural progression.
For me, everything was coming good. Everything was joy, everything was success. It was a great time and it was a fabulous year to be involved in Gaelic football for a fella growing up in south Derry.
Q: How did your time in the AFL come about then?
A: On the back of the success of 1989, it was something that Melbourne had started to do a few years earlier, to scout and look for players from the GAA who possibly could transition to Australia Rules. Jim Stynes, Seán White and Brian Stynes had all already left and gone to Australia. Tommy Gurn had already gone as well. So obviously they had people watching what was going on at minor level in Ireland. At that time they came over and had a training camp down in Swords, they looked at me on the back of that and said they would like me to come to Australia.
That was obviously something that had to be discussed with my parents. The football club reps came up to our house and said they would like me to go to Australia. I suppose I thought, well why not? It's an opportunity to be a professional sportsperson and once my parents knew that my education would be looked after, they were happy enough for me to go.
I never really talked it through with them why they allowed me to go but I suspect, that because at that time, Northern Ireland was not the place it is now. The Troubles were in full flow and my parents were thinking, where is there a better life for our children? And I was being given this wonderful opportunity to go to a foreign country and make a good life for myself away from the Troubles that were going on in the north. I left for Australia in January 1990.
(Anthony Tohill pictured at the All Stars in 2008)
Q: You eventually returned to Ireland in June 1991. How do you reflect now, almost 25 years later, on the experience in Australia?
A: For me, it was a wonderful experience. To leave home and go to the far side of the world at 18 years of age, to go to a new school and to try and pick up a completely different sport. I left five months before I was taking my A Levels and I entered Australian school, were the year ran from February to November, so I was able to enter the final year in Australia. So I did my exams there.
It was a good school, I made friends, I played for the football team and I bonded with the lads from the school football team. The family that I stayed with did a lot for me, Brian and Jim Stynes helped me. I played for the local GAA team on the QT. A blind eye was turned to it until one Sunday, I broke my leg playing GAA. That didn't do me any favours and I was out of the game there for seven months. I had played U19 football there for my first season, but at the start of 1991, the whole AFL season was restructured and whereas we previously would have had 90 players at the club - senior team, a reserve team and an U19 team - the roster had to be cut in half so clubs had to reduce their playing staff from 90 to 45.
So the club began to release players who were costing a lot of money, who hadn't made it and those who they didn't think were going to make it. I fell into that category. I had just started a five-year double degree course at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology which was costing about $16,000 a year back in 1990, so they obviously figured I was costing them a lot of money, they didn't know if I was going to make it or not, so I was released along with Niall Buckley from Kildare around about June 1991.
So myself and Niall came home. I came home one day and was more or less training with Derry the next night. So everything just knitted into place nicely. I didn't have to go to trials with Derry, I didn't have to prove myself through the league. I came to training and a week later I was brought on as a sub in the championship match against Down in the Athletic Grounds. We drew with them, Ross Carr pointed a free from about 55 yards to level the game, and they beat us in the replay. That was my introduction into Derry and that was me from then until whenever I retired 15 years later.
Q: Had things been different, do you think you had what it took to make it?
A: Breaking my leg set me back. But when I went out there, it's not like the lads who go out now. The lads who go out now get a lot of intense coaching and a lot of one-to-one coaching. In those days, you were just thrown in with the rest of the lads and a lot of it was just yourself. So the transitional period at that stage probably took the best part of three years, going out as a raw GAA player to making the grade.
Had I got the same period of time, I probably feel that I would have made the grade out there. But I did have opportunities to go back. After we won the All-Ireland in 1993, I got three opportunites, in 1993, 1994 and 1996 from three separate clubs in the AFL to go back, but I chose not to do so. I had been there and done it, I had gone back home and I felt that the club at the time had given assurances that my education would be looked after but when it came to it, my college fees were cited as one of the main reasons why I had to go.
So to me they had broken their word in terms of the assurances they had given my parents. So when Melbourne came back to me in 1996, I said "No, you've broken your word to me before and I won't be caught again."
It was a great experience at the time but I had moved home and settled. We had got a taste of inter-county success with Derry and it just wasn't the right time for me to go back but when I was out there as an 18-year-old, it was a fantastic experience and it helped shape my attitude to football and it gave me a lot of training techniques and tips that stood me in good stead until the end of my career. It probably brought me on by two or three years as a county footballer. If I had stayed at home, my progress would have been slower.
Q: You came back to Derry at a time when Ulster football was booming. You were beaten by the eventual champions in 1991 (Down), 1992 (Donegal) and 1994 (Down), so was the 1993 All-Ireland almost inevitable?
A: We probably thought were good enough in 1991 but I don't think we would have gone on and won that All-Ireland the way that Down did. We were developing as a team but we wouldn't have had the resolve or the confidence to go and do what Down did in 1991. But having witnessed them do it, in 1992, at the start of that season, Eamonn Coleman told us that we should make a strong effort to go out and win the National League. He recognised that we weren't as strong mentally as we needed to be to get through those big games in Croke Park.
He felt that by winning a national title - and the league was a lot different then than it is now - but for us to win that league in 1992, it did give us a lot of belief in that we could go and beat Meath in the semi-final at Croke Park and then beat Tyrone in the final. It gave us the confidence to know that while we thought we were good enough, we were able to demonstrate that we were good enough, and good enough in Croke Park, to win big games. That was a major step on our development. So in 1992 when we entered the Ulster Championship, in a real Titanic battle - for those who thought Donegal v Tyrone in Ballybofey was a Titanic battle, you should have been in Celtic Park in 1992 - that was a serious battle.
We had beaten Tyrone in the league final and we had to play them seven days later in the championship. We had beaten them at the death in the league final, they had played the better football and looked as though there were going to win it. We came in and stole it. So we won a very tough game against them and into an Ulster final against Donegal and there was no doubt that we were ready, and we thought we were going to win that game. But Donegal beat us by a point or two and went on to win the All-Ireland.
So for another year, we were left looking in saying "We're good enough, we believe we are good enough" and for us, we couldn't have lost another one. We had no other option in 1993 other than to win the All-Ireland. That might sound like nonsense coming from a county that had never won an All-Ireland but when you had been through what we had been through in the previous couple of years, it was just logic that we would go and win that All-Ireland. We believed it from the very start.
(July 1993; Anthony Tohill in action against Donegal's Joyce McMullan. Ulster Senior Football Championship Final, Derry v Donegal, St. Tighearnach's Park, Clones)
Q: You sound as if winning the All-Ireland was the natural thing that had to happen with this generation of players...
A: That was it. We were delighted that we won it but it was the natural, logical progression. The Derry minor team in 1983, a number of players came from that, we had Lavey winning an All-Ireland club title in 1991, we had ourselves winning the minor in 1989, then we won the league in 1992. So you had the ingredients. And we had Eamonn Coleman at the helm, assisted by Mickey Moran, Dinny McHugh and Harry Cribbin. At that time, the county board was behind us and the county was behind us so everything was pulling in the right direction so it was the logical outworkings of all of those other considerations. Fantastic for us to be there and to be the group of players in the end that were the first from our county to win the All-Ireland.
Q: Back in 1993, the Troubles were still raging. What did winning an All-Ireland title with Derry, a county particularly affected, mean in that context?
A: Looking back, the Troubles had no relevance to what we were about. We trained, we just got on with it. We all grew up in the north and we were accustomed to life. You were hardened by the Troubles. Things happened. Life went on. At the time, difficult and all as it was, our team would have had a lot of support from a cross-section of the community. And that was really refreshing, that people on different sides of the religious and political divide were able to set that aside. People who like sport just like sport. Across the divide, we had great support from all sections of the community.
We didn't dwell on what life was like in the north or what life was like in the south. We were focusing on what was happening on a football pitch and that's where our energies were devoted to and we just got on with it. The other matters just didn't enter our head because we focused on the sport, and we had support from many areas of the community.
Q: What are your memories of Eamonn Coleman?
A: When I think about Eamonn, I look back very fondly. He was a great man. He was I suppose the glue that brought all of us together. Club football in Derry was very competitive. There were fellas in the room that didn't like each other. A lot of us were rivals with our clubs, but Coleman was able to bring all those fellas together. He had the vision and the belief that we could win an All-Ireland, which really was silly talk in Derry for many years.
(August 1993; Derry manager Eamonn Coleman celebrates after victory over Dublin in the All-Ireland footbal semi-final)
He united the dressing room. He wasn't everyone's cup of tea, there were people at an administrative level who didn't necessarily warm to him. Eamonn demanded the best from us in terms of our performance in training and on the pitch but he also wanted us to be properly looked after. Eamonn was the sort of fella who could give you an absolute rollicking, and you would love to have throttled him but five or 10 minutes later he would be sitting down laughing with you about something else. He had a great way about him. A great man, talked in very simple, plain language that we all understood and it is a massive loss for Derry that Eamonn was taken at such a young age. He is dearly missed and very fondly remembered. Every time the players get together, we have a good laugh talking about some of the things we got up to with Coleman and some of the things he would have said to us.
Q: Today, Joe Brolly seems to everywhere and he has become one of the GAA's most influential voices. What was he like as a team-mate?
A: Ach, he was hard work! I'm sure people will appreciate what I mean with that. There were times when Joe didn't necessarily do the team thing, when he didn't necessarily want to put in the effort that we all demanded of each other. He didn't necessarily like towing the line. So if you were asked to go to the cone, Joe might have stopped short of it. If you were asked to go around it, Joe might have cut the corner. But he was a very likeable presence. He was an entertainer - as we all know, Joe is an entertainer. In those days...he has become maybe a bigger ego than he was in those days, he'll forgive me for saying that because there were many big characters in that dressing room and Joe was one of a number.
Really, in the early days, Joe had a very sheltered existence when he was down in Trinity! When he came up to Belfast, he had his eyes opened to student life. We educated Joe Brolly when he travelled in a car with three or four of us, or of the older fellas, to training from Belfast. But Joe was a good laugh. He was a fella that you knew that whether he was behind his name or in front of him, if you put it into space he would get it. He was very, very quick. We were blessed with forwards as we had Enda Gormley on the other side and Séamus Downey in the middle, who was very unselfish and who made that forward line tick. People said our forward line wasn't good enough to win an All-Ireland but they evidently were. Dermot Heaney was maybe the most underrated player that Derry ever had and Damien Cassidy was another. All great players.
Brolly? I could tell you plenty of stories about Joe, but I better not say anymore!
Q: In 1995, you spent two weeks on trial at Manchester United? How did that remarkable thing come about?
A: The whole soccer thing came about largely because in 1994, after taking 100 plus years for Derry to get the ingredients right to win the All-Ireland, we went out against Down in the Ulster Championship in Celtic Park in Derry. We had beaten them narrowly in Casement in 1992 when they were All-Ireland champions. We had beaten them convincingly in the Marshes in Newry in 1993. So Down came to Derry hellbent on putting that right. We lost a real belter of a game by a point or two. The knives came out for Eamonn Coleman. He was hung out to dry, not reappointed by the county board to the shock of the players and most of the county.
So at the time, the players felt we couldn't allow that to happen. We said, if we want to win an All-Ireland again, which we clearly wanted to do, then we must get back the management group that we had when we won it. That was led by Eamonn Coleman so for a period of time we didn't play for the county to see whether we could get the county board to change their decision. During that time, in order to stay fit, I started playing soccer. I played a few games when I was 18 for Maghera Strollers before I went to Australia. So I played about 10 games then, and hadn't played since. I was living with my wife at the time, she was from Park and they had a team that played in the Intermediate league. Her brother played, he got injured. I didn't think I was good enough to play in the Intermediate league for Park but they convinced me otherwise. I ended up playing a few games, and after a few games of that, word got out that an Ipswich Town scout was coming to watch me. Then, work got out that a Man City scout was coming to look at me.
I said to myself, what's going on here? Who else is coming? The next word was that the Manchester United scout had asked to see a list of my fixtures so we had a game coming up, a cup game against Donegal Celtic in Belfast. So the United scout said he would come and watch me play in that game. We won 3-1, I scored the third from a trademark header from a corner. So after that, he asked me - why don't you come over to United? It was all a wee bit surreal at the time because I had literally played no more than 20 games of soccer in my entire life and here I was being offered a trial at Manchester United at the tender age of 23. And I was a United fan! This was all in February 1995. It was the time Cantona kicked the Crystal Palace fan, and the time when the English fans went bananas down in Lansdowne Road, that's when I was over at United.
So I went over and trained with the reserves. So I played them two games and at the time, I felt I did OK. I was playing centre-half and I felt I was effective enough. At the end of it, Ferguson called me into a room and told me I was too old and inexperienced for what they required at the club. He said they would keep an eye on my progress and they would be in touch if required. I didn't go over expecting to get a contract. It would have been nice and maybe a part of me possibly did think I would get signed by Man U! But at the end of the day, if Man United need players, they go and spend a lot of money on them rather than taking a chance on a 23-year-old novice from Ireland who had no grounding or background in soccer. I was obviously athletic and when the ball was there, you could go and win it and that.
But for a centre-half, reading of the game was huge and that was the one that I probably found the most difficult. It wasn't the most important at junior level in the north but when you are playing with decent players and decent teams, it was probably the one thing where the lack of grounding and the background cost me. If I had played it properly as a child, I may have made it as a professional footballer but you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Q: Did you meet Roy Keane?
A: I had a few conversations with Roy alright. I'm sure he didn't know me, so they were brief encounters. He was a senior player at the time and I was training in the reserves with some of the young players who were coming through. But it was a great experience. I can look back on those two weeks of my life and say that was a bit of craic. Nothing came of it, but that was no big deal. It would have been a fairytale.
There was no harm done. I was able to go back and play with Derry City for a while but I spent a lot of time injured. After a while I said, sod this, if I'm going to try and win another All-Ireland with Derry and be the best footballer that I can be, I'm going to have to set all this soccer stuff aside. So I did that. Unfortunately, I didn't get to win that second All-Ireland but I had some good times and good moments.
(October 2011; Ireland manager Anthony Tohill during a press conference ahead of their first International Rules match against Australia)
Q: You became synonymous in the latter years of your career with the International Rules, both as a player and a manager...
A: The International Rules series kicked off again in 1998. I had four tours as a player and one as captain of the team and that was a massive honour for me. I had gone from that rural upbringing in Co Derry to being captain of my country in an International Rules test against Australia. It was the culmination of, I suppose, my career. I am really grateful to Brian McEniff for giving me that honour.
Then, to go back to Australia a few years later as team manager. I consider myself to be blessed to have the times that I had had as a GAA player and honoured to have represented my club, my county, my province and my country. They were all great times.
Q: How has life been for you since you retired?
A: Life moves on. There's a time for playing the games and a time for sitting back and watching and criticising how others play. That's very much where I am now. I don't miss the playing side of the game. I think some players miss it a lot. But I didn't miss it. I got an injury that meant I had to wrap up my career so I didn't miss the playing side, probably because the decision was taken out of my hands. I played my last game for Derry in 2003, then I played a club championship match about a week later and that was me finished, aged 31. It was possibly a bit younger than I would have liked but nevertheless, looking back, I can only be grateful for what I achieved. All the memories, all the great times I had with players in the dressing room. It was a very special time in my life. It was a short time - it goes too quickly - but it is something that I am very glad I had the chance to do.
(May 2000; Anthony Tohill pictured with his son Anton after winning the Derry v Meath, National Football League Final Replay)
The Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tour with Anthony Tohill takes place this Saturday, May 30, at 2.30pm in Croke Park. All Bord Gáis Energy Legends Tours include a trip to the GAA Museum, which is home to many exclusive exhibits, including the official GAA Hall of Fame.
Booking for Anthony Tohill’s tour is essential as it is sure to sell out quickly. To book tickets and to find out more about this summer’s GAA Legends tour series, visit www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum
For further information and booking:
GAA Museum, Tel 01 819 2323
E: firstname.lastname@example.org or check out www.crokepark.ie/gaa-museum
Prices for the Legends Tours are as follows: Adult - €15.00, Child - €9.50, Student/Senior - €11.50, Family (2 adults + 2 children) - €40.00