Anton O’Toole, that apple-cheeked colossus, a bottomless reservoir of kindness, was Dublin in the rare oul’ times.
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. 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 dam-burst 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.
Little things: He always, always, got up to offer his seat when my wife 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, he had bettered Mick O’Dwyer and Kerry.
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 day deer-stalking. 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, he flicked through the immense catalogue of his sporting days and identified the day that stood out above all the rest. Typically, he chose one 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.
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: “OC-bloody-D”.
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 imperishable.
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 three-time Dublin All-Star. So, he would redirect 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’ll never 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.
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, Denis Bastick and Eoghan O’Gara.
Perhaps the only occasions I saw any hint of darkness pollute those forever giddy, gracious 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 final 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. 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 The Swan 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.
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.”
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 impending loss of their benevolent, courageous brother-in-arms. For a troop that was so close, all parts of the same whole, his passing will feel like the ripping out of a piece of their essence.
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.
To the Blue Panther, Anthony, Anto, Anton, Tooler. Forever a prince of the city, sleep well brother. You are loved.
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