MAJIEK TARNOGRODZKI still finds himself standing on the sidelines at Tolka Park or sitting on an unfamiliar bench and it will cross his mind again.
A year ago tomorrow, the Shelbourne youth coach lost his little number 6. The 15-year-old Toyosi Shittabey — a star of the Dublin club’s academy — was stabbed to death as he left the National Aquatic Centre with friends.
Tarnogrodzki returned my call this week as he clipped on the mobile phone hands-free kit and pointed the car in the direction of the training ground. It could drive itself there at this stage.
In the, past he would have picked up Toy — as he was called by his coach — at their usual rendezvous point of the Tyrellstown roundabout on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Often, like a lot of teenagers, the young passenger would plug into his MP3 player and insulate himself from the journey to the ground with music and texts to friends.
But sometimes on the trips to and from Drumcondra, the unlikely pair would chat about football, life, Ireland, whatever.
In the 12 months that have slipped by since Toyosi’s violent Good Friday death, the 36-year-old Polish man has been promoted to Shels’ U20 and U17 sides. Life smells of Deep Heat and it clip-clops along to the rhythm of studs on concrete.
But in quieter moments he often pictures the 15-year-old buzzing around the centre circle still.
"He was a good lad," he said, "I have to say I was thinking about his death a lot after it happened. I ran it through my mind a lot. I still do.
"I went out to see his grave twice in the year since just to say some prayers. I think about it all the time, I can’t believe it’s a year."
The coach thought his player "a little cheeky at the start" but their relationship soon developed. Invited to Drumcondra after impressing with the African diaspora’s team Insaka-Ireland FC, he quickly marked himself out as a proper player in the making.
And Majiek admired the way he played, crashing into tackles bravely and — with his cross country runners’ stamina — covering the real estate between the two boxes like an election canvasser.
After the tragedy last year, Majiek — pronounced ‘Magic’ — told me about one telling incident while in the red of Shels that may have foreshadowed the young midfielder’s short life.
"When we started the season, there was an incident. There was a fight on the pitch — which Toy didn’t start. But he came in and was helping the person. Typical. He always looked out for the weaker person. And it’s maybe the same that happened in the end."
After his young teammates saw Toy’s coffin — draped in the Shels jersey — buried the Thursday after Easter, they turned towards another weekend of football once again. Admirably, they insisted on togging out — they had their reasons. But their Polish manager had a real job trying to keep the team and their season from crumbling.
"When Toyosi died, some of the players left and joined other teams. A lot drifted away and things collapsed for a while.
"Before he died we had won five or six in a row and were probably going to win the league, I would say. But when it happened we lost one game and things collapsed for a while.
"We lost our way though after all that happened. I tried to pick up morale and we played a lot of games for Toyosi. We got things going again and the players picked up. We won the last three or four games of the season and — with a very average team — finished third.
"It was a very good to finish to a hard season."
The young players coped with the loss of their popular teammate in different ways. But they all pulled in the same direction.
"It affected the lads a lot, I have to say. They miss him badly still, I know. A few even went and had tattoos of Toyosi’s name in town somewhere.
"But in my opinion, I’m a foreigner and I have to say, the Irish lads on the team wouldn’t be as open as other nationalities. They find it harder to talk I think and keep it all inside and try to be a little bit macho."
After his death a year ago, there was a huge rally in Dublin city centre and the club held a moving memorial. This year, prayers will be said quietly and a game is slated with the African community side for later in the month.
His teammates at Shels though will honour him the best way they know how tomorrow — on the pitch.
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