He’s never gone for the media circus but Anton O’Toole is as passionate about Dublin football now as he was playing in six consecutive finals in the seventies.
IT’S funny, Anton O’Toole played in eight All-Ireland senior finals, and bar the 1976 decider with Kerry, he never remembers feeling nervous. But there’s a knot in the pit of his stomach this week.
The Dubs are finally back in September with Kerry on the horizon.
It’s a scenario that was once second nature to him, but it’s been an interminable wait for an All-Ireland appearance to come around and that yearning — plus the fact they’re facing their greatest rivals in a final for the first time since 1985 — has brought it all back.
A gifted forward on a team that played in six finals in a row from 1974 to 1979, there’s a giddy excitement bubbling up around the capital that makes him think back to the early days of the Kevin Heffernan revolution.
“This is the first time in 16 years we’ve been in a final and there’s going to be a great buzz around town. There are young people who have never experienced Dublin in a final and for everybody the build-up will get to you a bit – but it’s great to be a part of,” he says.
“We came out of nowhere in ‘74 because we had been in Division Two and lost the league final to Kildare. We had no pedigree at All-Ireland level and so to get to the final meant all hell broke loose in the weeks preceding it.
“There was talk of record deals and all of that but Kevin Heffernan just nipped it all in the bud and said ‘this could be your only chance to get to an All-Ireland final and you are not going to throw it away’. That was the end of it and from then on it was just concentrate on the game,” he recalls.
Little did anyone know then that Dublin’s 1974 triumph over Galway and subsequent rivalry with Kerry would have such a seismic effect on the GAA and transform the whole landscape and popularity of Gaelic games forever.
And in this era of football icons, Anton O’Toole was a leading man.
From 1974 to 1984 he won four All-Irelands, eight Leinster finals, two national leagues, three All Stars in a row from 1975-77 and the only match he never finished was the ‘79 final through injury.
Many of those games are shrouded in the mists of time – but it says something that the battles with Kerry still retain the greatest clarity.
He is matter-of-fact about losing to a better Kerry team in ‘75, ‘79 and ‘84. The warm glow of satisfaction that came from defeating the Kingdom in 1976 and 1977 still radiates however, while the hurt over the manner of their 1978 final defeat still rankles.
“There was an intense rivalry there and you didn’t mix with the Kerry lads that often, you wouldn’t see them. Nowadays if you want someone to tell you how great you were, find a Kerry fella you played against and you can pat each other on the back and we can say weren’t we wonderful,” he smiles.
“But there was a mutual respect between the two teams. When I played against Kerry it was always pretty straightforward and if you won you shook hands and if I lost I did the same. I didn’t bring anything off the pitch.
“Kevin Moran, Jimmy Keaveney and Paddy Cullen built up a bond with Kerry players doing the Listowel Races trip in those days. I did it later when I stopped playing. We played Kerry early in ‘78 in New York and it was one time it wasn’t very friendly and there was a bit of needle as it was the first meeting after ‘77. Kerry wanted to tackle the perception they weren’t as tough as we were. I don’t know whether they proved it on the day, but they won the All-Ireland that year,” recalls the Synge Street club man.
ANTON was 23 in ‘74. The Kerry team of 1975 looked so young when they arrived in Heuston Station for that final they were mistaken for a minor team. But they shocked Dublin the way the champs had stunned Cork in ‘74.
“The ‘76 final was a great opportunity to get them back and set the record straight. Mikey Sheehy had a great chance of a goal and put it wide and then Jimmy Keaveney took one of the best penalties I’ve ever seen; he just walked up and stabbed it and the thing went like a missile into the corner.”
The public were hooked and Dublin v Kerry was an event to rival anything ever seen in Irish sport. The best was yet to come though, with the 1977 semi-final billed as the defining clash of the new titans.
“The one thing I remember about that match was the intensity. It was at a hectic pace and there was never a moment to draw breath. You didn’t know what way it was going to go until the last 10 minutes when Davy Hickey and Bernard Brogan scored goals for us.”
He lost four finals – but regrets only one and still feels they suffered on the wrong end of referee calls in ‘78.
“There’s only one I can honestly say leaves a sour taste and that’s ‘78 where we didn’t feel we got a fair crack of the whip. We had the Kerry defence on the back foot and they were fighting and arguing among themselves. But then they got frees that you’d wonder about and then got that much celebrated free in front of goal for Mikey Sheehy. We were getting to be an ageing team then, we’d been on the road a long time and Kerry were younger.
The quality of those Dublin-Kerry games was made possible by an abundance of football genius — built on what were mould breaking levels of fitness. In pre season for ‘74 Heffernan devised drills with PE instructor Brian Furlong and even had the team do some weight training in the winter of ‘73.
“With Heffo you had to earn his respect and when you came in he didn’t mollycoddle you. You’d to come in and prove you were able to win the ball and take any hits that were coming your way and if you didn’t have that he didn’t want to know.”
Some 37 years later the man they called the Blue Panther still rates the breakthrough win of ‘74 as the best of them.
“That was our greatest victory because it came from nothing. We had absolutely no expectation of winning an All-Ireland in 74. We played Cork in a league match early that year.
“They were All-Ireland champions at the time and I never got a kick in the match and I remember walking home up Camden Street saying ‘I’m not going to make it here’. That was six months before we won an All-Ireland.
“That was the most special year for me because we achieved the impossible dream and for this Dublin team next Sunday a lot of them have been around 10 years and never seen an All-Ireland final. It’s their big moment,” he says.
In 2008 he was manager of the Templeogue Synge Street team that won the Dublin intermediate championship with current Dubs Denis Bastick and Eoghan O’Gara playing key roles. He includes the Synger duo in a group with Rory O’Carroll, Kevin Nolan and James McCarthy who he regards as “unsung heroes” in the Dublin team.
“This Dublin team has matured. Last year they were very unlucky not to get to the final and I think they would have won it. They came back from that huge disappointment and have ground their way into the final whereas Kerry have had a stroll. They are well managed, well trained and they must focus on the game and not let distractions get to them. Kerry are the benchmark for every team in the country.”
Picture: WAY TO GO ANTO: The Blue Panther still rates the breakthrough All-Ireland win of ‘74 as the best of them. Picture: Inpho/Donall Farmer