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Tuesday 15 October 2019

Prince of the city ... sleep well

Lithe, gentle Tooler moved in slow motion but always arrived first

Dublin’s Anton O’Toole is chased by Kerry’s Jimmy Deenihan during the 1979 All-Ireland SFC final at Croke Park
Dublin’s Anton O’Toole is chased by Kerry’s Jimmy Deenihan during the 1979 All-Ireland SFC final at Croke Park

He wore his fame as lightly as the Sky Blue shirt that was his superhero cape, the uniform from which he delivered a golden sunburst of euphoria to the city of his birth.

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.

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.

Loved him

Little things - he always, always, got up to offer his seat when my wife, who instantly loved him for the goodness that colonised every atom of his being, 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; at the very peak of his powers, a lithe figure who seemed to move in slow motion yet always arrive at his destination first.

Fashion

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 afternoon deer-stalking.

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 recently, he flicked through the immense catalogue of his sporting days and identified the day that stood out above all the rest. Typically, he chose an afternoon 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: "OCbloodyD".

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 beautiful and imperishable.

Just 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 Allstar.

He deflected acclaim as adroitly as his pal, Paddy Cullen, in that launch-pad 1974 moment that sent Dublin football into glorious orbit, pushing Liam Sammon's penalty to safety.

So, he would re-direct 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 Allstar I don't know."

Self-sacrifice

Self-sacrifice was the gold standard of qualities he valued. He was suspicious of oversized ego, despised self-promotion.

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 and father figure, Denis Bastick and Eoghan O'Gara.

Perhaps the only occasions I saw any hint of darkness pollute those forever giddy, kind 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 last 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.

It was a beautiful, heartbreaking, heart-soaring cameo.

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.

Dublin football was as vital, as elemental, to his existence as oxygen, as the blood that for 68 too-short years, kept his mighty and kind heart beating.

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.

That Jim Gavin was among those calling to his bedside was apt. 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 enormity of the impending loss of their kindly, courageous brother-in-arms.

Ripping out

For a troop that was so close, all parts of the same whole, this will feel like the ripping out of a piece of their essence.

To the Blue Panther, Anthony, Anto, Anton, Tooler.

Forever a prince of the city, sleep well brother. You are loved.

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