Oakleafers

TG4’s Laochra Gael programme last week featured former Derry midfielder and all-time Oak Leaf legend, Anthony Tohill. As has come to be expected from the TG4 documentary series, it supplied us with a chronological overview of the Swatragh man’s inter-county career, but mostly it served as a reminder of just how important a player Tohill was for Derry’s most successful generation.

It’s easy to forget how much Tohill achieved. 1 Minor All-Ireland, 4 NFL titles, 2 Ulster SFC, 4 All-Stars and 1 All-Ireland SFC title. And more besides. There are a few other players around the county with similar hauls and when you take time to consider what those men achieved, you begin to realise again just how successful Derry were in the 1990s.

Derry’s Golden Years

Seen through the spectre of Tohill’s glittering career, this was Derry’s Golden Years. An All-Ireland title, multiple NFL titles, regular Ulster Final appearances. Indeed, regular All-Ireland semi-finals. Relatively speaking.

Those of us who were lucky enough to witness it probably took that success – or at the very least a real potential for success – for granted. For years, Derry were pre-season favourites to win Ulster, if not the All-Ireland.

And Tohill was at the centre of it all. Literally and metaphorically.

For both Derry fans and those watching from further afield, TG4’s show highlighted just how prolific Tohill was in the Derry jersey, in terms of big-match performances and scoring return.

A prodigious underage player, he stood head and shoulders above Offaly as the Oak Leafers cantered to All-Ireland minor glory in 1989. That famous ’45 against Tyrone in the NFL Final of 1992, not only brought out the best in Plunkett Donaghy’s instinctive goalkeeping ability, but gave Derry the all-important launch-pad of a national title. When we needed a performance in the Clones quagmire in 1993, Tohill delivered arguably his greatest-ever game.

Nowadays forwards are double-marked, but back in the early 90s it wasn’t an unfamiliar sight to see two or three opposing defenders surround Tohill, which allowed Gormley and Brolly et al to do their stuff in front of goal.

Tohill’s Twilight

Even when Derry’s success waned, the four-time All-Star was still at the fore: instrumental in Derry winning the Ulster title in 1998 and almost single-handedly dismantling Meath en route to a fourth NFL title in 2000. Not to mention some less famous moments (that didn’t make the Laochra Gael final cut) like saving our bacon when all seemed lost against Antrim in 2000 and bagging a brace of goals to get us out of jail against Longford in 2002.

However, despite all those memorable moments, it was hard to watch the programme (which could easily have been an hour long instead of just 30 minutes – like many of the Laochra Gael episodes), without feeling heavy pangs of regret at what that great Derry side didn’t achieve.

You could see it etched all over Anthony’s face as he talked about his late missed free against Armagh in the 2000 Ulster Final, or that defeat to Galway in 2001.

But his most salient disappointment is still clearly reserved for what happened Derry football in 1994…

Not only did we lose our Ulster and All-Ireland crowns to Down in the early summer heat of Celtic Park, but it was also the year in which the late Eamon Coleman was essentially sacked as Derry football manager. Barely a year after having captured the Sam Maguire.

(Imagine a decade later, the Tyrone County Board firing Mickey Harte!)

It still rankles.

Worst thing to happen Derry football

Now isn’t the time for revisionist theories as to why Derry’s greatest ever manager was removed from his post, but whatever those reasons were, it was a disgraceful decision taken by men more interested in their own power than in the welfare of Derry football.

Tohill believes that the decision was “the worst thing to ever happen to Derry football” and argues that it was the “catalyst as to why Derry football failed in the years that followed.”

Strong words. From a man who had more at stake than most.

In the current era, where Oak Leaf football followers constantly rack their brains trying to figure out what the fundamental problem with our county team is, Tohill’s opinion of where the blame might lie is very hard to argue with.

And it is still a great shame that we didn’t make more hay while the sun so brightly shone.

But we can’t complain.

Despite what further honours Derry and players like Tohill might have won, at least we can look back on 1993 and be happy that, for one season at least, we were the best in the land. And Anthony Tohill was becoming one of the greatest players of his generation.

Watch: you can currently watch this episode of Laochra Gael on the TG4 player.

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