Comeback king Christy Toye is aiming for another crown
Already a winner of two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland, Donegal’s veteran forward remains unstoppable
Christy Toye returned to the Donegal championship starting side in the Ulster quarter-final defeat of Derry at Celtic Park in May. Photograph: Cathal Coonan/Inpho.
It was in the 34th minute of the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh when Donegal’s Christy Toye found himself in possession of the football and in clear view of the Hill 16 goal. The Armagh defence, notoriously tetchy about territory, did not commonly permit attackers to come within such close range of their goal.
Behind Toye, several Donegal men lay strewn and shaken on the field in Croke Park, clattered by arriving orange jerseys even as they unlocked the Armagh defence with a series of swift, short passes. That Christmas, Toye would reflect on his mindset during those seconds in an RTÉ programme which included the move among its scores of the year: “I thought: I might never be here again so I might as well go for it.”
He nailed it, scoring a terrific goal with a shot that was at once nonchalant and economical and then turning away wearing the unreadable expression with which he celebrates all of his scores.
“It was the only time Armagh were punctured that year,” said Brian McEniff this week with a sense of satisfaction that has travelled through the passing decade.
With that score, a sort of alternative universe opened up for McEniff and Donegal, at least for a few minutes. The Bundoran man had been lured into pulling the football boots from the cupboard because of an emergency. The county literally couldn’t find a manager and he was chairman. He felt compelled to do the job himself, reasoning that he had a bit of experience.
Glorious resurrectionThe league was like a bucket of cold water thrown over him, peaked cap and all. During his 10-year absence, the game had changed in a way he hadn’t noticed and league relegation and an Ulster championship defeat to Fermanagh left him as low as he had ever felt. But the back-door system was also new and through that, he enjoyed a glorious resurrection which culminated in this improbable All-Ireland semi-final appearance against the champions. Toye’s goal left McEniff’s team with a real crack at a September appearance.
In the end, the new order re-established itself and McEniff announced afterwards that he was retiring again. But Toye was wrong in his premonition. As it turned out, he would find himself “here” again, bearing down on the same goal in Croke Park and finding the net with the same casual authority. This was eight years later and Jim McGuinness, his former team-mate, was on the sideline now as Donegal and Kildare went toe-to-toe in Croke Park in an All-Ireland quarter-final.
Toye had just been sent in as substitute, a fact which probably contributed his ghosting through the Lilywhite cover unseen to fire the goal which changed everything.
There were two remarkable things about that goal. The first was the feat itself: even though he had rambled through the Kildare cover unnoticed, looking behind and loitering like a relay runner waiting to receive the baton, Frank McGlynn’s handpass was directed over Toye’s inside shoulder so he had to turn 360 degrees to take the pass.
Slightly spookyWhen he realigned himself with the goal, he had a split second to decide what to do and had no choice but to shoot on the narrow side. The angle meant that there was no room for error. The shot had to be perfect. But what made the score so exceptional and slightly spooky was that Toye had been on the field for just 25 seconds in what was his first appearance in a county shirt for 25 months. While playing against Clare in a qualifier match in 2009, he ruptured his Achilles and disappeared from the scene overnight.
When he got injured, Toye was a veteran of Donegal’s Ulster final defeats of 2002, 2004 and 2006. He was captain for the last of those even if he never struck people as a typical captain.
But then, Toye was never a typical anything. When he first came to prominence, playing along Colm McFadden with St Michael’s, he gave the impression that there was little he couldn’t do. “When he was nine or 10 he always had a ball in his hand when you were passing the house. He is a quiet, very nice kind of fella so much so that you’d think he wasn’t listening to you at times,” says Liam McElhinney, who coached him at underage level.
“But he was very popular and probably would have won our player of the year awards all the time because he had so much talent. And he was making Donegal teams at a very young age. For the club, he was always a score getter and ball winner and his biggest attribute was as a driving force.”
Toye has the build of a midfielder and the ball-carrying ease of an inside forward and deceives defenders with an unexpected turn of pace. “Loads of skill and could carry a ball at pace, which isn’t always that easy,” McEniff said of his first impression. “You couldn’t have had a nicer fella in the squad and he worked on his game. He’d lack a bit of confidence in himself sometimes . . . he would pass the ball with the side of the foot rather than hit it through the lace. He would offload the ball rather than shoot even though he is an accurate shooter.”
But he had a habit of delivering crucial, heavyweight scores. A goal in Croke Park against Meath in 2002. That thunderbolt against Armagh the next summer. A goal against Cork in the quarter-final of 2006 (Donegal lost by a point). Then his deliverance against Kildare.
“What people often forget was that Christy also scored the point deep in extra-time to level the match,” says McElhinney. “That score would have been talked about for a long time but I suppose it was forgotten about because Kevin Cassidy hit that huge score to win it seconds afterwards.”
Bright endToye started against Dublin in the infamous All-Ireland semi-final but was plagued with shoulder tendinitis and the old Achilles injury throughout Donegal’s All-Ireland winning year – appearing for the last quarter of the All-Ireland final was a bright end to a tough year.
Then, that autumn, he was literally struck down with trigeminal neuralgia, a nerve condition which caused excruciating and continuous pain in his teeth, ear, behind his eye and in his face. A correct diagnosis was elusive and the pain constant. “There were times when you thought you were so far away from going back playing,” he said of that period. “I don’t think the thought ever crossed my mind that I would ever completely give it up.”
The condition dogged him all through last year. He watched Donegal surrender Ulster and All-Ireland crowns as a supporter. The general assumption was that his day was probably done.
“We were worried that we would never see Christy play for the club again, let alone the county,” McElhinney says. “I would have been in visiting him and it was just like a constant toothache all the time. It would drive you to distraction. And Christy being the type of lad he is didn’t look for too much sympathy for it either. He spent most of that time in his room.”
The affliction cleared up as inexplicably as it appeared. He had remained in touch with McGuinness throughout last season and this year was slowly reacquainted with the demands of the elite game, starting consecutive league games for the first time since 2009.
So on Sunday, against the odds, Christy Toye is poised to make his 50th championship appearance in what will be his fifth Ulster final. He is still only 31 years old. Only his long-time club mate Colm McFadden has turned out more times, with 52 appearances.
Brilliant careerThe manner of his championship return seemed to characterise what has been a long and sporadically brilliant football career. Much of Donegal’s preparation had been focused on their visit to Derry. Toye was being held in reserve but 11th hour injuries to the midfield meant he was again asked to don the cape, announced as a started minutes before throw-in.
So there he was in the maelstrom of Celtic Park, putting in a hugely accomplished half hour when he seemed to be everywhere, claiming ball at midfield, operating at point for Donegal’s defensive press, carrying the ball into enemy country and, at one stage, pulling up and kicking a point as if it suddenly occurred to him that it might be a good idea. He was gone at half-time, shattered. But that hardly mattered: it was clear, too, that he was back.