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.

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.

Sat, Jul 19, 2014, 01:00

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 resurrection

The 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 spooky

When 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.

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