Anton O’Toole obituary: The Blue Panther
Even on a groundbreaking Dublin team, O’Toole was exceptionally successful
Anton O’Toole: “He brought out the best in everyone.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Born: February 18th, 1951 Died: May 17th, 2019
The outpouring of sadness on the death of Anton O’Toole at the age of 68 reflects the loss felt at the passing of a quiet but immensely popular presence within Dublin GAA but also the mourning of an entire era with which he was so identified.
Although other Dublin footballers of the 1970s predeceased him, he was the first of the 1974 team, which under the guidance of Kevin Heffernan had stormed from obscurity to All-Ireland triumph, to pass away.
Heffernan’s team rejuvenated the GAA in the capital, creating a sense of identity in the city and broadening the appeal of Gaelic games throughout the county to the extent that can be seen today, nearly 50 years later.
The ‘Decade of the Dubs’ featured All-Ireland titles in 1974, ’76 and ’77 as well as reaching a record-equalling six successive finals between 1974 and ’79. Their rivalry with Mick O’Dwyer’s exceptional, emerging Kerry team created colour and excitement in what is generally seen these days as a downbeat era, darkened by recession and political violence.
Even on a groundbreaking team, O’Toole was exceptionally successful – one of only two players, with Brian Mullins, from the 1974 team to add a fourth All-Ireland in 1983, to go with eight Leinster and two NFL medals as well as three All Stars won in successive years, 1975-77.
Anton (Anthony) Thomas O’Toole was born in Dublin, the second child and first son of Anthony O’Toole, from Mayo, who worked for Aer Lingus and Judy Keohane. The family home was on St Vincent Street, off the South Circular Road, where Anton would live all of his life.
He went to school in Synge Street and became involved in football and afterwards joined the school’s past pupils’ club. Under the guidance of Donal Colfer, a future member of Heffernan’s management team, he became an excellent player.
“There was always football going on in the house,” remembers his sister Nuala.
He graduated to the Dublin junior team in 1970 and a year later was on the side that lost the junior All-Ireland final to London. In 1971, he was called up for the county’s under-21 team by manager Eugene McGee, from UCD, who would in 1982 take Offaly to a famous All-Ireland victory and who died just a week earlier this May.
It was as a senior that he made his name after debuting against Longford in December 1972. By the time of the great 1974 breakthrough, he was well established as a tall, athletic, left-footed footballer with great, gliding pace, who became immortalised amongst Dublin supporters as ‘The Blue Panther’.
In the iconic match of the era, the thrillingly fluctuating 1977 All-Ireland semi-final defeat of Kerry, O’Toole is remembered for giving what would in later years be recognised as a ‘man of the match’ performance, kicking four points from play and ensuring the game didn’t get away from Dublin.
Team-mate and that year, player-manager , Tony Hanahoe remembers the display. “In ’77 he kept us in touch – but there wasn’t a day during that period when you would have felt that he wasn’t playing his part.”
As a youngster, he worked part-time on newspaper rounds and for a local butcher and after school – his first “proper job” – he worked with Cement Roadstone and became involved in the pioneering days of computer technology.
Like many of his team-mates, he also tried life as a sales representative but, by his own account and quiet disposition, didn’t particularly enjoy leveraging his profile and returned to the previous role. Eventually, he joined Guinness’s computer systems operation and spent the rest of his career there.
O’Toole remained involved with football, managing his club – now Templeogue Synge Street – to an intermediate county title in 2008.
He also enjoyed playing badminton and in later years had a great interest in horse racing and was a regular at meetings. Above all, he was respected and universally liked.
His sister Nuala quotes 1970s team-mate David Hickey, who said about her brother: “He brought out the best in everyone.”
There is left one elegiac scene, available on YouTube, one of the last public appearances before ill-health confined him for the final months after his birthday in February.
Last Christmas Eve, at the top of Grafton Street, one of the city’s great troubadours and seasonal busker Glen Hansard sings Raglan Road, Patrick Kavanagh’s haunting ballad of loss and love, for Anton O’Toole, who stands close by and smiles without melancholy.
He is survived by his siblings Mary (Buchanan), Peter and Nuala (Leacy).