Tyler Toland taking international football in her stride at just 16

Under-16 International Player of the Year in 2016 is busy scaling footballing peaks

Republic of Ireland’s Tyler Toland:  “Any football player, I suppose, would like to become a professional.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Republic of Ireland’s Tyler Toland: “Any football player, I suppose, would like to become a professional.” Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

By now the road to Dublin from the east Donegal village of St Johnston is as familiar to Tyler Toland as the back of her hand.

The 16-year-old has made the return trip more times than she can recall since she was first summoned for international duty with the Republic of Ireland schools squad back in 2014.

“Aye, I know where I’m going at this stage,” she laughs. “But it’s always for a purpose, and it’s not as if I’m coming up the road every day. It’s worth it, it’s for the football.”

Last year alone, Toland played for the Irish under-15, U-16 and U-17 teams, so she was rarely off that road. And in September she completed the set, making her senior international debut when she came on as a late substitute against Northern Ireland in Lurgan, having only celebrated her 16th birthday the month before. And then she started in the game against Slovakia last month.

The FAI can’t confirm that she is our youngest ever senior international, their records not going back far enough to be certain, but Donegal journalist Chris McNulty did some research and concluded that Toland does indeed now hold the record.

The previous holder was now retired goalkeeper Emma Byrne who was a rusty 16 years and 292 days when she made her debut in 1996 – a whole 249 days older than Toland.

Not that the Donegal teenager is too fussed about it all.

“I suppose it’s good,” she says, “but it’s just about playing football, that’s all I’m thinking about really. I wasn’t expecting my debut at all, I was very surprised to get a few minutes. The main thing is that we got a great result – it was just a bonus getting the few minutes under my belt.”

And her only footballing focus at the moment is next Tuesday’s World Cup qualifying group game away to European champions the Netherlands.

Ireland took six points out of six from their opening two games, both 2-0 victories away to Northern Ireland and Slovakia, but while Colin Bell’s side will have taken confidence from their start, the Dutch are several classes above that opposition.

Only the seven European group winners are guaranteed a place in the 2019 finals, which will be hosted by France, with the four best runners-up going through to the play-offs. The Netherlands and Norway, who complete the group, will be expected to fill those top two slots, the Dutch currently holding the advantage on that front after beating Norway last month with a 93rd minute goal in front of a crowd of 20,000 in Groningen.

Great experience

She might be new to senior international football, but Toland is under no illusions about the battle ahead.

“We have great results against Northern Ireland and Slovakia under our belt now, but we know we have a challenge on our hands playing against the European champions, they’ll be a tough test for us. And Norway the same next year. But four of our last five games are at home, so we’ll have the crowd behind us and our families there supporting us.”

You’d fancy playing in the World Cup?

“It would be unbelievable,” she laughs. “But it’s just been a great experience being in and around all the girls, training with them, you learn a lot from it. And the more experienced players have been very welcoming, they helped me settle in.”

There are two other Donegal players in the squad to keep her company, Greencastle’s Roma McLaughlin and Milford’s Amber Barrett, the latter taking a  breaking from playing Gaelic football for her county this year to focus on her international duties.

Toland, a midfielder, came by her love of football honestly. Her father, Maurice, played for Finn Harps, amongst others, his most memorable game for the club when he scored twice in a win that earned them promotion to the top flight. Not that his daughter would know much about it, in 1996 she was still five years away from being born.

But she can recall going to Finn Park to see games, and back home football was the family’s first love.

“There was my Dad and all the uncles and all the cousins, we live close together, from a young age we were out playing football every day. After dinner or whenever we got the chance. And it was always football, I didn’t play GAA or any other sports.”

She got used to playing football with the boys, then, from her earliest days. Even last summer when she played at the Galway Cup with St Johnston’s Kildrum Tigers she was the only girl in the tournament. They won it, and she collected the MVP (most valuable player) award.

“But I’m kind of used to being the only girl at this stage, I’m the only girl in that league. It’s not strange to me because I’ve always played with boys, I’ve never actually just played with girls. Everybody knows me in the league at this stage, nobody pays any attention to it.”

Club football

Toland is currently playing her club football with Derry’s Maiden City in the under-16 National League, but turned out for Sion Swifts, from Sion Mills, through the summer, helping them to cup success and the runners-up spot in the Northern Ireland Premiership behind Linfield.

But it was largely her form with the Irish underage teams that persuaded Bell that she was ready for a senior call-up, Toland having won the Under-16 International Player of the Year award in 2016.

After making her senior debut she headed to Bosnia and Herzegovina to play for the under-17s in three European Championship qualifying round games, victories over the hosts, Romania and Greece giving them a comfortable passage to the ‘Elite Phase’ of the tournament, the target a place in next summer’s finals in Lithuania. The draw for the next phase will be made on Friday.

Do you ever get tired playing all this football?

“No,” she says, “you just manage yourself, you take a break when you need it. I’d love to stay involved with both the under-17s and the seniors, but wherever I get the call for, that’s where I go.”

She’s in fifth year at Deele College in Raphoe, the school hugely co-operative, she says, as she tries to combine her studies with her trips away with Ireland. “The principal is Joe Boyle, the Finn Harps under-19 manager, so he’s very supportive with the football. All the teachers send me on work, my friends too, they’re very good. I just bring my books with me and do a wee bit every day. I catch up the best I can.”

Any interest in playing football professionally down the line?

“I’ve no real plan yet for what I want to do, I’m just taking it year by year. Any football player, I suppose, would like to become a professional, but I haven’t really looked too much in to it.”  

Time enough?

“Aye.”

When you’re only 16, there’s no rush at all.

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