THE expression says it all – eyes closed, clenched fist punching the air while an almighty roar pierces the air in Ballycran seconds after the sound of sliothar slamming net.
Four years on from his last National League appearance for Down, Danny Toner was only too delighted to be back.
And while grabbing a second half goal as Ronan Sheehan’s side reeled in rivals Kerry was the icing on the cake, being out there at all was enough to help ease some of the pain of recent years - because the Ballygalget man wasn’t sure this day would ever come.
Along with Stephen Keith, Matt Conlan and Paul Sheehan, Toner is one of the few remaining survivors from Down’s dramatic 2013 Christy Ring Cup win over the Kingdom. He was 20 then.
Now, at 31, Toner is one of the elder statesmen in a panel packed with potential, determined to move on from the nightmare that robbed him of so many prime years following back to back cruciate ligament injuries.
“I only got five games with the club when it happened the second time… I couldn’t believe it.
“Ronan had asked me back last year but I knew I was nowhere near it - I needed time to get back up to speed so I just played with the club. Also, I think you have to earn your place in a set-up like this.
“There shouldn’t just be a God-given right to come in because, see in fairness, we get everything handed to us. You want for nothing here, and you should have to earn that stuff.”
A full campaign with Ballygalget under his belt, Sheehan came calling again as he looked to this year. And Toner, an regional hurling officer for Ulster GAA, enjoyed a break in New Zealand before deciding to give the inter-county stage another lash.
“I put it out of my head last year, then sometimes with the job, being involved in the GAA flat out, you could get a sickener of it very quickly.
“I didn’t know whether I wanted to come back into such an intense environment.”
There were times in January - and particularly during the pre-season Conor McGurk Cup - when he wondered about the wisdom of the call he had made. However, handed a chance to impress at McKenna Park on Saturday, he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“Danny was outstanding,” beamed Sheehan after Down’s seven point win, “that’s what he can bring to the team. His work-rate, his ability to use the ball, all of that was brilliant.”
“It was coming because the previous few games were terrible for me, to be honest,” smiled Toner.
“Thankfully they gave me my chance, probably because Finn Turpin’s injured and Eoghan Sands is carrying a bit of a knock. I haven’t played at this time of year since 2020, everything’s so much harder - and harder on the legs too.
“In all the time I’ve been with Down, probably since 2013 when we won the Christy Ring with Paul Braniff and those lads, it’s probably as competitive a squad as I’ve seen. The hurlers are class, and the game has changed so much - even since 2020 when I was last here.
“A lot of the Down lads have got way bigger, way stronger. You’re hitting some of them at training and they are solid. Every player wants the ball, they’re more athletic than they’ve ever been. If you miss the ball at all, you’re in bother, and that’s what I struggled with at first, even at times today.
“We were up in Derry there a few weeks ago and I was wondering what was I doing – I was so bad. You’re thinking ‘is this really for me? I could go in the house and lie up, take it easy’. But the management team we have is fantastic… I’m glad to be back at it.”
And as for the 53rd minute goal, that won’t be forgotten in a hurry, Toner loitering on the edge of the square before lashing low past Louis Dee after being found by Eoghan Sands. What was he thinking when the sliothar landed in his hand?
“I was thinking no way did Eoghan Sands just pass me that ball!
“But naw it was great to see it go in. It’s funny how things change - five or 10 years ago I’d have been trying to get in that position all the time, the boy on the end of the move. It’s just the way it goes.
“There’s some fantastic young players now, Tom McGrattan, Finn Turpin, then you have the likes of Eoghan coming on and giving a shift, Pearse Og [McCrickard] can make the ball talk…
“Honestly, it’s the best set-up I’ve been involved in, hands down.”