From Grange to the Brandywell: New Derry City skipper Eoin Toal does things his own way
NEW Derry City FC skipper Eoin Toal does things his own way.
Armagh born and bred, he comes from a staunchly GAA background – his uncle Peter Rafferty is a former Orchard county player who led the county's U21 team to All-Ireland glory in 2004 and his cousin Ethan Rafferty is a current inter-county star.
On his dad's side, the Toal family is synonymous will road bowls - his uncle Mickey is a legend of the sport and his cousin Thomas Mackle has been All-Ireland champion.
So there is no shortage of sporting pedigree in his genes but Eoin – who played up to minor level with his native St Colmcille's Grange and at MacRory Cup level with St Patrick's Armagh – chose his own path.
The 2021 season will be his fifth at Derry and Candystripes manager Declan Devine confirmed that the young centre-half to wear the captain's armband on the first day of pre-season training. It's an obvious indicator of how highly he rates the 21-year-old who stands a shade over six-two, is dominant in the air, strong in the tackle and comfortable with the ball at his feet.
“I was always into the Gaelic but when I was about 13-14 we had a good Armagh City team and I just changed my mind and became a big soccer-head,” he explains.
“I'm the only in the family that's into soccer, none of the rest of them plays it.
“Everybody in Armagh wants to play for the county but I chose the soccer route. I just thought it was the best option for me and when Derry came calling, I couldn't say no. It was full-time football and that's what I always wanted.”
His journey to the Brandywell began when he joined his friends at Armagh City as a seven-year-old and he stayed with the club for a decade until he made the switch to Derry. Along the way, several talented players had been tempted to leave but Toal, who lived next door to the Holm Park pitch, stayed put.
“I had no interest in leaving,” he says.
“I was right beside the pitch and I just loved it. I'd have had to get lifts if I was at a club in Belfast or Lurgan, so I stayed at Armagh.”
His loyalty paid off. He made his first team debut for the Cathedral City club at right-back aged 15 and was playing at centre-half a year later. He spent the next two seasons battling with burly centre-forwards who might have been twice his age and took his share of lumps and bumps but says he came out the other end a better player for the experience.
“It's a tough league,” says Toal.
“It's very physical and there were times I would have got bullied a bit strength-wise – it was men's football, my first real taste of it.”
After he'd found his feet with Armagh he began to stand out. He was composed and confident and seemed to have more time on the ball than the rest. He began to stroll through games and he also began to attract the attention of other clubs. He had been capped by Northern Ireland at underage level by the time Kenny Shiels (then Derry City manager) came to take a look at him.
“One of the other boys, Shea Campbell, told me after a game that Kenny was down watching me,” Toal recalls.
“I said: ‘Oh right, that's class!' I had played well that day and then I heard he had made contact with the club and told them he wanted to sign me. I was only 17 but I was thinking: ‘Right, where do I sign?' The only thing in my mind was that I was doing my A-Levels at St Pat's.”
Several Irish League clubs also made enquiries but Toal says he was “so set on Derry, I didn't give them much of my time”. And so he got his head down at school and had three A-Levels (an A and two Cs) in the bank to fall back on by the time he packed his boots and relocated to Derry's Bogside for the start of the 2017 season.
He admits he found training every day, sometimes twice-a-day, demanding physically and being away from home difficult emotionally but says the club helped him to settle. Gradually Derry began to feel like home from home.
“It was hard to get into the team early on because there were a lot of good, experienced centre-halves there and I was only a kid,” he says.
“I was in and out but when Decky (Declan Devine who replaced Shiels as manager in 2019) came in, he put me in for every game. He had full faith in me and that's when I started to really kick on and once I settled I never looked back.
“It's a great club to be part of, people in Derry are really good people and the fans are top class. I get on really well with the people at the club and I have done from the start. I'd say that's why I've been playing well over the last couple of years – I'm just so content and if I'm really fed-up or lonely I can get into the car and drive home. It's only an hour and-a-half so I'm not too far away from my family.”
Toal featured in only three games in his first season but enters his fifth as an experienced and established centre-back, a former Northern Ireland U21 skipper and the man his team-mates can look to for leadership as they begin their challenge against the Eircom League's big dogs like Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, starting with a trip to newly-promoted Longford Town on March 20.
Last season Derry finished seventh in the Premier Division, a whopping 28 points behind champions Rovers who won the title at a canter (11 points clear of second-placed Bohemians).
The previous season, Devine's first as manager, City came in fourth, 29 points behind Dundalk who, along with Rovers, are expected to be the teams to beat once again this season.
“They are obviously top sides and they have really good players but all we can do is strive to get better,” says Toal.
“They are going to be hard to catch – they are so powerful, they have big squads and they have the experience of playing in Europe behind them. But I do think we can compete against them.
“Last year we should have beaten Rovers, we were 1-0 up with 10 minutes to go and we lost that game. Dundalk are the same, we've had chances to beat them and we're never too far away, it's never a hammering-match or anything, but it's just about us getting that consistency.”
So far the League of Ireland Cup final of 2019 is the closest Toal has come to winning a trophy with Derry and it's unlikely he'll ever come closer. The Candystripes twice held the lead but the final was deadlocked at 2-2 after extra-time and 4-4 after the penalty shoot-out.
Toal held his nerve to score the first goal in sudden-death but when Ally Gilchrist missed, Chris Shields made sure ‘the Town' took the cup.
And Dundalk continued their successful run last season by making it to the group stages of the Europa League - their opponents included Premier League giants Arsenal - under little-known Italian Filippo Giovagnoli. That success has raised the profile of a league that is steadily improving in quality and Toal feels that is good news for all the clubs.
“What Dundalk did last year is only going to make the league better,” he said.
“They are in the public eye and getting recognition and if they're playing the likes of Arsenal it brings attention to the league and that can only help.”
The improving profile of the League of Ireland means that scouts are constantly on the look-out for the next Roy Keane (Cobh Ramblers), Paul McGrath (St Pat's) or Seamus Coleman (Sligo Rovers). In recent years a long list of Derry players including Paddy McCourt, James McClean, David Forde, Connor Sammon and Niall McGinn have gone on to professional careers in England or Scotland and won international caps too. Of course Toal would also make the move across the water if an offer came his way.
“Obviously you always want to be playing at the highest level you can and if that opportunity came along I'm sure I would go but at the moment I'm just focussed on Derry,” he said.
“I think it's going to be a big year for me and a big year for the club. Being captain is a big challenge but it's one I'm looking forward to and it shows you the faith that the manager has put in me. It's an honour for me and my family, it's a bigger responsibility but I'm not going to change as a person, I'm going to carry on and be as professional as possible. All I can do is my best, that's all I can hope for.
“I would like to think that I'm professional in the way I train and live, every player at Derry is as well – they all come in do their work and it's the same for the gaffer and the coaches the way they set things up and look after us.
“I think we're shaping up nicely for this season. We've got a good mix of young players and experienced players and I think there's a few more to come in. I think we're going to do well and I'm looking forward to it.”
Both of Ireland's international managers have worked in the League of Ireland. Republic boss Stephen Kenny had successful stints at Derry and Dundalk, while Northern Ireland manager Ian Barraclough was in charge at Sligo Rovers from 2012 to 2014.
If Barraclough comes calling in the future, he'll find Toal happy to pull on the green jersey he has worn from U15 level.
“If it came around then definitely,” he said.
“I enjoyed playing for the U21s – I was captain for a good few games. If the opportunity came up to play for Northern Ireland, I definitely would take it.
“Northern Ireland have been very good to me. They took me in when I was 15 and I was able to play against different countries which taught me a lot. Only for them I probably wouldn't be playing for Derry now so I'll stick with Northern Ireland.”