GAA Football

TOtAL recall. John Toal had an Armagh career to be proud of before injury struck him down

John Toal in the thick of the action in one of the Armagh-Tyrone clashes that signposted the early 2000s Picture: Hugh Russell
Andy Watters

JOHN Toal’s football story includes chapters on glory, tragedy, determination, disappointment and gratitude. He had seven remarkable seasons with Armagh and although it ended prematurely, the Keady Michael Dwyer’s midfielder had a career that few others have ever, or will ever, match in the orange jersey.

It began in 1999 and ended in the midst of a rivalry that is older than the game itself - the white heat of the Armagh versus Tyrone Ulster Championship final in 2005. The demand for tickets was such that the decider had to be moved to Croke Park and hit followed hit as the heavyweights slugged it out.

Thirty-two minutes had gone when Toal, in the midfield engineroom, got the ball in his hands and looked to play it forward. As he kicked, he glimpsed a red and white jersey out of the corner of his eye and then… pain flooded through his body. In agony, he crumpled in a heap on the grass, his knee, it later transpired, was already beyond repair. In that split second, his career was over.

“Just as I was kicking it, I got hit,” he explains.

“A player came in from the side and caught me on the knee and my knee more or less wrapped around him. There was severe damage - nearly everything was damaged or destroyed.”

At first there was hope. Surgeons thought his cruciate was damaged and could be repaired but when they opened up his knee they discovered it was akin to what they’d expect from a car accident. An operation that was expected to be relatively straightforward escalated into surgery to reconstruct his knee.

The primary job of your kneecap is to protect the blood vessel and nerves underneath it and luckily for Toal his did that. If the blood vessel had been damaged beyond repair he might have lost his leg, if the nerves had been destroyed he would have been left with a dropped foot which could have meant a permanent limp.

His kneecap had done its job to that extent but Toal – aged 25 and totally and utterly devoted to the Gaelic Football - was told that he’d never play again. Furthermore he was warned that he would struggle to walk on uneven ground or go up and down ladders – both serious issues for a man who spends a lot of time on building sites.

As he listened to what the experts said, in his mind he was already formulating a plan to get back out on the pitch and he made a superhuman effort to do that over the next 18 months.

“People told me I was mad but my goal always was to be back playing, that was my motivation,” he says.

“I always said to myself: ‘I’ll train as hard as I can’ and my goal was to play again but if I couldn’t play at least I would have a knee that I could use for everyday life. I didn’t care if it was ‘B’ football, I just wanted to play.”

His comeback effort included a spell at the world famous Sports Injury Rebab Centre in Lilleshall, England and with single-minded determination he proved the doctors wrong and returned to action in a club game against Sarsfields.

“I was playing corner-forward and I knew the wee lad marking me wasn’t that great but I still couldn’t get the ball – if it came to me I could get it, but if it went either side I couldn’t move,” he says.

“I got frustrated then. I got taken off that day before I got sent off and the next game I maybe should have got a red card.”

Unfortunately there was no fairy-tale ending to his story.

It transpired that without cartilage in his knee there was nothing to stop bones rubbing off each other. Running was impossible without pain and although he was able to grin and bear it for a while, ultimately he had to face the music.

“They warned me that would be the obstacle,” he says.

“They told me that if I did all the hard work the muscles would come back and the ligaments would come back over time but that (the bones) would be the stumbling point and, ultimately, that’s what finished me - I couldn’t run.”

He would never be the marauding midfielder he had once been but he soldiered on through the pain until the curtain finally came down on “a wet day and a wet field” against St Peter’s, Lurgan.

“I turned, there was nobody even near me and I got a tweak in my knee, it was sore and I went off,” he says.

“I remember sitting there thinking: ‘I’m sore here again… I’m going to lose a lot more than the other boys here are going to lose’.

“I knew I was getting frustrated because I couldn’t do what I could have before and I didn’t want to be known as somebody who was in just causing trouble and not playing football the way it should be played.

“I was 25 when I got the injury and I trained for the guts of two years. I was back playing with the club until I was 28 but the club was struggling and the other boys maybe weren’t putting in the effort I was or I wanted them to… it just wasn’t to be.

“It was very hard to accept that I had to retire. The only thing that made it a bit easier was that I had two years (battling back from the injury) to prepare myself that it might not work out.

“To this day if I thought I could, I would be back playing and I don’t think that thought will ever leave me. A lot of players get a chance to go out on their own terms – they have good careers and finish when they decide to.

“I always had the feeling that I went out very young and my biggest regret is that I never got to play as much club football and win things with Keady that I always wanted.”

A football dream was shattered in the blink of an eye and all because of one tackle. That Ulster final in 2005 was littered with ferocious challenges and, over 15 years later, Toal holds no grudge against the man whose action ended his career.

“It was late but, in fairness, nobody means to cause that damage,” he says.

“He rang me when he found out the extent of it and said that he didn’t mean to do that damage. These things happen.

“If he’d have caught me a couple of inches higher or lower I would have bounced up and run on and that would have been the end of it. It was just the way I was caught – I was very open at the time and my leg was fully extended and I wasn’t in a position to protect myself.”

But when he looks back, he is able to appreciate how lucky he was to be part of those glory days with Armagh. In all he won four Ulster titles, the National League and of course the Sam Maguire in 2002. On top of that, he was an Ulster U21 winner, a MacRory Cup finalist with St Patrick’s Armagh and a Sigerson Cup winner with Jordanstown.

“It was brilliant,” he says.

“I was lucky enough to be there during Armagh’s best years. There have been brilliant players before and after who didn’t get the success that I had. I came on the scene just as we were winning and we were tailing off as a team when I was leaving.

“So I was very lucky to be there throughout the golden period and I won the All-Ireland, Ulsters, the National League and even coming up I had good success at university, college and the U21s. Overall it was very good, the only thing I didn’t get was success with the seniors at Keady which I would have loved.”

When most fans think of Toal they will recall his midfield partnership with Paul McGrane and it’s no surprise to learn that the former team-mates remain good friends.

“He’s a great lad, he was a great help to me in every way – both on and off the field,” says Toal.

“He would have been a major influence in helping you in any way he could – he’d be constantly encouraging you and talking to you and trying to help you. To this day we’re still very friendly.

“When I came in to the squad the two Brians (Brian Canavan and Brian McAlinden) had brought in a lot of discipline and standards and the players were really buying into it.

“When we came in as young fellas – the likes of Steve McDonnell and Paddy McKeever and myself – we were thinking this was county football and this is what you do. We rowed in and did the same as everybody else because you were watching Paul and ‘Geezer’ (Kieran McGeeney) and Diarmuid (Marsden) and the McNultys (Enda and Justin)… You watched them and realised that was what you had to do to get to that level. So you never questioned it and I always enjoyed training – I looked forward to it and relished it.”

Toal and McGrane locked horns with Kerry’s midfield pairing Darragh O Se and Donal Daly in the 2002 All-Ireland final. The Kingdom duo shaded the battle in the first half but after the break Armagh took control and of course they had their noses in front at the finish. It turns out the Orchardmen had prepared for everything - except what to do if they won the game.

“It was all a bit over our heads,” says Toal.

“We prepared for everything except winning it! When the whistle went and we had won, I remembered looking around and nobody knew what we were supposed to do with ourselves! In previous years we’d been caught late in games or not pushed on in games that were there to be won so we were very conscious that we had to stay focussed and keeping pushing on.

“When the whistle went I didn’t know what to do! I remember looking around thinking: ‘Right, where do I go now?’ The crowd came onto the field which was brilliant and it got to the stage where they were presenting the Sam Maguire and I found a spot where I could see Kieran.

“I was thinking: ‘I’m happy here, I can see him’. Then somebody tapped me on the back and said: ‘You need to go up there!’ So I nearly missed out on what you dream of doing – going up to lift the cup!”

A back injury and the fine form of Philly Loughran meant he lost his place in the team when Armagh reached the All-Ireland final again the following year.

“The form wouldn’t have been the greatest at the time because I just wanted on and I was willing to do whatever I had to do to get on,” he says.

“I spoke to the likes of Kieran and Paul and the management – Joe Kernan and Paul Grimley – about the things I needed to improve on and I was determined to get my place back.”

And he did. In 2004 he was back in the starting line-up as Armagh regained the Ulster crown but were then shocked by Fermanagh in an All-Ireland quarter-final upset. The following year it was his goal that broke Derry’s resistance and booked Armagh’s place in that Ulster final against Tyrone.

As he tied up his boots on that July Sunday - skating away on the thin ice of the new day - he didn’t realise that it would be his last game for Armagh.

“You don’t know what’s round the corner,” says Toal, who went on to manage Keady to a league title and the intermediate championship final before stepping up to the Armagh management team for the last four seasons. He stood down at the end of 2020 and now plans to concentrate on coaching at his club where his four daughters all play on the juvenile teams.

He tells everyone the same thing: Keep playing until you can’t.

“I’m constantly telling players: ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen next’,” he says.

“Little did I think when I was 26 and super-fit that that would be the end of it – it’s very important to enjoy it and get as much out of it as you can.”

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