In the pantheon of the GAA greats
Anthony Tohill was arguably the finest midfielder in Gaelic Football during the 1990s, and during this time he helped Derry win three National Football League (NFL) titles and the ultimate prize of all – the Sam Maguire Cup for the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship in 1993.
The Swatragh player first came to prominence as a star midfielder for St. Patrick’s College, Maghera during their successful 1989 McRory and Hogan Cup campaigns. The McRory final will live long in the memory of any Gaelic Football fan who attended the game, with Maghera just edging out St Colman’s College, Newry by 4-10 to 4-9. The Hogan final and replay against Colaiste Chriost Rí from Cork enabled Tohill to showcase his skills and gain a place on the Derry minor team for the 1989 All-Ireland Minor Football Championship.
The presence of so many players from the St Patrick’s, Maghera team was the catalyst for the subsequent Derry All-Ireland minor success that year, with players such as Karl Diamond and Eamon Burns assisting the considerable efforts of Tohill at midfield. He impressed watching Australian Rules Football coaches who were scouting fresh talent during the final against Offaly, and was invited to train with the Melbourne team in Australia.
This resulted in a two year stay with Tohill gaining vital experience in a professional sports setting. His return to Ireland coincided with his appearance in the 1991 Ulster Championship semi-final replay against Down; thus marking his debut for the Derry senior team. A disappointing defeat beckoned, although the following year, Derry’s progression continued and they met their near neighbours Tyrone in the National League final in Croke Park. An exciting contest ensued, with Tohill scoring the decisive winning goal late in the game to win the title for Derry.
Both teams met again just two weeks later in the preliminary round of the Ulster Senior Football Championship with the Oak Leaf boys repeating their victory over Tyrone. Derry progressed to the Ulster final where they were expected to account for unfancied Donegal. Most neutral observers were shocked when the north-west side overcame the raging favourites by two points.
The pain of this defeat spurred Derry on to achieve success the following year, with Anthony Tohill inspiring his colleagues to an Ulster Final ‘revenge’ victory over Donegal in a rain-soaked Clones. The low scoreline of 0-8 to 0-6 reflected the poor conditions of the day, but it was Tohill’s immaculate free-taking abilities in such conditions that decided the contest.
The 1993 All-Ireland series in Croke Park was unforgettable for Derry fans. An exciting one point victory over Dublin in the semi-final was followed up with a 1-14 to 2-8 (3 point) victory over Cork in the final. Tohill was instrumental in this success, contributing vital scores from midfield whenever Derry needed them. He was also part of the successful Queen’s University Belfast team that won the Sigerson Cup in 1993, an extremely successful year for him.
The four years that followed were frustrating for both Tohill and his county. There was a great expectation throughout Derry that the team would collect at least another All-Ireland championship success. Instead it was the National Football League that was to prove the extent of Derry’s success. Titles were won in 1995 and 1996 – both against Donegal; but old rivals Tyrone proved to be too strong when it came to the championship.
An Ulster final defeat by Cavan in 1997 resulted in some of the more experienced players in the Derry team opting to retire from the game. This placed a great deal of responsibility on Anthony Tohill, and in 1998 he was the main catalyst in an Ulster final victory against Donegal – Derry’s first since 1993. Unfortunately Galway were victorious in the All-Ireland semi-final, thus denting his hopes of a second medal in this series.
Tohill was made Derry captain for the 2000 league and championship campaign. The NFL was won after a replay against Meath in May. Cavan were accounted for in the first round of the senior championship in convincing manner in the same month. This led to an exciting semi-final clash with neighbours Antrim; and Tohill displayed his leadership qualities here with an amazing catch on the goal-line in injury time to deny Antrim a shock victory. Derry made no mistake in the replay to set up a final clash with holders Armagh. This game proved to be Tohill's last appearance in an Ulster final, and unfortunately his team, Derry lost a close game by a point in the end.
Tohill continued as captain of the team until his retirement from the game after the 2003 Ulster championship defeat by Tyrone. His legendary performances earned him an All-Star on four separate occasions: 1992;93;95 and 2000. This combined with his honours gained from playing with Swatragh Michael Davitts, St. Patrick’s Maghera, Queen’s University Belfast, Derry, Ulster and Ireland puts him unarguably in the pantheon of the GAA greats.
© Cathal Coyle 2005