Many would say that Tony Boyle joining the Donegal panel was the missing part of the jigsaw which saw the county lift the Sam Maguire Cup in 1992.
The young Dungloe man became the perfect target man at full-forward and he went on to have a distinguished career at county level that lasted until 2001.
His career mirrored that of Noel Hegarty and like most of the panel he felt privileged to have been part of a great team.
“I was very fortunate as I only joined the panel two years before that in 1990. Thinking back, ten years before that Dungloe was only in the process of re-forming. I played underage with Rosses Rovers.
“Coming from a townland like Keadue, which was a soccer stronghold in the north-west, when you look at it like that, it was a good achievement. As Higgs (Noel Hegarty) reminds me now and again, it wasn’t bad for an oul soccer dog.
“I always felt fortunate for there were many who had soldiered long and hard and even after that there were players who played for a long period without success,” said Tony.
Whether he was the missing link is for others to decide, according to Tony. “It was probably a combination; you had the 1882 and 1987 U-21 teams and the 1983 Ulster winning team and then you had myself and Noel coming in. We’ll let other people decide what we added to the team. We would have felt that we added a bit of youth. We didn’t really have the disappointments of the older players. I was involved in the 1990 semi-final defeat to Meath but we weren’t carrying too many bad results and maybe that helped us and helped the team. We weren’t under that much pressure playing in the big games in 1992.”
Growing up Boyle’s talent was well known and there were many times when he had a conflict of interest. “At the same time as I was involved at underage level with the county at U-16, minor and U-21, there would have been turmoil every Saturday when there would be a minor match and a Donegal soccer match, trying to fit them in. I would have been comfortable playing both if time suited, but it came to a stage when I had to make a decision.
“Then when it came to U-21 level, I knew Brian (McEniff) was interested in getting me into the senior squad and the time came to row back on the soccer and concentrate on the Gaelic.”
There were times when a soccer career could have also been in the offing. “At the times you would have heard stories. My father-in-law (Michael Treacy) had played professional football with Luton Town and would have been encouraging me. At the time bar Packie Bonner, there were very few who had made it across the water. It’s different now when you see a different lad from Donegal heading across every week for a trial.”
But once the young Boyle made his decision to concentrate on Gaelic football, he had other obstacles: “I would always have had trouble with me knees, my left knee in particular. I remember before a minor match, going to a specialist in Derry and he told me to pack it in altogether. Telling a 17-year-old that meant that a second opinion was always going to be sought.”
The young Boyle made his championship debut in the closing stages of the 1990 Ulster final against Armagh and then started the All-Ireland semi-final: “Typical of the time, I would have torn a bit of cartilage the week leading up to the All-Ireland semi-final but kept it very quiet. The fact that I was picked to play, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to play in Croke Park. I can still remember sitting in the dressing room in Croke Park and my knee kinda half locking twenty minutes before going out. It never bothered me when I got out. It was an injury that was to plague me for the next 12 or 13 years.”
His first start at championship level saw him coming up against Mick Lyons but he was one of the Donegal players who played really well on the day. “I wasn’t coming from a strong GAA background to these names - don’t get wrong I knew who Mick Lyons was and the great player he was - but it didn’t faze me. The bigger the occasion, the bigger crowd, the more I enjoyed it.
“One of the biggest regrets was that I never got another chance to have a match up with Mick Lyons. I did meet him at an All-Star do and he was a lovely man off the pitch; ferocious on it but a great guy off it,” said Tony.
The Dungloe man’s memories of 1992 are very vivid: “The stand-out memories from 1992 was the first game in Breffni Park on a scorching day and big crowd. I remember heading into the Cavan square and Gerry Sheridan was the full-back and he had the sleeves of his jersey rolled up above his shoulders like an Australian Rules football. I remember thinking I was going to be in for a physical day. I remember being involved in the controversial goal that day; I still maintain I got the last touch.
“Obviously the final against Derry and the clash with Anthony Tohill when I ended up with torn ligaments in my knee was another memory. It was great to win the game but the following four weeks it was touch and go whether I would be fit to face Mayo. Indeed, it wasn’t until I went for the first ball with Peter Forde. I think it was (Martin) McHugh who sent it in from the throw-in out under the stand. I got it and was able to get past Forde and it was only then that I knew it was going to be okay.
“Some look back and say it was a decent enough trade-off. Tohill broke two bones in his foot. Some Donegal men would say it was a better trade-off for them to lose Tohill.
Boyle says he spent many days in the cold Atlantic waters to aid recover and pointed that it was Tommy Ryan who produced a match-winning performance in his absence.
“Only for Tommy’s second half performance against Derry, we wouldn’t have been in the semi-final and then it didn’t work out for Tommy in the semi-final.”
Boyle ended up watching the second half of the Ulster final from an unusual vantage point. “Both me and John (Cunningham) were up in the old dressing rooms at the top of the steps. My knee was out like a balloon and because of the high windows, I was struggling to stand and watch it. John wasn’t in the best humour but he got a table and he put a chair on top of the table and we watched it from there. Even now I wouldn’t be a great spectator but it was an unbelievable performance from the boys. I still managed to get down the steel stairs at the end.”
A nerve injury in his shoulder saw Boyle miss the entire 1993 championship season, but he was back after that and was a constant at full-forward for the rest of his career.
“Brian, I think maybe tried me once at centre-half but mumbled something about bad workrate. I never believed him. No 14 was a position I always felt comfortable with,” says Boyle.
“It was enjoyable, you knew your job was to win the ball and throw it to the two lively boys that they thought they were (Manus and Declan). When I was on the ground, I would see them running over, not to see how I was but to get the ball and kick it over the bar.
“You knew that if you got the ball to them either in open play or a free, you were likely to get a score. The joke used to be that the quickest you would see them running was when there was a free in front of the goals, to see who would kick it,” quipped Tony.
Later in his career Boyle was given the responsibility of taking frees and it was as part of the game he enjoyed. “I remember a bad day, I think it was my 100th, I missed a penalty in Ballybofey against Fermanagh and lost the game.”
Among his other disappointments was losing the 1998 Ulster final but he quickly adds: “When you win an All-Ireland you can’t look back with too many regrets.
“Back then, I was young, free and single. I would count the hours between the training sessions. We trained hard and enjoyed ourselves as well. It was a massive part of my life. My missus would say it still is!”