The romanticists couldn’t really have penned a more fitting next chapter to Christy Toye’s career on the night of the epic All-Ireland quarter-final win between Donegal and Kildare.
Just over two years after the St Michael’s centre-fielder was carried from the pitch during his Donegal’s All-Ireland qualifier against Clare at a drizzly Ballybofey, manager Jim McGuinness gave Toye a final few words of encouragement before throwing him into the fray.
Croke Park was surrounded in dusk as the clouds gathered overhead but with the margins so thin on the field McGuinness’s substitution showed the need for experience. Toye, with the words of his manager still ringing in his ears, made a beeline forward just as he had been instructed. Following a daring break from corner-back Frank McGlynn, Kildare were caught in the crossover and having been released Toye drilled past Shane Connolly.
Twenty-five months of frustration from the painstaking recovery all seemed worthwhile in just 25 seconds, the timeframe that had passed since Toye replaced clubmate Colm McFadden. The goal was the 28-year-old’s fourth at Croke Park in championship football - following strikes against Meath in 2002, Armagh a year later and then Cork in 2006 - which is a feat matched by no man from the county.
“I had been going okay in training the couple of weeks before the Kildare game and Jim decided to throw me in there,” Toye says. “He told me just to get into the ball and Frank McGlynn made a great burst.
“People say the goal was similar to the one against Armagh in 2003 and I suppose it was. I was in the same position and struck it into the same corner but it turned out to be worthless as we lost that day. The Kildare game was one of those nights everyone was at high-doe afterwards and Kevin Cassidy kicking the point made it a bit unique in a way.”
“Being out for two years was frustrating and in that time I only really played six or seven competitive games. I would go to train and watch the others train and that was frustrating, the fact I couldn’t do it. I always looked at it as when I would be back and not if.
“That was the only way to look at it as if I didn’t think on it like that I would never have made it back. It never crossed my mind to stop playing or to give it up or anything like that. I always just kept pushing to get myself into the best shape I could.”
Toye’s goal and late point, which levelled against Kildare, acted as the hors d’oeuvres to Kevin Cassidy’s stunning winner 10 seconds from the end of extra-time. In his own unruffled way, though, Toye merely shrugs his shoulders thankful of having the opportunity to play his part.
There was delirium for Donegal’s support under the glare of the Croke Park floodlights. All too often in the past, that sort of victory would be celebrated by players and followers in unison but McGuinness’s modern trail of thought makes for a more grounded approach. Toye’s cameo wasn’t the climax to a journey for himself or for Donegal, it just the latest step on the ladder.
“Once the Kildare game was over that was it really,“ he says. “You’re not going to be judged on the past or anything like that. It’s up to Jim to see how we can better ourselves now. We had a recovery session the next morning and had a meeting the next night. We got back to earth by training on the Tuesday. We didn’t sit around patting one another on the backs or anything like that. We had to get back to earth and we knew the semi-final was coming up.
“In the past, Donegal would play a quarter-final and win against a favourite like Galway or beat Tyrone in Ulster when they were All-Ireland champions and the county would go a bit mad. Maybe the team over-celebrated or over-reacted or whatever you want to call it.
“We’ve learned from that and tend not to get too excited now after certain games. You can celebrate a title or something like that, but from my own experience these games like an All-Ireland semi-final tend not to come around too often.”
Along with Michael Hegarty, McFadden, Rory Kavanagh and Kevin Rafferty, Toye is one of a handful of remnants from Donegal’s last championship altercation with Dublin.
Nine years ago, the sides played out a thrilling draw on August Bank Holiday before Donegal capitulated in the replay just five days later. A year later when Mickey Moran had passed the reigns onto Brian McEniff, Donegal hurdled the qualifiers only to lose a heartbreaking All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh.
“The drawn game stands out in 2002 and we could have won it before getting well beaten in the replay,” Toye adds. “I remember the last All-Ireland semi-final in 2003 and I was young at the time. We got to the quarters the year before that, so I thought this would be the case every year. I know now, in my late-twenties, that’s not the case and you have to grab every moment now at the end of the season.”
All-Irelands aren’t awarded for romance but with commitment like that shown by Toye over the couple of years Donegal’s love affair with the season’s championship continues.