Playing through the pain barrier: Donegal legend Tony Boyle

TO BE a good target man in Gaelic Football you must be able to anticipate situations.

The All-Ireland winning Donegal forward Tony Boyle from Dungloe certainly believes that the reason why he was able to play at the top level for over a decade and win two Ulster titles and an All-Ireland was down to his powers of anticipation.

His role was to win the ball in the forward line and then lay it off to the forward who was in the best place to score. He was the target man. He didn’t spend a lot of time in possession like Martin McHugh, nor did he rack up big scores like Manus Boyle or Declan Bonner. But he played his link role to perfection.

“Brian McEniff always said that I was the missing link from a forwards point of view,” Boyle said.

“I came along at the right time because we had the makings of a very good team.

“I wasn’t in there to kick scores. If I got an opportunity to kick scores, I would. My job was to link our forwards. When you have someone like the wee man (Martin McHugh) who can pin point a pass from 30 or 40 yards, my job was to make sure I can win it or get it to Manus (Boyle) or Declan (Bonner). You knew once you got it into their hands there was likely going to be a score in it.”

The key to the position is anticipation.

“When I am coaching I tell players that it is based on anticipation. It is not about how quick you are, you need to make that extra yard, and you need to know when the ball is being kicked and where it is going to be kicked. That was something that I felt was one of my strengths.”

Boyle doesn’t know how he came to have great anticipation. He hazarded a guess that it helped that he grew up playing centre midfield in soccer. That was a position where he had to be aware of everything that is going on.

Boyle’s background is soccer. His family are heavily involved in Keadue Rovers.

“I was the player who would have played the ball through.”

What he didn’t anticipate in the early years was that his future was going to be in Gaelic Football, nor did he know the national attention he would receive playing in the code.

As a teenager, all he cared about was playing matches.

“I would have known of Donegal players, but I never went to games. The first time I was involved as player was probably only the second time I had ever seen Donegal play. If there was a county game was on I was probably playing soccer.

“Keadue was a very dominant team at the time. We were winning Donegal leagues so I had a winning mentality from a young age.

“There used to be a fair amount of turmoil in the house because I was playing for Donegal minor team and the Donegal youth soccer team, and the games were often at the same time. If the times didn’t clash then I would play both. I didn’t want to miss out. But once I got the call up for the senior then I had to make the choice.”

As he grew older he began to anticipate his future on the GAA field.

“When I was young I loved playing both. I had friends on both and I didn’t want to let either down. But there was a slight draw to gaelic football because of the draw of playing senior county.”

He didn’t stop playing soccer though, and would play at every opportunity he got. But GAA was his priority.

“As my county career developed the soccer took a back seat.

“Soccer helped from a winning mentality because we won a lot. To go from playing junior soccer to make the step up to play county football to play in front of 9000 for national league matches. That was a shock but something I enjoyed right away.”

The Dungloe man played u-16 Gaelic football for Donegal in the mid 80s. He played minor and then u-21. He did not enjoy much success at minor and u-21 level as they often came up against a Tyrone team led by star players like Peter Canavan and Adrian Cush. But winning wasn’t entirely important, the minors and u-21s were about preparation for bigger things.

“It did help me make the step up.”

However, he didn’t entirely anticipate making the step up to senior. When he got the call he was in an entirely different country.

“I was in America in 1989 and I remember being in a bar in New York watching Donegal losing the Ulster final. My club mate John Connor was full back. It was disappointing.

“But I got a call from Brian (McEniff) to play county football for Donegal.”

Boyle, Noel Hegarty, Mark McShane and Frank Ward were called up from the u-21s.

“I didn’t join the squad till the championship in 1990. The first game was Cavan. It was a big step up.

“There were four of us called up from the u-21 squad and I was the only one who stuck with it, though Noel did come back in later.

“I was fortunate to make the breakthrough fairly quick.”

The breakthrough happened because he was a player that Donegal needed.

“I was a forward. I had played midfield once in a minor game. I didn’t have the height to continue at midfield at seniors. But I was always going to be in the forward line, either at centre half forward or full forward.

“McEniff talked to me about be a target man. The team had good forwards, they just needed the link the thing together. You had Charlie Mulgrew and Tommy Ryan who were two very good forwards a the time.”

He made his senior Championship debut against Armagh in 1990 in the Ulster final. He came off the bench.

The incident of him coming on is an exciting story that he’s told before a few times, and enjoys telling as it highlights his youthful ambition, but also how he anticipates things before they happen.

“I hadn’t got any real game time that year. Before the game McEniff told me that I was definitely going to get a run. Tommy (Ryan) started to tire in that Ulster final. I could see McEniff looking into the subs bench. I was young and mad keen to play. There was 30 odd thousand in Clones. He told me to warm up, but I thought that ‘this man is going to forget to put me on’. Brian gets so engrossed in the game you see. So I went up to the secretary and told them that Brian was after telling you to write a slip to go in for Tommy, which he didn’t say. But the next break in play I went running onto the field. I didn’t wait for instructions or anything.

“What was running through my head was that I would be running up and down the sideline and Brian would forget to put me in. I used a bit of my own initiative and said that I was going to impact the game.

“I was fairly clued in and I could see that Brian was very engrossed in the game. But I knew I could make a contribution. When you are that young you don’t have the nerves. When you are young that’s the way that you are.”

The 1990 Ulster final against Armagh was a close affair, with Donegal winning by a single point.

Boyle said that in terms of how he performed, his soccer background perhaps helped him in his first appearance.

“The last score of the game Molloy gave one of his famous balls in. It was about to hit the corner flag and go out wide. I remember Ger Reid was the full back. He was shadowing the ball out. I managed to do a sliding tackle and get in around Ger, and flick the ball back to Barry McGowan who was able to put it across the square to Manus (Boyle) and Manus managed to kick the 15th score, and we won 15 to 14. I didn’t realise that was going to be the winning score at the time. From that point of view the soccer helped.”

He made his mark that day with his performance, yet Boyle was very much a new face on the team. He admits that that was a daunting experience for him. Yet he credits Declan Bonner for helping him settle into the squad.

“He brought me in under his wing and kept me right. I look back on it and I am not sure whether I would have stuck it out. It was good to have someone like that keep his eye on me. The fact that I broke onto the team fairly quickly helped as well.

“Declan was as big a character back then as he is now. If Declan is in your company you are always going to have good fun. He is going to be winding someone up or starting a row with someone. He was a very good player, but he was a senior part of the set up. He got you into the group. They were all senior players there but I didn’t really know them as I had been playing soccer.”

After his display in the Ulster final, Boyle had put himself into the reckoning to start and so he did.

His starting debut was the All-Ireland semi-final against Meath in 1990.

“I remember getting a score off Mick Lyons. I thought it was going to be good. But looking back I felt disappointed that I didn’t score more.

“We were well in that match for long periods but we got into a physical battle when we shouldn’t have got into a physical battle. It was just inexperience that cost us.”

Donegal lost 3-9 to 1-7.

It might be difficult for anyone who doesn’t remember the football in the ‘90s to understand the confidence levels in Ulster compared to what they are today were low.

When Boyle joined the Donegal panel, he had no understanding of the expectations of Ulster football, but he admits that he knew that no one thought an All-Ireland could be won by an Ulster team.

“I got the feeling back then that the Ulster title was the target and anything after that was a bonus.

“We won the Ulster title in 1990 and we got the trip to Croke Park and we were happy with that.”

The frustration of the 1990 loss was also paired with a developing problem for Boyle. When he was younger he had developed a knee problem.

“I was told when I was a minor that I should consider giving up football because of my knees. I went and got a second and third opinion till I got someone who told me that that wasn’t the case.”

He had to get cartilage removed from both knees the week after the All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Meath in 1990.

He was able to get back for the following season, but the knee issue was something that he had to be wary of and he became adept at anticipating when the problems would be.

In 1991, as defending champions, Donegal were not able to defend their title, but the season would be crucial for their county.

“We went into the 1991 championship as champions and the draw was favourable but we came up against a very good Down team. We didn’t do ourselves justice in the final. When Down won that All-Ireland it changed everything.

“Down changed the whole concept of that the following year.

“We were back in the Ulster final in 1991 and Down beat us. I remember sitting watching James McCartan lifting the Sam Maguire and thinking to myself if Down can win it why can’t win it.

“Looking back, Down were the catalyst for Ulster success. They broke the mould. After that, when you won Ulster you felt that you could go on and win more.”

Donegal had lost the Ulster final in 1989, they won in 1990 and lost it again in 1991. So they were a force to be reckoned with. But the Down All-Ireland win changed attitude among the players.

“We knew we were one of the best teams in Ulster. We knew we weren’t far away.”

Boyle could now anticipate even greater success than Ulster titles.

The connection between the players was important according to Boyle. They had the craic but the were also fiercely competitive.

“I remember joining the team and there were fierce rivalries. A lot of the county team were made up of the south west division which were Kilcar, Killybegs, Gleann Cholm Cille, Four Masters and Ballyshannon. They were competing in most of the county finals. There was a big deal about the respect between the players.”

The connection that was important for Tony Boyle was that which he had with Martin McHugh, Manus Boyle and Declan Bonner.

“We had a very good connection with them couple of years. I had Manus in one corner and Declan in the other corner. I didn’t score a lot, my job was to win the ball and lay the ball off for them.

“When Martin McHugh had the ball I knew exactly when he was going to play the ball, and Martin knew where I was going to be. I was fortunate to play with Martin and I always thought he was ahead of his time.

“Our game developed around getting the ball to Martin, he picked me out and I got the ball to Manus or Declan and there was always an opportunity for scores.”

The 1992 season was a big year for Donegal. But it was an inauspicious start.

“In 1992 I remember losing to Dublin in the National League, and then going to get beat by Monaghan in the McKenna Cup.

“People say that it was only the McKenna cup but when it came so close to losing to Dublin in the league it was a big blow.

“I was only young at the time. I had been around the squad for a couple of years. But that squad was old. The squad said we either give it one last go or we pack up and go.

“For the older guys that Ulster championship was a case of lose and its over. That sort of galvanised the team and drove it on. It focused our minds.”

They drew with Cavan and won the replay then they played Fermanagh in the semi-final. They struggled in the first half but won the game easy in the end but the team wasn’t happy.

“There was a fairly heated team meeting. Martin McHugh felt that as a team we didn’t train hard enough.

“I remember the older boys speaking after that game. We felt that we had to train harder for the final and everyone promised that they would. That’s what we did and it stood to us that year.”

Personally Boyle felt that he had improved as a player in his first three years. But his role had always been the same.

“The boys knew that they could horse that 50 50 ball in and I would get it or win a free. I got better and got a bit stronger and fitter to compete at senior level.”

Donegal beat Derry in the final, and at that stage, after making his debut in 1990 Boyle then had two Ulster titles in his first three years.

“I thought that was normal. I wasn’t immersed in Donegal GAA. When I joined I won in 1990 and 1992. I thought that was the way it was always going to be. Little did I know that that would be my last Ulster title. When you are young you are riding the crest of the wave.”

Boyle felt that the fitness made the difference in the final against Derry, in 1992. He felt that they dominated the game and that was all down to the work that they did between the semi-final and the final, and the expectation that the older players had of making the mark in what would be for many of them their last season.

For Boyle, the challenge was his knees. During the 1992 final he suffered an injury when Anthony Tohill took a swipe at the ball and he caught Boyle on the knee which damaged ligaments.

“My biggest challenge between the Ulster final and the All-Ireland semi-final was whether I was going to make the game. But living next to the sea, and spending time in the salt water helped me to recuperate. Thankfully I made the semi-final.”

They were up against Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

“My stand out memory is that I went into that game genuinely not knowing if my knee was going to hold up. That was a big concern. I pushed myself to make sure I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t 100 percent truthful with McEniff or the medics about it. I didn’t want to miss.

“I always remember the first ball going out in front of the Hogan Stand I got in front of Peter Forde and won it. He fouled me. But I knew at that point that I was good to go.”

While he was pleased to be fit, the game was not a good one. The only positive was that they won.

“The one thing I remember was that I was working temporary with Telecom Eireann. I was pushing to try to get full time employment. They were the man of the match sponsors, and I won man of the match. I got a fairly cheap looking Telecom Eireann watch. That was the only thing I got out of them. I didn’t get the full time job.

“I was delighted that the knee held up. It was a terrible game but we were glad to be the first Donegal team to be in an All-Ireland final at Croke Park.”

Boyle said that the county went mad. There was a break of a full month between the semi-final and final.

“That’s far too long. That’s okay if you are carrying an injury. But the tension would put you off your head. We had some fairly intense training sessions. I remember training one Sunday morning. John Joe Doherty wasn’t on the team and he was trying to get on the team. He knocked Declan completely out with a shoulder. A fair shot. Our attitude was to get another player on the field and to keep it going. So the tension was unbearable.”

With that sort of tension on the field, there had to be some release valve. Boyle remembers it happening a few weeks before the final.

“Recently I was at a charity do run by Brendan Devenney in the Mount Errigal. I’d say it was one of the first times I was there with Anthony Molloy. We were chatting about two weeks out from the All-Ireland final (in 1992) we were staying in the Mount Errigal because we were playing a charity match. It was down in Milford. Brian said, as usual, we were allowed our four half pints. Long story short, we had a private room. But we ended up in the disco. And eight or nine of us ended up in a hen party in a house somewhere in Letterkenny. It was just purely from blowing off a bit of steam. Thankfully there was no social media or no camera phones back then. We were back training on Tuesday night and all guns blazing.”

Needless to say they had more than four half pints that night. But as Boyle said, the team needed a release from the tension.

“It is difficult not to be swept away. You are in your community and part of your community but that is what made it special.”

His attitude going into the game was the same as in any game. He just wanted to win his battle. In the final he was taking on Gerry Harrigan. He was anticipating how he could win his battle and get the edge over his opponent.

“He was an experienced full back who won an All-Ireland in 1983. I put a lot of emphasis on winning the first ball. We always knew that if we won the ball at midfield it was going to be kicked in to full forward. I won that first ball off Gerry. That gave me the psychological edge. That was what it was like then. You had to win your personal battle.

“If I won the battle then the full back would be taken off. But now you don’t see those one to one battles.”

There was another element of preparation that was interesting. Brian McEniff wanted to create a feeling of a unit between the full forward line. He made sure that the three players roomed together. But not only room together, they had to live in the same way as they would play.

“The three of us roomed together and Manus has to sleep in the right corner, Declan had to sleep in the other one and I was in the middle. That is how McEniff wanted to breed it into us.”

On the day of the final. There was a plan in place.

“The one thing we had to do was to put the Dublin half back line on the back foot because that was their strong point, with Paul Curran, Keith Barr and Eamon Heary. After a shaky start we done that and dominated long spells.

“But the way I looked at it I had to win my personal battle.”

The elements of the game he remembers is Anthony Molloy’s fisted pass into him.

“It went into the corner and I cut back and I was going to pull the trigger with my left foot but I saw Manus and I slipped it across to him. I thought he would hit the net but it skimmed over the bar. It was still an important score.”

Boyle remembers the tense final moments of the game.

“I remember the old Canal clock. When it is between ten to five and five to five, that was full time. There was no official clock, so that was what you were watching, and wishing it to be over. It was so close.”

When the final whistle blew, he became part of the first Donegal team to win an All-Ireland title.

Boyle said that he thinks about the win more now because of social media which highlights it often.

“I sat down during lockdown with my daughters to watch the final. It was on TG4. At half time they turned to me and said, ‘I thought you said you played well that day’.

“They had a different perspective or reality than I had.”

Boyle says that he meets older Donegal supporters who say that they feel that while the 2012 success was great, they are fonder of the 1992 victory, because it was the county’s first.

“The younger supporters, my girls included, are surprised when we are at Donegal games and people come over to talk to me, they wonder why they are talking to me. The younger supporters have no concept of 1992, which is good I suppose.

“It was brilliant to be part of that era.”

The joy was great for a period, but the following years are tinged with regret. Boyle did not anticipate how the Donegal team would not be able to reach those heady heights again.

Boyle says that he and the Donegal players who were involved back then should have won more. He says that the 1991 and 1993 titles were ones they should have got. They lost three national league finals.

“We felt as a group that we should have won a second All-Ireland but we had a lot of injuries in 1993. I suppose (winning in 1992) lifted the profile of Gaelic in the county. Soccer has a high profile in Donegal. But it lifted Gaelic football’s profile.”

In the mid 1990 to late ‘90s Boyle’s role changed on the team. The departure of key forwards Manus Boyle and Declan Bonner forced Tony Boyle into taking on more scoring responsibilities.

“Brendan Devenney and a clubmate of mine from Dungloe Adrian Sweeney came onto the scene, and a lot of young forwards. So I was the leader for them. There was more responsibility for me to get scores. But that was something that I enjoyed to do.

“We had some very good players who unfortunately didn’t win anything.”

Their biggest frustration was the 1998 Ulster final which they lost to Derry when, after controlling most of the game, they lost to a late Joe Brolly goal created from a contentious move by Geoffrey McGonagle.

“We didn’t play well on the day, and we lost to a late goal. If Donegal had won that final we would have kicked on.

“We still did enough to eke out of a win. Geoffrey, we did feel gave a bit of a nudge to win the ball, and then Joe Brolly was on the other end of the pass. That was a hard one to take. That was Declan Bonner’s first year as manager. Brian Roper pulled up injured before the game. I was disappointed in how I played.

“Myself, John Joe Doherty James McHugh, Manus Boyle, the older boys were disappointed.

“We sort of knew, with Armagh coming up, that that was a chance gone. In the years after we lost first round games and things like that.”

The younger players perhaps felt that they had another chance, but the likes of Boyle had realised after many years of playing for the county that success is never certain.

He did his best to make the younger players realise that. He says he relished the chance to provide leadership for younger players, just as he has been led by Declan Bonner in the early days.

“I remember Adrian Sweeney coming in in 1998, a club mate of my own. He was similar to myself, shy and quiet.

“I was delighted that I could be a help to him and that I was able to take him under my wing. I knew that he had the ability to play county football and he showed that over the next number of years.”

There were also the outgoing types like the uber-confident Brendan Devenney who also needed some guidance. He wanted to make sure that they could anticipate how they would be challenged at that level.

“Brendan breezed into the place as if he owned it. I enjoyed helping Brendan. His big thing was his pace in club football. He learned fairly quickly that at county football the defenders are every bit as quick and as a strong and that he had to change and adapt his game. I enjoyed that part of the game, that encouragement. When players come into the senior panel it can be daunting. I am sure counties have lost players because players have not felt they were up to it.”

His knee issues remained a problem throughout the 1990s. He said that the way he dealt with it was anti inflammatory tablets, though he points out that was probably not a good idea. However, he had learned how to anticipate the problems.

“Some of the management of that was taking time out. My problem was that all my cartilage was gone. The knee would swell up. It was an issue that I knew how to deal with. Taking anti inflammatory tablets probably wasn’t the best way. Definitely there were days when I shouldn’t have togged out or shouldn’t have played. But I just wanted to play for my county and I didn’t want to miss out. If you were to ask me would I change anything I wouldn’t.”

The end for Boyle came in the new millennium, in the first years of the qualifiers. Unfortunately, for a player who had spent most of his career trying to anticipate how to get involved in games, he did not anticipate his departure from the county team.

In 2001, Donegal lost to Kildare in a qualifier. That was the first year of the back door. Boyle and Noel Hegarty were the last two remaining players from the 1992 season.

“Noel had made the decision that that was going to be his last year. I did not make the decision. I said I was going to take some time over the winter. I was going to take the winter off but the call never came in 2002. Then you just slip off into the sunset.

“I don’t think I would have had anything to offer or not. I know that McEnfif said when he was there in 2002 that he would have liked to have myself or Noel on the bench. But you start to question yourself. Your mind starts to play tricks with you. You get more nervous than you did and you start to question yourself.”

“That was the end of the chapter.

“I’d say most of the people who retire from county football, most of the time it is not their own choice. Canavan coming down from the Hogan Stand with Sam (Maguire trophy) on his back that’s the way everyone wants to go out. But it doesn’t always happen that way.”

Boyle says that management is not a replacement for playing. Far from it. But he did answer a call to take part in management of the county in 2009, when they were at a low ebb.

That year, Tony Boyle was part of John Joe Doherty’s management team that took over the Donegal team after Brian McIver’s tenure ended. The county had had a few difficult years and the men from 1992 wanted to see if they could inspire the lads.

It was a learning experience for Boyle.

“We didn’t bring 1992 up at all. What we did bring was that to be a county player you had to have a certain mentality. You had to stand up and be counted and take responsibility.

“But we had a group of players who were mentally in a bad place and who had taken a lot of bad beatings. When I look back on it now they maybe needed to hear something else.

“To be fair Jim (McGuinness) came in after us and he knew what they needed. He stripped it all back. The management is so important.

“You don’t win All-Irelands without a talented group of players. But if you have a talented group that have a lot of self drive it makes the manager’s job easier. If they are driving the standards and they are calling things out then it is easier for the manager. But management is not easy. They have had those standards.”

Preparations of team has changed things.

“It is massively different to be fair. The whole preparation for the county players have taken the game now it is all but professional. In our day we did two or three nights a week, but we wouldn’t have done a lot of gym work or the analysis that they do now.

“The life of an intercounty player now is different to what it was 30 years ago. Training to the optimum is a good thing, but there needs to be a lifestyle balance that I don’t think is there at the moment.

“When myself and John Joe came in things were changing in terms of the balance. We still joke about it that players were bringing in their ‘going out’ clothes into the changing room and hanging it up before the game. They were thinking about what was going to happen after the game before the team was even picked.

“There was a very good group there they were just mentally weak after taking a lot of bad beatings.

“It was great that that team went on to win Ulsters and All-Irelands because it would have been a travesty if theydidn’t. I am delighted that they did.”

Yet while the player’s approach to the game has changed to become more professional, Boyle said that something has been lost along the way. He misses the sense of community and connection that the players had with supporters.

“The other thing I think is different is that there is a disconnect between the players and the supporters. Back in our day you would play the championship match then you’d go back to the Abbey (hotel) to have your dinner and there were would be supporters there. Now it is is warm downs and recovery sessions and video analysis. Supporters don’t know county footballers the way they used to ten or 20 years ago.”

There was a great deal of craic to be had when players spend time with fans. And it is that craic among fans and team mates that Boyle misses the most.

“I miss the craic. I wasn’t a great trainer or anything. I hated long runs, the stuff that was no benefit to me as a full forward. But Ioved the craic, the bit of slagging.

“You miss that nervousness before going out to a big game. That buzz, that adrenaline rush can’t be replaced.”

He anticipated so much during his playing career, but perhaps he never anticipated how much he would miss it all when it was gone, though he was thankful for every moment.

Dublin v Donegal 1992 17a.jpg

1992…Tony Boyle is tackled by Dublin’s Mick Deegan during the All Ireland Football Championship Final

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