Anton Tohill: From Swatragh to Collingwood and back again

By Niall Gartland

FROM Swatragh to Collingwood and back again. Anton Tohill left his burgeoning AFL career with Collingwood to return home to complete a medical degree, and he has no regrets whatsoever about his direction of travel, even though his former club won the AFL Grand Final last year.

Son of Derry icon Anthony Tohill, Anton first came to prominence as a talented underage player with the county. 6’7 in stature, he participated in an AFL combine in 2017 and it wasn’t long before he signed on the dotted line with Collingwood on a two-year contract. Beset by a horrid run of injuries, he nonetheless made his full AFL debut late in the 2021 season before turning down a one-year contract extension to return home to finish his medical degree at Queen’s University Belfast.

He linked in with the Derry senior set-up but a lack of game-time set in motion his decision to leave the panel, but now he’s enjoying the sport again and is set to travel as part of a Queen’s University Belfast sporting delegation to Boston in the next few days. We caught up with a chat with Anton about how he’s getting on with life on and off the pitch.


Niall Gartland: You left the Derry panel last year, what was the thinking behind that?

Anton: I left the Derry panel because I’d only played seven or eight games of football in four and-a-half years, between going to Australia and coming back to Derry. We’d a great run in 2022 and played a lot of football but I didn’t get a lot of exposure to 15 v 15 games. I played the McKenna Cup in 2023 and came into the league, but basically I decided I wanted to get a bit more football to bring myself on a bit.

It was grand being with Derry but if I wasn’t going to get the chance to play football and develop, I thought how am I actually going to be able to help Derry in the short, medium or long term.

So I went back to the club after I left Derry, Swatragh really struggled last year, we’d a managerial change in the middle of the year so it was just about staying up in league and championship and we were fortunate to do both.

NG: I read you’re dabbling in rugby at Queen’s?

AT: I was sick looking at football by the end of last year because we’d such a tough run at it with the club. I ended up playing a bit of rugby for Queen’s at the start of last year just for something different.

I’d never played rugby before and I was intrigued by the sporting similarities and differences between Aussie Rules and Gaelic football. I played a bit of Seconds rugby for Queen’s, and it’s a good standard. A few of the boys are Ulster Academy players and I train with the seniors, most of that team is either Ulster Academy or ex-Ulster Academy. It’s a good standard but I broke my thumb playing a practice Sigerson match against Antrim in November and had to get surgery so that put a halt to the Sigerson and rugby for me.

I managed to get back for the knock-out rounds of the Sigerson and played against Maynooth in the quarters, which we unfortunately lost by a point. But it was a real close-run thing and I really enjoyed playing with Queen’s, I couldn’t talk it up enough. It’s brilliant to play with really talented boys in the same age bracket, and it helps push the whole thing on.

NG: You’ve been playing away with Swatragh this year, do they have you in midfield?

AT: To be honest, I’ve been trying to play midfield and full-forward at the same time. We’re really struggling with numbers this year, a few men are injured and hurling has grown a lot in popularity in the club and they get more men to training than we would.

So we’re feeling the pinch, and from the spine of the team, only me and one other lad are fit at the moment, so the last few league games have been arduous.

I’m mostly in midfield and I’m enjoying it though. Last year I was mostly full-forward because that’s where Rory Gallagher played me with Derry. I played full-forward the whole year until we met Glen in the championship, and then I came out to centre-half forward.

NG: You left Collingwood to pursue a medical degree, it seems like medicine is something of a calling for you?

AT: I was never really going to do anything else to be honest. From a young age, becoming a doctor was very, very important to me. Playing football in Australia was great, but it was never going to be enough to set you up for the rest of your life no matter how well you did at it.

I always saw myself as a doctor, and saw myself working with people. I don’t know if you remember, my father (Derry legend Anthony Tohill) had that injury where he fell out with the chainsaw. I was out in the yard playing football at the time, I was there and I was able to see how he was put back together again by the surgeons.

I thought it was the coolest thing in the world, that you could take someone from the worst point in their life and improve them to the point of feeling human and real again.

My grandmother was also under the care of a haematologist up in Altnagelvin. Whenever she was going through Leukaemia, I saw how well he treated my grandmother and dealt with the family, and I could see how much of a privilege it is to deal with sick people and people who were struggling. On the back of those personal experiences, it’s what I always saw myself doing.

NG: Collingwood won the Grand Final last year, you could easily have been part of that so do you have any regrets?

AT: No, definitely no regrets. It would’ve been brilliant to have been part of it, and of the 22 lads that were named the night I made my debut, most of those lads were playing in the Grand Final so I wouldn’t have been far away. However, it was my own call to make the decision to come home, and to leave on my own terms means I ‘ve no regrets. If they hadn’t have offered me a contract, I’d probably have had more difficulties with it. I was just so happy for them, I know how hard it is to win one of those Premierships and how much work the boys have put in over such a long period of time. It’s such a good group of men that I felt nothing but joy and delight for them to be honest.

NG: Being part of the AFL for a few years must’ve been an incredible learning experience for you?

AT: I went out there when I was 18, you’re so fresh at that point in terms of your views of the world, never mind your view of sport in terms of how you prepare or do things properly. It gets you developing quickly as a person and I can’t thank the club enough for the opportunity, it was an incredible learning experience. It’s a fantastic organisation and I couldn’t speak higher of the club, they’re fantastic in everything they did.

NG: Were there any other Irish lads on the Collingwood panel while you were there?

AT: Mark Keane from Cork, he came back and played county football in 2020, he scored the goal that knocked Kerry out of the championship. We had to stay in hotels for Covid isolation that year, I did it once when Covid broke out and I wasn’t going to do it again so I decided against coming home for a second time.

I remember they shut Australia down when Covid broke out in March 2020 and we didn’t know when the league was going to come back. The club advised me to go home and assured me they’d be able to bring me back, and I said ‘grand, no bother’. I was home for about six weeks between April and the start of May and we got the word to come back.

The AFL players were the only people on the plane, there were more staff on the plane than us boys. I went to the airport with Callum Browne and it was surreal going through a deserted airport. I ended up going straight to a hotel in Melbourne, we were in the hotel room for two weeks by ourselves.

I was happy enough, I started teaching myself Spanish and I did a Spanish diploma afterwards. I thought I’d try and make use of the time in isolation so I started learning Spanish on the internet.

NG: How’s your Spanish now, have you kept it up?

AT: I can still communicate okay. I could work in Spain in a cafe no problem, but I would need to brush up a bit to work there as a doctor. I’ve kept it up by reading books in Spanish, I’m going through the Harry Potter series at the moment, just to try and keep up my grammar.

NG: You’ve played in a professional environment, how much does it differ from an intercounty set-up in terms of professionalism, is there still a big gap?

AT: The way the AFL is set up, you’ve got all day to come in and train. Owenbeg is a brilliant facility for Derry, you’ve got your meeting rooms, access to pitches, the gym with all the bells and whistles attached, but the big difference for me in terms of professionalism was recovery.

Out in Australia we had brilliant recovery facilities, ice paths, swimming pools, saunas, massages whenever you wanted. There was a dedicated member of staff to work on any wee niggles or small muscle injuries that weren’t necessarily enough to keep you out of matches. I think that’s probably the biggest gap and a lot of it comes down to exposure time. Our contact time in Australia was 30-35 hours a week in the building and that’s unsustainable for people with a job.

NG: You played on a rather interesting u-20 team in Derry back in 2018 alongside the likes of Callum Brown, Jude McAtamney and a bunch of current Derry senior players?

AT: Our age group with Derry was fantastic. ‘Clucky’ [Conor McCluskey] grew up playing a lot of soccer, he played for Cliftonville. Callum played soccer growing up too, and then Jude obviously got on with American football. Myself and Callum went to the AFL and Oisin McWilliams had a trial with North Melbourne and then offered the contract to Red Óg Murphy instead. We had a really good group. Lads like Paudi McGrogan and Conor Doherty are fantastic footballers who would do anything for you off the pitch. It was a small panel but we all seemed to push on. Mickey Donnelly was coach and he was a great man to work with as well.

NG: Do you still follow Derry closely as a supporter?

AT: To be honest with you, last year I’d no more interest in watching football, I just didn’t have the love for it and didn’t want to put any amount of time into it. I just wanted to help get Swatragh safe whereas this year after playing a bit of Sigerson I’ve started enjoying it again. I’ve started watching it a lot more on TV. I don’t get to too many games because it can eat up the entire day, and I work part-time for the GPA as well as studying. The GPA takes up an evening or two a week so I study a lot when I can on the weekends.


NG: What type of work are you engaged in with the GPA?

AT: It’s actually something a wee bit different, it’s in conjunction with a charity called Movember, a men’s mental health charity. They look at health problems that disproportionately affect men so they can support cancer research or campaigns, but one of the real pillars of their work is in mental health and suicide prevention.

They’ve developed a programme in Australia called Ahead of the Game which is a youth mental health literacy programmes. So taking a lead from that, we go around GAA clubs all around Ireland, there’s around 20 of us facilitators, and we deliver mental health workshops for teenagers and their parents and coaches.

It’s a brilliant thing to be a part of, it’s the first year of it, it’s all run through the Healthy Clubs initiative and we’re getting fantastic feedback.

Obviously it’s such a prevalent issue in society at the moment and you see so many young and older people fall victim to their struggles and I think it’s great that we can have a bit of extra talking and education through the prism of the GAA, I feel very privileged to be a part of it.

NG: Something I’ve wondered about down the years is how do Doctors manage to cope with the stresses of looking after sick people all the time?

AT: I was in a clinic the other day with a consultant haematologist called Feargal McNicholl, he’s involved with a Faughanvale and Na Magha GAA clubs. He’s a fantastic clinician and we had a talk about compassion, and how you can let compassion and putting yourselves in the shoes of the patient guide your guide. I think that really reflects in his own practice.

He’s a brilliant man and he’s fantastic at what he does. I was in a clinic last week where a patient was told about a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, obviously a life-changing diagnosis. It was conveyed in the way a patient could understand, or begin to understand what it means, but also in a way that they could appreciate that most people respond very well to the treatment. It’s having the confidence that they can get better, and being able to convey that message. I look at it more from the perspective that this is the patient that’s got a life-changing diagnosis, to this is the patient that we can really help.

NG: Is there a particular area you’d like to specialise in?

AT: I mentioned earlier my father and his injury. The people who sorted him out and helped put his face back together are called Oral and Maxillofacial surgeons. That requites a dual qualification in medicine and dentistry, so I have a notion of going into dental school after medicine and then training as an Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon. It’s something I’d have a bit of a plan around, but again your circumstances and how you are with your life and family can really dictate where you end up.

It’s still the goal I have at the moment. I find that the ability to take an acute problem and rectify it so quickly to the satisfaction of the patient is really incredible, and it’s something I’d love to be part of in the future.

NG: Would you be able to do a fast-tracked dentistry degree?

AT: You can, you can do a fast-track degree that’ll take three years after medicine, I’ll go down that route hopefully. It’d involve me going to London or I might go to Spain and complete my dentistry degree in Spanish instead, but I’ll see how it goes, that’s obviously a bit down the line. I need to figure out a few things before I go down the route of a tertiary degree in a different language, I’d need to do a bit more work on the Spanish first.

NG: You’ve a busy schedule, but at the same time Medical students have a reputation for letting their hair down, how do you find your classmates?

AT: It’s a group of people who are all doing the same thing. Some people have medicine as the core principal of their personality. That’s something that shines through in a lot of people and I try to avoid those people as much as I can to be honest. I always find that the people I get on best with, are the people who can have a bit of fun and realise there’s more to life than medicine. There’s a real good group of people in my year who I have a fantastic amount of time for and we really get on well as a group. We have good fun too, I don’t drink myself but plenty of them enjoy having some beverages.

NG: You’ve always been a teetotaler?

AT: Always, I never had any interest. We always used to go out at home, we went to discos when we were underage. I was never going to drink before I turned 18 anyway, and I got the driving licence so I always drove and never stopped having fun on nights out. I always had enough craic to be able to dance about and have a bit of fun chatting to people. I never found that difficult so I never bothered drinking, I never saw the point.

NG: Finally, what would you be your take on the future of the NHS:

AT: The constant defunding of the NHS by the Conversative Party has really left it on a knife-edge. I don’t know enough about it so say if it’s recoverable or not. I don’t think standards are at the level that patients deserve, or that people working in the service, deserve. They haven’t made the NHS a positive place to work and you see that with so many young people going to Australia to earn money and have a bit of work-life balance.

I’m a member of the BMA as well and it’d be remiss of me not mention the current state of pay for junior doctors. I would earn more money making coffee for Conor Glass than I will when I graduate. Hopefully some resolution can come about on the pay front but there needs to be a lot of work done on the structure of the NHS.

From being in different clinics, I see how certain places have got things in order to the degree that the waiting times are within target reach, and that it is possible to do with the resources that are there if you get things 100 per cent right. But it does need a bit of a rethink. It looks like the Conservative Party are just trying to sell it off for parts in a few years’ time to the Americans but hopefully there’ll be a change of government in a month’s time and things will improve.

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