The very last person who wants to talk about Christy Toye is Christy Toye. The recent news that the Donegal senior GAA footballer was to pack away his county jersey after 15 years saw an outpouring of admiration and appreciation in Donegal and beyond. A career that spanned All-Ireland wins and a chronic facial pain condition had come to an end.
The huge reaction to his retirement has bewildered Toye though. He was never in it for the glory – just to make his parish and his county proud.
“It was brilliant,” he said of the response.
“I don’t know why. Maybe they see somebody who is injured and kept going and came back? Maybe they recognise the effort you put into going back on the pitch?”
No other player has scored more Championship goals for Donegal in Croke Park than the Creeslough man. He also holds three Ulster titles, one All-Ireland, a National League and has captained the team.
But it isn’t only his ability that made supporters cherish the crafty half forward. Toye’s humble nature and absence of ego also helped – as well as that ability to come back, time after time, from injury.
There have been a spate of departures from the Donegal panel of late including Colm McFadden, Rory Kavanagh, David Walsh, Eamon McGee, Leo McLoone and Odhrán Mac Niallais. But Toye’s retirement seemed to hit a particularly raw nerve.
As Toye reflects on his county career, it isn’t one of the many game-changing moments he created that he holds proudest. It was a freezing winter league game in Laois in 2014 as fans rose to their feet to applaud his comeback from a year out with trigeminal neuralgia – a chronic pain condition that affects the trigeminal nerve in the face.
“I had to come off with a blood injury,” Toye recalls. “I remember the crowd standing up and starting to clap. I honestly thought a Laois player was coming on, then I realised it was Donegal supporters. I remember the hairs standing up on the back of my neck.
“I was so pumped up because of it. The doctor was stitching staples into my face and I kept saying ‘I want to get back on.’ I’m never emotional in the changing room, ever, but I was kicking stuff and Donal Reid was telling me to calm down. It was the connection with the supporters that day – it was very emotional.”
The threads of Toye’s tapestry in GAA were first woven when his father Noel and Colm McFadden’s father took over the St Michael’s under-10s. His mother Rose, from a Termon GAA background, was also heavily involved in the local club. Two future Donegal stars, Toye and McFadden, rose through the ranks together.
“I’d be out to the garden every evening after school playing football or soccer until night time and every morning before school kicking a football against the wall from about 8am. Anywhere I’d go I’d have a football with me.”
Donegal’s first All-Ireland win in 1992 had a huge impact on him and when he played he mimicked his favourite players Joyce McMullan and Martin McHugh.
After secondary school in Falcarragh he went on to study Business Studies with Sports and Recreation in Sligo I.T, with whom he won the Sigerson Cup three times.
Toye was just 18 when he made his Donegal debut in 2001. Alongside some of the 2012 All-Ireland county heroes like McFadden, Kavanagh, Karl Lacey, Paul Durcan and Eamon McGee, he was from a generation that bridged two different eras of Donegal football – from their less than angelic reputation to the discipline and success that manager Jim McGuinness brought.
“Nowadays, the GAA is amateur really in name only isn’t it? The professional era was when McGuinness came in but we obviously saw the other side of it. The way it is now, there’s an athletic discipline to it. Everything you do has to be built around football, it can be a lot of sacrifice.”
“Back in the early 2000s it was more you did your best and trained hard, but there was a bit more social flexibility, let’s say.”
Toye played alongside McGuinness from 2001 to 2004 and even then, he says, his future manager had a presence.
“When he spoke everybody listened. He had a four year plan (as manager). I remember he said ‘two Ulster titles and one All-Ireland, that’s the aim.’ We had been hammered by Armagh the year before by 20 points and there’s Jim chatting about winning the All-Ireland.
“We actually won two Ulster titles and the All-Ireland in the first two seasons, and won three Ulster titles and came close to winning a second All-Ireland so he, and we, exceeded expectations.”
The latter part of Toye’s career was plagued by injury. In 2009 he ruptured his Achilles and was out for 10 months. On his return he broke a bone in his ankle and another setback of tendonitis in his knees meant they both had to be operated on too. From 2009 to 2013 he was injured for three of the five seasons.
One of Toye’s stand out moments was when he drilled home a beautiful goal in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh. But in later years he became known as a super sub, such was his impact on games coming off the bench.
He was barely on the pitch before he scored a goal against Kildare in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final, and his impact on the team’s spirit and the scoreboard in the lead up to Donegal’s 2012 All-Ireland win was key. He also turned the game around against Dublin after coming off the bench in the 2014 semi-final victory in Croke Park.
However, Toye admits that it was frustrating at times.
“When I came back from injury I was in the subs a lot. When you put in the exact same effort as everybody else and then you’re not getting on, it’s human nature to think ‘why am I doing this?’
“But then you refocus and think well ‘I’m going to show him, I want to get on the next day’ so you put in that effort again. You realise too, it’s all really about the whole squad. The subs are as important as the players nowadays.”
Toye was sent on for the last 20 minutes of the 2012 final against Mayo and helped secure Donegal’s second All-Ireland title.
“That whole McGuinness era was a unique time because Donegal was just coming out of the guts of a recession and it gave people – football or non-football people – hope that they could do something.
“That whole week afterwards, it was unbelievable. If only you could bottle that atmosphere that was around the whole county.”
Injury soon struck again though. About a month after the All-Ireland victory, Toye started getting a throbbing in his ear, then his cheek, behind his teeth and his eye. It became constant. He was eventually diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, known as “the suicide virus” because of the excruciating pain it can cause, which typically affects women more than men and is more likely to occur in people over 50.
“I was on heavy medication for about six months which didn’t really help the pain. There is no relief. It’s constant pain and you wouldn’t know whether to sit down or stand up or lie down.”
Toye had to take sick leave from his job and seldom left his room or his house for long. The medication wasn’t working and although he admits it was a very dark time in his life, his stoicism and mental resilience prevailed.
“You think ‘how is this ever going to end?’ The doctors weren’t giving me much hope – there was no real path to recovery.”
But, miraculously, Toye slowly started to feel better and after about six months he weaned himself off medication.
“I can still get bouts of it here and there but it’s something you can easily live with like that.”
There was one silver lining to his debilitating condition. He met his now fiancée Victoria Massey in the summer of 2013 and the couple are expecting their first child in June.
“I suppose everything happens for a reason because I wasn’t really playing football because of the illness and I was out and about a bit more and met Vicky.
“For 15 years I had football at the forefront, everything else was secondary. I am very lucky to have met her. She always encouraged me to keep playing and supported me.”
Then came the moment last August when Toye hung his head after Donegal’s defeat to Dublin, and he knew his county days were over.
“I remember standing in Croke Park thinking that was probably going to be the last stand,” he said.
Toye cites the baby on the way and his Hibernia Masters course where he is studying to become a primary school teacher among the “four or five reasons” he felt the time was right to walk away. The rash of recent retirements has seen speculation on a major transition ahead for Donegal but he shares no concerns about the county going into the doldrums.
“That era had to come to an end sometime but the boys won’t be up at training thinking ‘where’s Leo McLoone or Eamon McGee?’ They’ll just be thinking of their own training and trying to win. Donegal are going to be very hard to beat for any team.”
While he will continue to play for St. Michael’s, Toye’s boots will not be easily filled by Donegal.
“You always hope that you’ve added to something, that you had an impact on the team, that you weren’t just a passenger. I think one of the most important things is that you are respecting the jersey and putting in 100 per cent,” he said.
“It is a very privileged position to get a (county) jersey, there’s only 30 players in any one year in that Donegal team and there’s probably 300 that would like to get it. When you’re up there, you know you’re representing yourself and your family and your community. I would hope people would look back and thought I’d done that to the best of my ability, I’d be happy enough with that.”