BY CHRIS MCNULTY
CHRISTY Toye has always loved Croke Park.
His raw talents lit the touchpaper in 2003 when he scorched home one of the best goals ever scored at the Jones Road.
Toye cracked home an early goal in an All-Ireland semi-final against Armagh that had Donegal folk briefly dreaming of big prizes that summer.
Armagh quashed those hopes, but now Donegal are among the fancied sides for Sam – and next weekend the make a march to Croke Park once again.
They will be in the pot of provincial winners tomorrow night when the qualifier draw takes place on RTE Radio 1 at 8.30. Four qualifiers will join them in the draw – but no matter who is pulled out, Toye can’t wait for the Croker experience again.
Last year in the quarter-final Toye marked a landmark day when he cracked in a goal against Kildare. The Lilywhites forced extra-time, but Donegal famously prevailed. Toye was on the field mere seconds when he got on the end of a Frank McGlynn pass to find the net. It was a goal that ended his injury hell – and continued his love affair with the coliseum of Gaelic Games.
“Playing in Croke Park is a unique experience,” says Toye ahead of tomorrow’s draw.
“It’s just brilliant to get to play at Croke Park. When you get there you know you’re at the business end of the Championship season.
“You know going to Croke Park in the summer that you’re going up with the top teams and that is enough to give any player a kick. Playing in Croke Park would add a bit to any player’s game.
“Even when Croke Park doesn’t have a full house it can be a special place to play in. The atmosphere when we played Kildare last year was electric.
“We have to focus on the next game and Jim will just have us focussing on that next challenge. Whoever you draw at this stage of things will be tight. We know that now – we’re heading into the last eight so of course it’ll be tight.”
Last Sunday, Toye was introduced at half-time in the Ulster final – and the physical power of the St Michael’s man helped Donegal steamroll Down.
A year after he watched from the stands, fans’ favourite Toye savoured involvement.
There was a sense of fulfilment in his afternoon’s work.
He says: “I was delighted to play a part. It was great to get in. Last year I was on the panel, but didn’t get on in the final. It’s brilliant to get in and actually make a contribution.”
A lot of players have said that this one has been better than last. They’ve defied the logic that nothing beats the first – and Toye agrees.
“It was probably a sweeter one in that we’ve come back to win it again. It’s maybe more significant,” he says.
“Last year was the first Ulster title in 19 years. There was a sense of just getting the monkey off our backs. This year, we knew we were contenders from the start of the year and we really wanted to defend that title.
“Now we’re the top team in Ulster everyone is looking at us and watching us more closely.
“All of us as players are supporters first and foremost. We all know what it’s like to go and support Donegal. We all know what the county means to its people. We can recognise now what winning means to people.”
The common denominator in everyone’s assessment of what has changed in the last couple of years is Jim McGuinness.
“From day one, every man has been behind Jim completely,” says Toye.
“We all heard the stories from the young players about how well his under 21 teams were prepared. Everyone got behind him and Jim and Rory Gallagher have worked so well together.”
When he popped back to work this week in United Healthcare, Toye could feel the positive vibes. The feel-good factor has swept the county again. And his own injury troubles have given him a new sense of perspective.
He’d never given up with his injuries – but he knew time was short when it came to grabbing trophies.
“A few of us have been about for a long time. We didn’t win very much for a lot of years,” he says.
“You start to realise that you mightn’t have long left in the game and you just hope inside that you can make a mark before your time is up.
“I just hope now that I can put my best foot forward heading to Croke Park next weekend.
“The experience now is brilliant – it just shows what football can do for a county. The whole county is behind us now and enjoying the buzz. You can see it everywhere with the bunting that is up everywhere and the flags too. Even people who weren’t into Gaelic football a lot are keeping an eye on the games now – it’s really got a massive lift.”