Anthony Tohill, the Derry GAA legend and former senior officer at Derry City Council, has spoken of the first time of the horrific chainsaw injury that nearly cost him his sight in his right eye.
And he also admitted that - after going on trial with Manchester United in 1995 - he’d predicted that David Beckham was too concerned with his appearance to succeed as a footballer.
Tohill’s life came so close to taking an awful change for the worst last year, when as he was cutting some logs, the chainsaw rebounded into his face. He still bears a scar showing the track either side of his right eye.
Tohill appeared on RTE’s Second Captains Live, and as well as discussing his sporting life, he talked for the first time about the accident.
He told how he ended up at Manchester United in February 1995 saying: “I played GAA all my life and didn’t really have much of a background in soccer; we played soccer at lunch in the school playground. I had played about 20 games of soccer in my entire life and I was asked to go on a trial to Manchester United at 23 years of age, so it was all a bit of a fairytale I guess and I was a Man Utd fan, so obviously I couldn’t say know. But obviously it didn’t work out. I was alright, I could head it and kick it but I wasn’t the most silky of players. I wouldn’t say it was the highlight of my career but it’s a nice memory.”
Tohill played in two Reserves games, and took the field alongside the likes of Gary Walsh, Gary and Phil Neville, David Beckham, David May, Nicky Butt and Mark Hughes. Despite a trademark headed goal from a corner, he wasn’t signed by the Old Trafford club.
“One or two of those guys went on to decent things,” said Tohill.
Friends asked him who he thought would make a name for himself from the Reserves team, and Tohill admitted: “I said ‘I don’t know, but I’ll tell you one person who won’t make it - your man Beckham. I think he cares a bit too much about his appearance’. But he got it right on both counts.”
He met Alex Ferguson at the end of the trial and, as someone who had played less than a couple of dozen soccer matches during his lifetime, Tohill harboured no expectations of being asked to join Manchester United.
“I suppose it’s like a girlfriend letting you down gently,” he joked.
He also turned down approaches by Manchester City and Ipswich; Gaelic football was his true love despite the fact he tried twice to make a professional career in sport. The first time was when he was 18, and travelled to Australia to play under the Rules code.
With Old Trafford now just a wonderful memory, he concentrated on getting fit to play Gaelic football, though he also signed for Derry City for a season. He got injured playing soccer and decided: ‘Enough’s enough, I want to concentrate on my GAA.”
In April 2013, he made headlines off the field, when he suffered a serious chainsaw accident.
Tohill recalls: “It was just one of those things; I was cutting a bit of firewood as one does when you’re living in the countryside. I was just cutting a bit of timber; I was nearly finished and as these things often go, cutting through some light timber. If you’ve ever cut through light timber you’ll know what I mean, you literally have to touch it with the chainsaw. Two hands on the saw and bent over, the saw must have hit a knot and flicked up. My reflexes would still be pretty decent but I only had enough time to blink before the saw hit me and cut me.”
The wound stretched from above his eye to half-way down the side of his face.
“It was bad enough but it sounded probably worse than it was. My wee lad was out kicking football at the side of the house. Thankfully he didn’t see it happen. I said to him, ‘Listen, gone run in there to ask your mammy to ring the ambulance’. She came out all over the shop having seen it. I couldn’t see it but I could feel it and I knew there was a fair bit of blood. I think it was the wee lad had to end up ringing the ambulance.”
Tohill realized then that it would take as long for the ambulance to reach his home, as it would for his wife to drive him to the hospital - 35 minutes - and therefore it would be over an hour before he reached it if he waited for the paramedics.
“We drove about a mile down the road and there was an Easter Monday parade on in our local town - the whole place was blocked. So I’m driving through here, the face hanging off me, and all these people are out parading on Easter Monday. The wife she goes to turn the car and I say ‘What are you doing?’, she says ‘Turning the car’. I said ‘Drive straight through them’.
“And there’s one particular old lady who in true Northern Irish fashion refuses to budge. But we eventually got through and once we got to hospital it was fine.
“I got a good shot of stuff to keep me right. You just have to deal with it. It’s always been my approach to whatever life throws up, you get up and get on with it and deal with it.
“I had a fair bit of blood but I knew the saw didn’t get me round the neck, so I knew I wasn’t going to bleed out. I figured the worst case here is that I might lose an eye, so I’ll take that.”
Surgeons at Altnagelvin hospital worked on his wounds that night. “What I was very determined to do was get life back to normal,” said Tohill.
“Two days in hospital and as soon as I came out I didn’t take any more medication that they gave me for pain. I was determined to get my life back to normal as soon as I could.
“It was meeting people for the first time because everyone’s heard the story, and particularly the older generation, they’re all looking at you and saying ‘You’re not too bad you know’.
“It was just getting over that initial shock and meeting people and everyone thinking half your head’s missing and them realising ‘he’s not too bad’.
“All around you there’s so many people worse off. What I got was, yes, a bit horrific at the time, but it’s no big deal.”
so many people were worse off than I was. Get on with it.”