AT JUST 19, Kevin Toner was being handed an opportunity so many footballers work their whole lives for without ever receiving.
The 2015/16 season saw Aston Villa relegated from England’s top flight for the first time in 28 years after sacking Tim Sherwood and Remi Garde — who lasted 147 days — in quick succession.
Eric Black, the Frenchman’s assistant, took temporary control at the end of March and, ahead of his second game in charge, made a call to the club’s U21 captain Toner.
“It all happened very quickly,” the Meath man told The42 this week.
“I was sick one day and the manager rang me up and said ‘How are you feeling?’. I told him I was in bits and he was just like ‘Well you’re going to be on the bench tomorrow so you’re feeling better!’.
I said ‘Jaysus, you’re dead right I am! I’ll be 100%, don’t worry’. So I was among the substitutes but didn’t play.”
Bournemouth beat them at Villa Park that day and a 1-0 loss away to Manchester United the following week confirmed the Birmingham club’s demotion to the Championship.
And while there was a feeling of doom and gloom around the place, Toner represented a rare positive as the teenaged defender came as a half-time substitute for Micah Richards to make his Premier League debut in the next game, at home to Southampton.
“It was deadly, I had wanted to do it since I was a young kid,” he explains. “You’re always going to be nervous but after a few minutes you realise you’re in a game so you just give it socks.”
Despite his tender years, Toner performed admirably in the 4-2 loss and received praise from his manager. He would go on to play 90 minutes in the final three matches of the season — against Watford, Newcastle and Arsenal — and remembers the 0-0 draw at St James’ Park fondly.
“I had about 20 of my mates flying over to see me along with my da, my ma, and uncles from Ireland and different countries. I was marking Andros Townsend that day so he had me running around a lot. He’s quick.”
Breaking into the first team gave him hope of playing regularly in the second tier. However, Chinese businessman completed a £76 million takeover of Villa that summer and former Chelsea boss Roberto Di Matteo was named their new permanent boss.
The Italian was given money to spend meaning Toner soon fell back down the pecking order.
“I thought I might have had a chance but the new manager came in and that was the end of that,” he says. “They brought in about four or five centre-backs on a good few bob and they had a few years experience on me.
“I was back down to the U21s straight away and then shipped out on loan.”
Loans spells at Walsall, Bradford City and Stevenage followed, and while he enjoyed getting game-time in the lower leagues, a burning feeling remained in the back of Toner’s head. Since moving over to England in 2012, he had always missed home.
Toner originally joined Dublin powerhouses Home Farm from local side Ashbourne United after a friend who lived near him had done the same, and the youngster was soon gaining interest from clubs across the water.
“I went on around four or five trials and had clubs who wanted to take me over so I was in an alright position but once I found out that Villa were keen I was buzzing and decided to go there.
“The main reason was because there were a load of Irish boys there. They had something like 15 or 16 at the time so it was like moving over to a mini-Ireland.”
With the likes of Ciaran Clark, Shay Given, Enda Stevens, Stephen Ireland, Graham Burke, Samir Carruthers and Mikey Drennan all plying their trade at Villa around that time, settling in was expected to be that bit easier.
And although Toner went across and moved in with another Irish player, Robin Dempsey, homesickness affected him more than most.
Over there, you’re back at the house and sitting there on your own,” he recalls. “The two of you are seeing what you can do to fill the boredom.
“You know you have to sacrifice and your mates will be at home doing whatever they want while you’re looking at a PlayStation for four or five hours of the day. You just have to accept it.”
But he didn’t just accept it and while at Stevenage earlier this season, Toner came to the conclusion that a return to Ireland would be best for his well-being.
“I was sitting in the gaf at one o’clock every day and I just decided ‘Right, I’ve nothing to do so I’m going to have to find a way to be happy’.
“I always knew that I wanted to come back and play and I heard there were a few clubs at home that were interested. Before I even knew about it myself, there was a rumour going around that I was going home.
“There were three or four interested but as soon as my agent told me about Pat’s I said ‘Right, that’s the one. Get me over there’.”
The 21-year-old met with Saints manager Liam Buckley and was immediately sold on the idea. He had been due to speak to a couple of other clubs after that but it just felt right.
Once we had a chat that was it,” he explains. “His style of play is the way I like to play. Everyone I talked to about Pat’s said good things to me too.”
So he signed a two-year deal with the Inchicore outfit and returned to the family home in Ashbourne.
“I’m back in in my ma’s. It’s been nice to see everyone.”
League of Ireland clubs up and down the country are currently knee-deep in pre-season since the start of the month, with the opening league fixtures kicking off on 16 February.
“It’s been tough, we’ve done a lot of running,” Toner admits. “We were back in on 2 January, straight after Christmas. Obviously, over that time you’re eating a bit more than you should be so it’s a hard time to stay fit.
“It’s been good though, there’s been a lot of ball work and I’m enjoying it.”
Pat’s finished eighth in the Premier Division last year after struggling in the first half of the season and significant improvements will be expected from the 2013 champions this term.
“We have to do better than that,” says Toner, who is comfortable at centre-half or left full-back. “They’ve brought in a few players and the ones that are there are good quality so we’ll be expecting to be right up there.”
I see myself as a centre-back,” he adds. “But I’ve played left-back too so it’s not as if I’m out of my comfort zone.”
With time on his side, the defender’s short-term plans are to nail down a place in the Pat’s team and have success at the club over the next two years. Looking a little further ahead, it’s difficult to say where his future lies.
“First of all, I’m a Pat’s player now so I want to do well for them for the whole of my contract,” he says. “I’d like to help the team do as well as they can but further down the line I have aspirations.
“It depends if I’m happy to stay here because I might not want to go back to England. If I do, I’ll have to play as well as I can to get back over there.”
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