IT seems ludicrous that John Doyle’s wonderful football career could come to an end after a meaningless league game in Newbridge but then it’s typical of the man that he would bow out in such low-key fashion.
He was an unheralded debutant in his first championship season and so there were no trumpets to signal his departure. He left almost as he had arrived – quickly and quietly. After making what would be his final appearance as a 62nd minute substitute against Westmeath, Doyle left the pitch without any fanfare. There had been a big cheer upon his introduction but that was merely a reflection of his standing with the supporters. They didn’t know they were cheering him for the last time.
Doyle’s arrival on the pitch added some colour to a dull afternoon but everything seemed to turn grey when news of his retirement filtered out of the home dressing room. Some players had to be called back inside to hear the announcement, unaware that the elder statesman of Kildare football was about to bid them farewell.
He spoke with a heavy heart but he kept his emotions in check – it had been his great pleasure, afterall, to have been in that dressing room for so long. None of his teammates were around in 1999 when he made his league debut against Derry along with Terry Rossiter, Ronan Sweeney and Mark Millham. Sweeney survived until last year but by then he had slipped out of the starting team. Doyle was still leading the line up front and when he returned to the fold last week in Derry, he didn’t look out of place.
Now for the first time since 1999, after a run of 67 consecutive championship games, Kildare will enter the summer without him. His unbroken service is testament to his physical and mental strength but he was always chosen on merit. No one worked harder than John Doyle to be good at football and no one worked harder to improve each year.
Although he won a Leinster title in his first season, Doyle’s career never scaled such heights again. He came close in 2002, 2003 and 2009 but the vast majority of his career was spent far away from the limelight. His 2010 all-star award was, in a way, recognition for a body of work that had spanned a decade. Through the course of a turbulent period in the history of Kildare football, Doyle had not only remained steady and constant but somehow seemed to get better with each passing season.
For a long time, his name was a byword for Kildare football but it was a label that didn’t sit well with him. He didn’t play the game for individual acclaim.
“There was a perception out there that if I wasn’t scoring we were in trouble. Lads got fed up of that, we had more strings to our bow than that. Looking back a lot of my scores would have come from frees that other lads won,” he said in an interview from 2009, which was the beginning of an Indian summer in Doyle’s career. He turned 31 at the beginning of that season but in many ways he was starting over again. Success still eluded him but some of his greatest displays in a Kildare shirt came during the following five seasons. It was a remarkable run at a time when the game was getting faster and the players were getting younger. Doyle was not the greatest player of his generation but you sensed he would have held his own in any era.
Doyle was that rare gem, a fine footballer who turned himself into the ultimate sportsman. He was not the best at any one thing but he didn’t lack anything. He could score, he could set up scores; he could win his own ball, he could fetch ball above others; he was a team player but he was also a leader. How could you leave him out of any team?
When he began his senior career in an ill-fitting Kildare jersey against Louth in 2000, John Doyle was a curiosity. Not good enough for the county minors, he made no major impression as an under-21 either. He was so scrawny, his jersey was swimming on him when he made the cut with the seniors. And yet he became indispensable over time.
The really amazing thing about John Doyle is what he turned himself into. He gave it everything just to be a Kildare footballer. That’s what supporters could see in him every time he played and it resonated deeply with them. You always got the sense that John Doyle was one of Kildare’s biggest fans. Maybe that’s why he became the player he did.