JOHN Doyle made his championship in an otherwise unremarkable 1-12 to 0-12 Leinster quarter-final over Louth on June 11th 2000. He didn’t get on the scoresheet in his 48 minutes on the Croke Park pitch before being replaced by his cousin Ken. Few in attendance could have realised that they had just witnessed the start of one of the most remarkable GAA careers in history.
Doyle’s first championship score came in his second game when he finished with a tally of three points in an 0-11 to 1-8 draw against Offaly in a Leinster semi-final. He went on to score in the next three championship games, including the Leinster final replay win over Dublin which turned out to be only medal of real significance with Kildare.
The All-Ireland final semi-final ended in disappointing fashion, a 2-6 to 0-15 defeat to Galway but it was also notable for another reason – Johnny failed to get on the scoresheet. It would be another 50 championship games and 11 years before that happened again.
In 2001, Doyle scored nine points in four games in a frustratingly short summer for Kildare. 2002 and 2003 saw Doyle’s reputation grow and Kildare reach successive provincial deciders but he couldn’t add to his only Leinster medal and it was the beginning of a forgettable period in Kildare GAA history.
Kildare suffered defeat in both their championship games in 2004 but Doyle’s eight points in the qualifier defeat to Offaly in St Conleth’s Park proved without doubt that he was on his way to being a very special player. 2004 also saw one of the crowning glories in Doyle’s career when he led his beloved Allenwood to county final glory.
2005 was another summer to forget for Kildare but Doyle did net his first championship goal in the second round qualifier defeat to Sligo. In the following two seasons, he scored 2-31 in just six championship games as Kildare enjoyed a tough period before the arrival of Kieran McGeeney.
The arrival of the Armagh man in 2008 brought a new lease to many within the Kildare set up but none more so than Doyle. That wasn’t initially the case as Doyle registered just three points in a disappointing Leinster defeat to Wicklow but eight points in the first round of the qualifiers against Cavan was Doyle at the top of his game. He would go on to be the first man to score over 100 points in the qualifier series and he hit tallies of 1-5, 0-6 and 1-5 in the remaining three games that summer on his way to becoming top scorer in the championship.
2009 was close to the peak for the McGeeney era and Doyle was at the heart of the Kildare team as they were involved in one of the best Leinster finals of the new century against Dublin. However, Doyle and his team mates were left distraught as they lost that game and then had their interests in the championship ended at the All-Ireland quarter-final stage at the hands of Tyrone.
Now that the book has closed on Doyle’s career, 2010 will be the year that will be remembered with most regret. This was the mercurial Doyle at his best and he scored 1-49 in eight championship games to again finish as the country’s top scorer as Kildare overcame a Leinster quarter-final defeat to Louth to go within inches of an All-Ireland final. The All-Ireland semi-final day was one of heartbreak for Kildare, from Tomas O’Connor’s wrongly disallowed goal to Johnny being led from the pitch in floods of tears after Rob Kelly’s late free had crashed against the bar.
One memory from that game lingers, near the end when Kildare desperately needed some inspiration, Doyle seemed to almost rise above the Hogan Stand to claim a ball that a midfielder six inches taller than him wouldn’t have expected to win. He stretched every muscle and sinew in his body to win that ball but ultimately no matter what he put his body through, it wasn’t enough to guide his team to victory when it mattered most and that proved to be a microcosm for his Kildare career. His performances that year earned him a much treasured and much deserved All-Star award but Doyle was never one to chase individual honours, it was all about the team glory for him.
2011 proved the selflessness of Doyle when he once again put the team’s needs above his own. With various problems at midfield, Kildare again turned to Doyle for inspiration and as always he didn’t let anybody down. With Doyle at midfield, Kildare were seconds away from forcing a replay against Dublin in a Leinster semi-final before a controversial refereeing decision. The team then lost another game for the ages in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Donegal. That loss to Jim McGuinness’ team also brought to an end Doyle’s run of scoring in 50 successive championship games.
Kildare never reached those heights again in the final two years of McGeeney’s tenure but Doyle was a constant presence. Somebody who could still be relied on to deliver on the pitch but also an invaluable member of the dressing room amongst a squad with a number of talented young players. Many of those young players have got on record to say how big an influence Doyle was to him even before they joined up with the Kildare squad. Once they did, they realised that Doyle wasn’t just a legend of a player but he was also a legend of a man.