JOHN Doyle played his last game for Kildare on 6 April 2014, a meaningless league game against Westmeath. No frills, no fuss: his Senior career ended as quietly as it began. Six years on, his story continues to fascinate.
by Brendan Coffey
They never thought much of him in the gym.
‘Here’s a 5kg weight. Not too heavy is it?’
Those latter years, Emmet Bolton led the jeering, but John Doyle had spent a lifetime learning how to deal with wisecracks. At school in Newbridge, this gangly lad coming in from the country was cheap fodder for the townies: ‘The smell of the bog off ya.’
His early tormentors would later become teammates in the hothouse world of Post Primary football. There and then, it was enough to return an insult with typical teenage bluster: ‘The stink of the Liffey off ya.’
The young fella from Allen was a curiosity when he first arrived in Patrician Secondary School. His obsession with football often bemused others. Even Dermot Earley, son of a Roscommon icon, found it hard to fathom.
‘Tony McManus was some player,’ Doyle might say to him.
Dumbfounded, Earley mentioned it to his mother: ‘I met this guy in school and he knows everything about football.’
Doyle the man looks back on those novice years with fondness: ‘Sure, I just talked football the whole time. I remember going up to Earleys and seeing all the Puma King boots. I was like: “I have to get a pair of Puma King football boots. You’re not a footballer without Puma King football boots.” I remember getting my first pair one Christmas and that was it: “I’ve arrived now.” I still couldn’t kick it out of my way but I was wearing the right boots.’
His friendship with Earley, fostered by football, deepened through their inter county days. While their Senior careers overlapped, Doyle’s trajectory was different. Earley had the name and quickly made his name. He played in the 1998 All Ireland Final as a 20 year old. Doyle was overlooked for the county minors and Earley had to console him when he failed to make the Kildare U21 team.
‘I had been playing centre half forward in challenge matches and was going reasonably well,’ Doyle notes. ‘I was dropped for the first game against Wexford. I got into the car and cried: “Why the fuck is it always me?” I remember Dermot coming out to me and the tears were in my eyes, and I said: “F**k it, Der.” He says: “Don’t worry. You’ll get your chance.” There was a couple of times like that I did get completely frustrated: “Why am I always the hard luck story?” But then you forget about it.’
Long before John Doyle became his county’s most recognisable player, he stood among throngs of Kildare fans, captivated. His family were swept along by the wave of Lilywhite euphoria during the rollercoaster years of the late 1990s. Harry, the da, led the charge. John, only boy among a house of three girls, naturally fell in.
‘The ’98 team was massive,’ he remembers. ‘The times in Croke Park, we used to go up the night before. The buzz around was just phenomenal. The fact that Dermot was on the team and Ken [Doyle], you threw the shoulders back. And you made sure to say Ken was a cousin, not just a second cousin.’
Local pride is a recurring theme in the John Doyle story. Club was the scope of Doyle’s ambition, initially, which reflects an unassuming nature. Then again, football conditioned him to be humble.
‘You never had any big idea about yourself,’ he insists. ‘It wasn’t a case of you were brilliant at U14 and U16. You were so far off the radar. You just went out to play football.’
To say he grew up in simpler times is cliché. But it is true to say his heart never left home: ‘I probably was a bit unusual. Everything was playing football. When it came to college and there were work placements in Holland, which was a big growing country, I went to the local nursery because I wanted to be around for football. And it wasn’t a case of playing for the County Minors. I wasn’t even thinking that way. I just wanted to be around for the club. I loved it.’
Trace a line through the 1980s and Kildare football appears stubbornly flat. The Leinster Final remained off limits throughout that decade.
‘Kildare wasn’t as glamorous as it is now,’ says Doyle. ‘There was no big thing: “Oh, I’d love to play with Kildare.” It was more the club. There was a fair chance that if you showed any bit of promise you might make the club team. It was a numbers game.’
Allenwood, and Na Fianna at Minor level, afforded him the chance to articulate his feeling for the game. The pitch provided a medium for his passion: ‘I just didn’t have anything else other than playing football. I never stopped to think: “Oh, where is this going to take me?” That never entered my mind. I just loved playing it and loved being involved. I couldn’t get enough of it. That time, we’d play Minor on a Sunday morning and then the Seniors played at 3pm. You would have played both matches and if there was another one that evening, sure bring it on.’
He emerged from the 1980s with an upbeat perspective. The Doyles were not immune to the volatility of Ireland’s economy but John’s childhood followed the typical patterns of that era: football in the schoolyard, pram wheels on go karts, cassettes for computer consoles.
‘You’d love to be back there now,’ he senses. ‘John Wiltshire got a Commodore 64. He was my best buddy growing up. That was big news but we got fed up playing that after a while and we went back playing football. They were really innocent times but it was great. And it’s not that long ago.’
But memories are tinted by all shades: ‘The father worked in Black and Decker and that closed [in 1983]. And that was a big hit. I remember it closing. I would have been about 6. Daddy was a fitter and he was in and out of jobs. He worked in Wyeth and he finished up with Bord na Móna. Daddy would have had a good few contacts through the GAA and that’s probably what happened. Recession wasn’t a word that was used.’
Locally, the climate was prosperous: the sweat of honest labour on his back through teenage summers.
‘I think I was 12 or 13 when I worked in the nurseries,’ he recalls. ‘The tunnels were very warm. There was mighty craic. You’d have to give up a few bob to the mother. You didn’t need any money. Mam wasn’t working. There was four of us at home. That was just the way it was. You didn’t feel like you were deprived or anything.’
From there, he plotted a route to Piltown, County Kilkenny. Kildalton College offered a chance to study Horticulture, which seemed an obvious path to take. John Doyle was nothing if not practical.
‘Fruit class in the morning and you could be pruning apple trees in the afternoon,’ he recounts. ‘It was a brilliant way of learning. I used to come home every weekend and work on the Saturday.’
Doyle took a similar approach to his football skills. He wanted to make himself valuable. But he had to find a way around the game’s inbuilt biases. Never the strongest and certainly not the biggest, he needed something no team could do without.
‘There was no frees from the hand that time and I used to practice all the time,’ he states. ‘There were times lads came in and were kicking frees but it was always in the back of my head: “I’m going to be a better freetaker than you.” It’s the competitiveness that was in you.’
Practice took place beside the house. Plastic ball at his feet, he fashioned a convoluted routine: ‘There was a lean to shed and the gable of the other shed. And there was a hedge there. I used to have a board across from the lean to and the hedge. I’d be trying to hit the gable and get the ball to come back down. The board would bring the ball back down into the yard. If you mishit it, then it would go over the hedge and it would be into briars.’
Wides usually led to punctures: ‘There’d often be a thorn in it. We’d a range and it would always be on to heat the water. You’d go in and get the poker. Redden the poker, take out the thorn and then you’d rub the poker across the top of the plastic to seal it. It sounds so primitive.’
Back inside, the glory days of Kerry football kept him entertained. Like so many of that era, his television experience of GAA was dominated by the original Golden Years video, which covered the period from 1975 to 1986. The novelty of that production is hard to credit now. Live coverage of GAA was then limited to the All Ireland series.
‘I could watch it twice a week,’ Doyle admits. ‘There was a neighbour, Frank Dunne, who got it and gave it to the father, and I don’t think it ever went back. It was the only football video you had.’
This memory triggers more scenes from the past: ‘I’m nearly embarrassed to say it but we had a television in the kitchen and we had a black and white one in the sitting room for a while. That’s only early ‘80s. Lads would be slagging me for being old but I remember the first remote control telly and you had to plug the remote into the television into it with just a wire sticking out of it. You can imagine telling an 18-year-old that.’
Then, as now, his credibility does not depend on material things. Football long ago gave him status beyond Allen Cross. School taught him just how transformative sport can be: altering perception, elevating rank, conferring approval.
‘For me, it was the leveller,’ he grants/accepts. ‘The townies would be streetwise and I was from the country. Phillie Wolfe from Moorefield was in my class. Phillie would be slagging you off about the bog. You’d think once you got over the railway bridge going out of Newbridge, the world dropped off. The first day the U14s trained, you got to know all these lads. There was a little bit of social acceptance then.’
Once the ball appeared, everything changed.
‘I remember being asked to go into train with Kildare,’ he begins. ‘We got to the County Final in 1999. Beaten on the Sunday. Myself and David Hughes went in to train on the Tuesday night. I probably had it in my head that I’m going to give this a good rattle but I’m not going to be in there to make up numbers and miss playing with Allenwood.’
In this frame of mind, John Doyle set out with Kildare. Within a year, he was on the frees in a Leinster final at Croke Park. What happened?
‘I never got ahead of myself,’ he suggests, but he never feared opportunity either.
No circumstance, however unconventional, could faze him. 1995 dawned and nothing much stirred. Even the club were hesitant. Na Fianna – the underage amalgamation that brought Allenwood together with their parish neighbours Ballyteague, Milltown and Robertstown – considered him for the U21s after a fashion.
‘Na Fianna were playing Naas in a challenge match,’ he remembers. ‘I was sitting on the hill and they were warming up. Frank Moran, who was a selector, said to me: “Do you want a match? Naas are short.” I came in and played for Naas. Scored a few points.’
After the game, Moran invited him into the fold: ‘I trained away. Didn’t think I was doing anything spectacular. First match was against Clane. I never thought I’d be even close to it. Corner forward. We went on and won the championship that year. I played every match and ended up taking the frees.’
Club credentials were franked during the run to 1999’s County Final. By the time Mick O’Dwyer came calling, Doyle was much closer to the mark than he thought.
‘I probably wasted a couple of years early on,’ he concedes. ‘I was there a year or two before I decided: “Jesus, I am good enough to be here.” I was a bit in awe of the whole thing. Because of the fact I had been so into Kildare in ’97 and ’98.’
Kildare was still in a carnival mood when Doyle joined the panel. History frames that period as a glorious outlier but moving from the stalls to the stage obscured his view of the show. O’Dwyer carried the stamp of Kerry gold. His easy charm and glinting confidence convinced in a county thirsting success.
‘If Micko told me to go out naked, I would have gone out,’ Doyle acknowledges.
His seamless transition to the Senior team, after so much time toiling in the shadows, suggested an overnight sensation. One season and he slips a Leinster medal in his pocket?
No Lily his age aired such notions: ‘Initially, it was a great honour to play with Kildare, but then you start thinking: “What do I want out of it? Was it enough to just turn up Tuesday and Thursday and see what happens?” I never saw myself getting an All Star. I never saw myself making Leinster teams.’
Much else he could not envisage. No player would dare to think his debut season the high point. Doyle played in two of the next three provincial finals, losing both (Dublin in ’02, Laois in ’03), and spent six years trying to get back there. By 2009, Kieran McGeeney was in his second season as manager.
Doyle knew his first manager as a kind of footballing shaman. McGeeney was more like a revolutionary figure: ‘He would have challenged me and Dermot and pushed us harder. I would have often said: “For f**k sake, what about some of the others?” His thing was: “You’re the leaders and if you set the bar, the boys will follow.” And it took me a while to get around to that way of thinking.’
McGeeney tried to bring about a sea change in the culture. Once his methods took effect, Kildare rose from consistent underachievers to serious contenders. The 2009 Leinster Final, when his adopted county scored 18 points from play, was a taste of things to come. That performance, even though it ended in defeat, opened up a world of possibilities.
‘He made me think about my game more,’ Doyle attests. ‘He made me realise you can be a lot better than you think you can be. I changed my thinking. I would have challenged myself more.’
He brought this new mindset to bear on teammates as well: ‘There would have been times I would have had strong words with lads: “If I go to Geezer now and tell him I want you gone, that’s it. That’s good enough for him.” There would have been that conversation had on a couple of occasions.’
What at first was not apparent gradually became clear: player and manager were kindred spirits with different accents. Their affinity sometimes caused friction elsewhere. Inter county football is a different milieu for a married man.
‘I’d blame Geezer for it if I spent too long kicking footballs after training,’ Doyle discloses. ‘You might come in at 11.30pm: “Where the hell were you?” We had plenty of debates about it.’
Siobhán Tallon had strong GAA connections in St Laurence’s before her future husband came on the scene. Her nieces and nephews starred with club and county. But there was more to their conversations than weary complaints.
‘We’d debate football,’ John reveals. ‘It wasn’t a case of “We’re in now, don’t talk about football”. I remember her getting on to me: “You haven’t been throwing in the dummy solo anymore. Why not?” It’d leave you thinking about different things. She loved going to matches. She’d be a fairly decent reader of the game and she’d see things.’
His career progressed into another decade and from it emerged a remarkable second act. Kildare’s run to the 2010 All Ireland semi final secured Doyle his All Star, an accolade warmly welcomed across the country, as if it had been awarded not for one player but for underdogs everywhere. He represented a grade rarely acknowledged at that level.
The sad thing for Doyle was the way it ended for the man who had pushed him to those heights. Despite his strong connection with the players, McGeeney struggled to win hearts and minds outside the camp. His fractious relationship with officialdom turned bitter in 2013. Kildare bowed out of the championship in June, losing to Tyrone in Newbridge.
After six years at the helm, McGeeney’s future was put before a County Board meeting the following September. Amid disputes about voting eligibility, the proposal to give him an additional two year term failed by one vote, 28 to 29.
‘I thought he was very badly treated,’ Doyle stresses. ‘I felt people were voting against Kieran McGeeney on the basis that Ger Donnelly didn’t call off a match when they had lads going on a stag. Fine if the powers that be felt he had brought the team as far as he could. To give him one year or not was another argument. It was the way it was done. I was hurting for Kieran because I knew what Kildare meant to him. Kieran had no agenda, only success for Kildare. He was upset because he felt the job wasn’t finished.’
Loyalty to McGeeney aside, Doyle recognised there were conflicting views within the panel: ‘There was people in the team who wouldn’t have had the same relationship as I had with him. Some maybe felt it was time for a new voice.’
His retirement took the public by surprise. Perhaps it was inevitable that Doyle would quickly follow his former manager out the door. Like McGeeney, the circumstances were hardly ideal: a final round league win against Westmeath with both sides already relegated.
‘I put out a few soundbites,’ Doyle clarifies. ‘I said it to Niamh, my older sister, that she might just bounce it off Harry: “I don’t know whether John is enjoying this.” I said it to him the week before Derry [30 March]: “Dad, I’m going to finish out the league. The drive is not there. The hunger is not there.” He wanted me to stick around for the championship: “I think you’re selling yourself short.” He thought I was still good enough to be on the team.’
John agreed, which was part of the dilemma.
‘I’m being selfish now,’ Harry eventually allowed. ‘I want you to be there. I know if it came to the end of the year, I’d be trying to convince you to stay for another year.’
Just like that he was gone, walking out the gates of St Conleth’s Park in the company of his family. The crowd had already left, oblivious to the news.
For years, Harry travelled to County training with Pat Cronly, a loyal friend and supporter from home. They were Kildare ultras in the best possible sense. Doyle’s departure rocked their world too.
Cronly was still there when Doyle reported for club duty. Back in Allenwood, they talked about the change.
‘It won’t be the same,’ John ventured.
‘Won’t be the same for any of us,’ Pat replied, unable to hide his deflation.
Perhaps it was easier for Doyle to return to normality. In truth, he lived there all along: ‘I don’t think I’ve changed a whole lot. I am who I am. Just because I play a bit of football. I’d be a very ordinary chap.’
Christy Moore, his favourite musician, often sang about men like him.