Luke Wade is an 11-year-old from Old Parish, Co Waterford who is entranced by football. So you would expect his favourite player to be Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan, Seán Cavanagh, Michael Dara MacAuley, Stephen O’Neill, Colm O’Neill or Michael Murphy.
But Luke downloads photos of Johnny Doyle on his aunt’s iPad and has a Kildare jersey with the Allenwood totem’s name above the number 13 on the back. This week, amidst all the hoopla surrounding his retirement, Doyle made the kid’s year by autographing that jersey.
That pretty much encapsulates Johnny Doyle’s appeal. He was more than a footballer with skill and talent. He was a guarantee. You knew exactly what you were getting. Not just in the game, but in the preparation. He did it right and was acutely aware that he was just a player in a bigger game.
The responsibility he felt was his essence, woven into his fabric as a result of following his father Harry around in the Allenwood dressing room, and the treasured memory of running onto St Conleth’s Park as mascot when the Blues won the intermediate championship in 1991.
Sharing a bus with Harry, Pat Mangan, Ollie Crinnigan, Liam Balfe, Tommy Carew and co when Kildare won the over 40s All-Ireland left an indelible mark, as did the depth of emotion and connection he felt to the Lilywhite cause when Mick O’Dwyer called up his cousins Dermot and Ken Doyle.
Jennifer Malone was one of the many visitors to the Kfm studio on Tuesday morning when a planned hour-long tribute show overran by 30 minutes, such was the depth of feeling Doyle’s retirement had stirred.
Regular visitors to St Conleth’s Park will recognise Jennifer as the girl with Down Syndrome who is invariably in amongst the players as they do their post-match cool downs. You’ll notice a trend here, Johnny Doyle is her favourite.
When she came into the studio to present her hero with a bouquet of flowers, she was heartbroken that she would never see Doyle in the Kildare jersey again. She hugged him fiercely and took some persuading to let go.
“People talk about what it means to play football and what it means to represent your county,” he said on the show, choking up as he attempted to explain his emotions. “The first person that runs out onto the field for a number of years is Jennifer.
“I consider myself lucky to have represented Ireland... But I never forget coming out with the Cormac McAnallen Cup under the Hogan Stand and the security guard came in and said ‘There’s someone here to see ya’ and I got my picture taken with Jennifer. To me that summed up what it meant.”
Even in an era where he acknowledges players are more removed from their supporters because they have less in common, he knows the importance of the connection. He learned to be selfish in terms of being as prepared as he could – too often for his liking at the expense of his family and club – it was a form of selflessness too.
“It’s important that you just didn’t go out there to represent yourself,” he says, sitting in his jeep four hours after the radio show. “You were representing people you never even met. And they got a kick out of it, all over the world.
“I remember reading a book and someone said to Seán Lowry, before what was probably the biggest game in the history of the GAA [the 1982 All-Ireland football final] about the importance of representing. Offaly, people will stick their chests out in New York, Offaly people in Australia will have a pep in their step and their dreams are on your shoulder.
“It is something that has stuck with me for a long time.”
It explains a lot. Doyle came home many times as a young lad and threw his gear in the corner saying he was never going to play again. He didn’t make the Kildare minors and was on the fringes of the U21s. He recalls not being picked for the first round of the championship against Wexford in his last year at the latter grade and crying in his car. His great friend, Dermot Earley came out and told him it would work out.
“You get over those disappointments and you just go again. You go again. You learned that it worked today and for some unknown reason it mightn’t work tomorrow and you just have to put the head down and keep working at it. That’s all I ever knew.”
So he continued to give it everything and he improved as he got older. Better at 30 than 25, better at 32 than 30. Being Johnny, he’ll be quick to say there was a lot of luck along the way, a few breaks. He was “stunned” when Mick O’Dwyer “pulled the rabbit out of the hat” and picked him for the 2000 senior championship, little more than 12 months after that U21 devastation.
“I couldn’t believe it. I actually thought he meant Ken Doyle.”
There was a Leinster title the first year and the only other silverware garnered at inter-county level was a Division 2 medal – he was captain – and a few O’Byrne Cups. But he swears he didn’t take anything for granted after that memorable debut season. And he is certainly in no way bitter.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d ever sit in a Kildare dressing room, let alone lead them out in an All-Ireland final or Leinster final. I just worked hard at it.
“I don’t know if there is such a thing as a natural footballer. I remember talking to Mickey Harte about Stephen O’Neill and he said he works extremely hard. They say the same about the Gooch. He just works hard.
“And that was always in the back of my mind. You can be what you want to be.”
Not getting any major injuries certainly helped. From his championship debut against Louth on June 11, he never missed a championship game, with last year’s qualifier defeat by Tyrone his 67th. Between league and championship, he played 154 times, with only four of those as a substitute. After not scoring in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, he scored in 50 consecutive championship games until the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final. It was remarkable consistency but the motivation that fed it was waning.
“There’s no doubt about it, it was. I didn’t want it to and I mulled it around in my head a long time… I’ve always said that. It’s the stage and you get on and get off. I was on it a long, long time and I was privileged to be there.
“The big thing for me was I preached for a long number of years about the importance of it, the responsibility...You tried to instil that, especially in the younger lads coming through. If you are taking the responsibility, you take it all. You don’t come today and say ‘yeah, that suits me, that doesn’t’. There’s a big responsibility putting on the jersey and I preached that for years.
“When you can’t give that commitment – and I was certainly one that tried anyway to lead by example – when I felt I couldn’t do that, it was time for me to go.”
Already with a two-year-old daughter, the Doyle family grew by two at the end of last year when Johnny’s wife, Siobhán gave birth to twin girls. That was a factor but not the big one. As it happens, Siobhán persuaded him to return to the fold so there would be no regrets. But the drive just wasn’t the same.
So he told Ryan last Thursday week and after failing to persuade him to change his mind, the manager asked him to hold on until the game against Westmeath on Sunday. Doyle appreciated the gesture. He refused to tell the players or make any announcement beforehand though. He didn’t want emotion to affect what was an important game for the squad in terms of rebuilding confidence, and preparing for the championship.
“I got 10 minutes at the end of the game and I enjoyed that. Bar the family and a couple of close friends in the stand, nobody else knew. I got satisfaction, slipped away on my own and it was nice.”
Some sections of the Kildare support made an attempt to read something sinister into the announcement, hinting at a disjointed camp, or a badly-organised one. That agitates him.
“Jason Ryan deserves a lot more respect than that. So do the players. All I can do is state the way it was. It’s up to you to believe it. If you want to believe it you can, if you want to make something else of it sure there’s nothing I can do. But there’s no way it was anything else. It was my time.
“We’re relegated and that’s unfortunate. It’s not the first time and it won’t be the last time. We won a Leinster title in 2000 after being relegated so it’s not the be-all and end-all. There’s a lot of good lads there, a few lads coming right back from injury, mad keen to play football and I don’t think it’s as gloomy a place as some people think it is.”
The highlights reel for the leading championship scorer of 2008 and 2010 (when he won his All Star) is lengthy, but for many, the ultimate was the catch in the dying throes of the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final. Down led by two and Doyle told his club-mate Shane McCormack to send the kickout in his direction.
A slight, just-about six-footer up against Kalum King, the behemoth kickboxer, and a flurry of other bodies. No contest. Doyle soars and fetches cleanly.
“I don’t know what… you were just in the zone. We lost Daryl Flynn in that game after getting a bit of a belt so with him and Dermot gone, we were without our first-choice midfield. So I just said to Shorty ‘just put this one out to me’ and in fairness to him he did and I was lucky enough I ended in the right place at the right time.”
There would be no fairytale ending, as from that passage of play, Rob Kelly’s drive was finger-tipped onto the crossbar and it was Down advancing to an All-Ireland final. The pain seeped out, just as it had done 10 years previously in his car after being left out of the U21 team.
“We were so close. I kicked a lot of ball on my own, up at the school pitch behind the church in Allen. You played your county finals up there on your own, kicking the winning free to beat Sarsfields or kicking the winning penalty in a Leinster final.
“Jesus, we came so close to getting to an All-Ireland. Truth be known, I was thinking about what I’d have said in an acceptance speech, what it would mean and I suppose the emotion poured out of me. Looking back on it, it’s probably a bit embarrassing.”
He could do no more. Luke Wade, Jennifer Malone and thousands of others have been enriched by him and while he didn’t win an All-Ireland, he feels enriched too.
“I said in a meeting one night, ‘I’m fucked up with listening about ’98…time we made our own history’. We got close. Unfortunately we didn’t get there. Sometimes the journey is as good as the destination.
“Obviously the history books will say you never won an All-Ireland medal but if you had one in the morning, maybe it would be in a picture frame or in the wife’s jewellery box. It isn’t the medal in itself. It’s the memories, the friends you meet and I have all them.”