'His desire for success really does brush off on everyone else. It's contagious'
Doyle aiming to continue his remarkable record with Wexford teams in tomorrow’s U-21 decider
Published 11/09/2015 | 02:30
"He hasn't won (a men's) senior yet but JJ Doyle is still the most successful Wexford manager of all time. Some Wexford people might not agree but it's a fact." - Liam Griffin
JJ Doyle's introduction into management came completely out of leftfield. Of the nine years Doyle served in the priesthood before retiring, he spent six-and-a-half years in Gorey. He was chaplain to the Loreto Primary School in the town, and while there was no camogie club, the school was involved in the Rackard League (the county primary schools championships).
Doyle attended all the matches because he was trying to get to know the parents through the school. Some parents knew he was hurling with Gorey and asked if he'd be interested in restarting the camogie club. Originally from Marshalstown, it was another ideal way to stitch himself deeper into the fabric of the Gorey community.
The club - Naomh Éanna - first entered teams at U-12 and U-14 in 2001. By 2004, they had squads at U-12, U-14, U-16 and minor, as well as adult, winning every competition that year at Premier level. In Doyle's six years with them, Gorey won 23 county titles. During that process, every team was elevated from Division 3 to Premier grade. Doyle made more than just a connection; he fostered and helped grow a whole new culture.
That success served notice of Doyle's ability but he still had no real status. After Stella Sinnott stepped down as senior camogie manager in 2009, they interviewed a number of candidates before one of the committee, who happened to know Doyle, asked if he might be interested. Doyle was but taking the job was still a huge leap in the dark.
Doyle held his first meeting with the players on December 21, 2009 in Enniscorthy. The only player he knew was Lenny Holohan because she was teaching in Gorey. Doyle couldn't connect names to faces. He wasn't the only one.
"I had never even heard of JJ's name," says Mary Leacy, the decorated Wexford camogie player. "When the management team came into the meeting, I didn't even know which fella JJ was. But after that first meeting, and first training session, I knew exactly who JJ Doyle was."
In their entire history, Wexford had only won four All-Ireland senior titles. Doyle guided Wexford to three in a row between 2010-2012. Wexford had never won an Intermediate title but Doyle also led the county to their first All-Ireland title in 2011.
A year after losing an All-Ireland U-21 final to Clare, Doyle goes searching again for his first All-Ireland hurling title as Wexford face Limerick tomorrow evening. Wexford's last title was in 1965 but Doyle has guided Wexford to three Leinster titles in a row, something the county hadn't achieved in 44 years.
"It's no surprise to me that the U-21s have done so well because JJ is just so professional," says Leacy. "There's something special about JJ because he can get the absolute best out of everyone. He really instils a huge belief. You know before you play a match that you're going to win. He treats everyone equally and that's why everyone has so much respect for him."
No matter where Doyle has gone, success has followed. He inherited good players but Doyle's success rate has still smashed all modern convention and trends.
"JJ is very single-minded," says Liam Griffin. "Everyone always thinks single-minded people are stubborn but I don't agree. If you want to be a leader, you have to be single-minded. You might often be wrong but it is better to be right nine times out of ten than be wishy-washy ten times. JJ has very strong views. And his results prove that he's a real leader."
What makes Doyle even more unique is how he used camogie as a learning ground for hurling management. As a player, he had limited inter-county experience to draw on. He was a substitute on the Wexford minor team which lost the 1992 Leinster final to Kilkenny. Despite his camogie achievements, Doyle initially had to deal with that inherent GAA snobbery which distrusts managers who haven't played at the highest level.
Current Wexford senior hurler Ian Byrne played four years at U-21 level. He was in his final year when Doyle took over in 2013.
"For JJ to come in and for it to be his first dealings with a men's team at this level, of course there was huge doubt there," he says. "But JJ wasn't long turning that doubt into trust. There is no stone left unturned in trying to achieve what he wants. His desire for success really does brush off on everyone else. It's contagious."
The spiritual journey Doyle has undertaken in life has clearly strengthened his ability to lead. After enrolling in an accountancy course in Waterford IT, Doyle switched to the seminary at St Peter's College before transferring to Maynooth in 1998 when it took over the training of priests for the diocese of Ferns.
After being ordained a deacon in 2000, Doyle went on a work placement to a hospital in England before being ordained a priest in 2001. After spending over six years in Gorey, Doyle became curate in Ballymitty in 2008. In early 2009, he applied to the diocese for leave for discernment, which allowed him take time out to determine his future. Doyle decided to follow a new path.
In a different form, Doyle has just been preaching to a new flock ever since. "JJ has a high moral compass," says Griffin.
"For all the knocking of the priesthood, he obviously took in a lot from the training as part of his personality. He didn't just join the priesthood and stay with it for nearly a decade for the craic. I like that about him. I like his single-mindedness.
"JJ has high standards and he'd have high personal standards. He has a lot of self-confidence now too because of his achievements. He'd be proud of himself and he behaves with great dignity. He's certainly not egotistical, it's never all about JJ.
"He will be the natural heir to Liam Dunne as senior manager whenever Liam finishes up. And he will wait his turn because JJ is not the type of fella to go around agitating or gerrymandering for the job.
"To the best of my knowledge, he's not that type of fella. He's a private person and he would never let Wexford down in any shape or form."
Byrne says that Doyle can bare his claws and reveal his growl when he has to. Leacy has seen that side of him too but his empathy, his ability to connect with people, to gain their trust, reinforces his capacity to get the most out of people.
"JJ's a seriously determined fella but I always found him really approachable," says Byrne.
"I remember talking to some of the lads one night after a match and they all said that it was great to be able to say how you feel. If you were feeling down, you could say it to JJ."
"When he was shouting and roaring on the sideline, I couldn't picture him as a priest," says Leacy.
"But JJ's just so easy-going. He's a gentleman. You could always approach him. If there was stuff going on in your life that was affecting you, JJ was always good at giving you advice. He's brilliant at encouraging people and building up your confidence, especially during a championship."
Doyle has a huge hunger to succeed but his approach to management is framed by his holistic view on life.
It's about the bigger picture; the welfare of the player; the spirit of the group; the spirit of the individual; the greater good. Everything is interconnected but the greater good is often a purer form of success than cups or medals.
After stepping down from the camogie job in 2013 and taking over the U-21s, the Wexford camogie team were in crisis in June 2013. They had no manager. They were in a negative, downward spiral, seemingly going nowhere.
Six days before the championship began, Doyle returned. He resuscitated the group and brought them to an All-Ireland semi-final.
"We had some great days with JJ, some brilliant moments, some inspirational speeches but I thought so much of him for coming back to us that time," says Leacy. "We were very low but it wasn't about winning; JJ's primary thought was on Wexford camogie. He came back just to get us through that season. It showed that he genuinely cared about us."
Doyle has a different vocation now but his word still reaches a wide audience. As a county GAA coach, he has the ears of Wexford's youth. And they listen.
Recently, he came into Gorey Community School, where Leacy teaches, to speak to the first years for their induction day. Leacy noticed the kids being captured by Doyle's words and unique manner, the same way she and her team-mates were taken in the first night they met him in 2009. The respect he gained was total. Everyone looked up to him.
And this time, everyone knew who Doyle was.