Jimmy Doyle was number one . . . he was the Lionel Messi of hurling
All the skill would have counted for nothing without his unstinting courage
"I always played the ball - I never hit anyone."
With cunning, flair, and wrists as fluent as the feet that carried him, Jimmy Doyle forged a highly distinguished career, rewarded with six All-Ireland medals spanning the period 1958 to 1971.
The era was characterised by furious hip-to-hip combat, but mixing it was not a viable proposition for a player of Doyle's lighter physique. A hurler in the purest sense, he survived and thrived, working off lightning-fast wits and impeccable wrists. "He was tied together; he had a lot of injuries," said his old Thurles Sarsfields and Tipperary comrade Tony Wall.
How Doyle played the game matters as much as what he achieved. He demonstrated his precocity when appearing on the county minor team at 14 as a goalkeeper, before moving out the field the next year and serving three more seasons at the grade. He won his first senior All-Ireland in 1958, his last in 1971, and in between Tipperary produced a brand of hurling that for a couple of years made them untouchable. If the Hell's Kitchen label had currency, Doyle was the most obvious rejoinder, as he glided about with sweet grace amongst the behemoths of the time.
In the 1962 All-Ireland final against Wexford, a shattering hit broke his collarbone and he was unable to climb the steps to receive the McCarthy Cup as captain. "He didn't avoid that one," says Wall. "I collected the cup when he was knocked out. He came to me, and said, 'I can't go up, will you take the cup and accept it?', and I brought it back to him. I think there was a photo of him lying on the stretcher with the cup."
But he was elusive for the most part. He'd ride challenges like all the special players for whom skill will, and must, always triumph over the attempts at negation by cruder means. "He saw them out of the corner of his eye," says Wall, "but he was absolutely fearless and he didn't shirk anything. Someone said (at the funeral) that he was the Messi of hurling which seems to be apt. He had great balance and never fumbled a ball."
Len Gaynor went beyond sport for comparison, choosing Van Gogh. Doyle didn't lose an ear playing hurling, but he didn't emerge unscathed either, and all the skill in the world would have counted for nothing were it not accompanied by unstinting courage.
In 1961 his fanaticism after suffering a double ankle fracture in the Munster final win over Cork is not all that removed from the efforts made by Henry Shefflin to play in the All-Ireland final five years ago. Both men, in their desperation to hurl, sought to defy medical logic and convention. Doyle needed six pain-killing injections to play against Dublin and lined out six weeks after receiving the injury. He should have been in plaster for two months. After four weeks, he removed the cast and started walking using a support crutch. He managed to score 0-9 in a narrow win in September to collect his second medal.
He was to some extent a disciple of Christy Ring and had a fascination with the Cloyne man that had him observe him hurl with obsessive interest. Though Doyle hurled left-handed, his natural grip, his free-taking style was similar to Ring's - a very smooth stroke with minimal ceremony; he coursed through the ball, light as a breeze.
In battle they were much different. Doyle didn't have the power to drive through players, but he had a repertoire of skills which would guarantee an immortal renown and affection among followers well beyond his native Thurles and Tipperary. Selection on the GAA teams of the centenary and the millennium confirmed his place at the upper end of the hurling hierarchy.
"All our other players were hardy," says Wall. "He was less robust than most, but he'd have it gone before they got to him. Jimmy was that bit more classy. Mackey would go through you, but Jimmy would go round you."
For Thurles Sarsfields, a powerful club team of the time, he won 11 county medals. "We played an intelligent game, particularly with the club. We were better at doing that kind of combination stuff, we did more passing," recalls Wall. "I remember playing country teams, like Holycross, and they'd see we had small lads in the forwards and they were probably thinking, 'We'll murder them'. They never beat us. We were slipping balls past them.
"He ran off points when nobody else could get them. You had a much heavier ball then and he got many a goal past defences from 21s. He could swerve it; he'd hit a spot in the top left corner. By and large he evaded the heavy tackles and took the ball with him. I was talking to someone at the funeral and he spoke of how he faded away from markers; when they thought they had him, he faded."
Somehow inseparable from this gift for hurling was a personality that had a boyish innocence that never seemed to sunder or become corrupted. "He was an unassuming fella who had this natural talent, dedicated to hurling. He hurled when he shouldn't be hurling, taking pain injections, which was for the birds, but he had to play," says Wall. "He had a one-track mind as regards hurling. Nobody had a bad word to say to him, and he never hit anybody or got involved in a fracas with anybody or drew back and retaliated. He never showed any anger. If anything, he was too nice."
Writing about Doyle when he announced his retirement in 1970, the Gaelic games journalist Pádraig Puirséal made the observation that his pace slowed after playing injured in the 1961 All-Ireland final. But the fluidity of movement remained intact, and in 1965 he was voted Hurler of the Year. In 1961, '64 and '65 he was part of the Tipperary teams that made a clean sweep of national league, Munster, All-Ireland and Oireachtas titles.
"Jimmy Doyle loved hurling, and the real proof of this lies in the fact that he was prepared to suffer for it, and did," Michael Dundon, a lifetime friend and journalist, noted in 1971. "Nobody ever went through all he did and had such a long career. At times opponents were not too scrupulous as to how they curbed him, and the injuries started to come."
In May 1970, during the Munster Railway Cup team's American trip, news of Doyle's retirement surfaced. Dundon said he timed it so that the fuss would have ceased by the time he got back to Ireland and he would not be badgered into changing his mind. "Jimmy wanted to get out because he was getting too many serious injuries," Dundon wrote at the time. "A married man with three children, he could not afford to miss work through injury, and he was determined not to."
Tipperary went down narrowly to Cork in the Munster Championship that year. Their forwards wasted chances, and the cry went out to bring Doyle back. When Cork went on to win the All-Ireland, the chorus grew louder. He returned the following year but hurt his back and aggravated the injury in a league quarter-final against Kildare. He missed much of the championship but came on during the All-Ireland final against Kilkenny to win his final medal. There was still time for a final cameo as a goalkeeper in the 1973 championship against Waterford.
"It was like a religion," the player himself said of hurling. "I loved it. I was in the field day and night. I lived from match to match; it was everything to me."
At 76, his passing was sudden and unexpected. "I was shocked and surprised," says Wall, who has been resident in Dublin for many years. "I don't go down that often, but when I met him the last time he was much better, fitter than he had been years ago. He was going for four-mile walks every morning, he was in great form. We had a reunion of the 1964-'65 teams last year where we all met up."
Donie Nealon was equally saddened, having played in the same forward line. "There will be a huge void after Jimmy in Tipperary hurling circles," he says. "In my opinion he was always the number one, in every respect. He had it every way; tremendous control of the ball and he could control a ball coming at any angle. As we say here in Tipp, he had great hands. And of course it came from continual practice as a young lad growing up on his own. He was a lovely person to play with, he was generous with the ball if he was in trouble, and he was very supportive and modest all the time about his own talents and achievements. He was a lovely guy."
Gaynor marked him in training so had intimate acquaintance. "He was such a master hurler," he said. "He relied on skill. His quickness of handing, his control of the ball were exceptional. He was hurling in tough times and he was still able to beat his opponents and get the scores. He was watched closely because he was always the danger man - you could tackle very hard that time. He was able for that. He was a light guy and smallish and was able to hold his own with these big guys who were marking him - in a time when you had third-man tackles, all kinds of tackles. And I would say he was exceptionally brave as well.
"He didn't repeat the same thing, try the same thing twice. He would pull on one, he would catch one, he would spray the ball around. He was a team player all the way. He had great colleagues around him - they were good hurlers, but Jimmy was exceptional even in that group.
"I marked him a lot. He would be on my wing more or less. That is why I knew him so well. I found it very hard to get near him. By God, was he energised when the ball was thrown in and nobody could rattle him. Hurling was his life.
"I feel it very much now with Jimmy gone. I was friendly but would not be meeting him that often, only rarely, but I was flabbergasted. It is a link gone and it is a comrade gone. When you go through battles and working together, there is a bond that builds up and it is hard to break that. And it is broken now the leading man is gone out of that group. It doesn't cross your mind that these guys are going to die until they are gone. They were almost infallible on the field. But we are all very much mortal."
In Jimmy Doyle's case that is only partly true.
Sunday Indo Sport