Vincent Hogan on Jimmy Doyle: 'His greatness was always destined to outlive him, but this sudden passing still sends a throb of sadness though the game'
He was to have been a goalkeeper, a follower of his father's flame, but Jimmy Doyle was too exotic a bird to cage.
At just 14, he guarded Tipperary's net in the 1954 All-Ireland minor final. He'd got there learning from the best, climbing up the bank behind the Killinan goal in Semple Stadium to retrieve sliotars for Tony Reddin. "I'll make a goalkeeper out of you yet," the great Lorrha man would tell him.
And Reddin did.
But Dublin beat Tipp in that '54 final and, coming down the road afterwards with his great Thurles CBS mentor, Brother Dooley, a young boy's question would change the course of hurling history. "Brother, any chance you'd put me out the field?" asked Jimmy Doyle.
One year later, he scored 2-8 as Tipp beat Galway to take the minor All-Ireland.
In the week of the '09 senior final between Kilkenny and Tipperary, I drove Doyle to Carrick-on-Suir and back for a lunch with Kilkenny legend Eddie Keher, and the great Waterford full-back Austin Flynn. The privilege of being in such company was offset by the easy humility of all three.
Jimmy Doyle never wore his past like a uniform. He had a quiet, intense quality you could only, essentially, get past by re-directing the focus towards others.
All of the silverware he won could never decommission a gentle, unbreachable shyness. And sitting, listening to his stories, you had to remind yourself that here was a man whose genius flamed brightest against the overt intimidation that hurling in his time wore as its dark underside. No bigger in stature than a jockey, he became a giant by his deeds.
Doyle often spoke of the greatest Tipp team of them all, the side of the Sixties that claimed four All-Irelands in five years, as "a band of brothers".
But his devotion began with Reddin and the team of the '50s. That day in Carrick-on-Suir, he talked of the famous '59 Munster semi-final against Waterford in Cork, a contest turned wildly eccentric by a quarrelsome gale. At half-time, Waterford led 8-2 to 0-0. Not believing what they were hearing in Dublin, RTÉ reputedly dispatched someone to the nearest Garda station for confirmation.
Tipp had won the toss, opting to face the wind on an assumption that the game would take maybe 10 or 15 minutes to find a meaningful pulse. It took that long to bury them.
"I went home after that beating and spent the whole night crying," Jimmy told us.
He cared, if anything, too deeply for Tipperary, recalling how he couldn't physically speak for maybe four hours after their '08 All-Ireland semi-final loss to Waterford. But his love was never blind. Because Jimmy Doyle's unashamed hurling hero was a Cork man. He recalled following Christy Ring around as a child whenever the Rebels hurled in Thurles. "I'd go up to the hotel and watch him eating his dinner," recalled Doyle.
"Then he'd go down for a walk in the square, down by Hayes' Hotel, and I'd follow him. He didn't know, I followed him all over the town.
"You know, when the big matches would be over above in the pitch, I used bring up me hurley and ball and hide under these concrete seats until all the crowd was gone out of the field. Then I'd go out and play into an empty goal as Christy Ring."
They became good friends in later years, getting to know one another as Munster team-mates in the Railway Cup. And Doyle would, undoubtedly, have been touched by 'Babs' Keating's story on yesterday's Sean O'Rourke programme, recalling Ring's observation to him that any debate on who was the greatest hurler of all time would have been left redundant had Jimmy Doyle been born bigger.
Six years ago, he told us a lovely story about Ring.
Years after they'd both finished playing, Glen Rovers had come to Thurles one Friday to play Sarsfields in a challenge game. Jimmy brought his son, Walter, across to Semple Stadium from that little bungalow in the shadow of the Kinane Stand.
At the back of the stand, they found Ring sitting in his car. On hearing that Walter was Doyle's son, Ring got out, took a hurley and ball from the boot, signed them and gave them to the boy. Jimmy looked into Ring's car and there, in a basket on the back seat, was his baby daughter.
Some years ago, he was at a book launch in Cork when a girl approached him. "Hello Jimmy, how are you?" she smiled. "You don't know me, but I'm Christy Ring's daughter!"
"Imagine," he grinned. "The little one that was in the basket!"
Jimmy Doyle loved the game of hurling, but not as much as he loved the bond it created endlessly between men. His greatness was always destined to outlive him, but this sudden passing still sends a throb of sadness though the game.
A giant has slipped into the next room.