Thursday 23 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: Punching above his weight

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Harry Doyle played his last game of senior football when he was 52. It ended with a juddering thump and a panicked prayer from Ray O'Sullivan on the line that he hadn't condemned his old friend to a night wired up to an IV bag.

Doyle and O'Sullivan had been midfield partners on the Kildare team that won a Leinster u-21 crown in 1972.

This was 32 years later. A late-season league game for Allenwood and the realisation for their manager that numbers would be short. "Ask Harry!" someone said. So, O'Sullivan did.

"We played him full-forward," he recalls now with a chuckle. "He would have been my age at the time, but still very fit and always had the boots in the car. But, mother of God, there was an awful hit on him.

"I thought I'd be going out to pick him up myself."

Harry got up, though. He always did. Morgan O'Callaghan, who served four years as his vice-chairman at Allenwood, suspects there might have been a cracked rib that night, but no-one ever heard for sure.

Harry Doyle wasn't a man to advertise his own pain. In the club, they retain images of the skinny boy who followed him everywhere, always a ball in hand. On evenings when the seniors trained, Harry's young fella would be in the middle of them, kicking points, lining up frees, throwing the manly shapes that seniors throw.

Johnny Doyle was a waif among the juggernauts, yet they warmed to his innocent intensity. And now, as all the late-season garlands come tumbling Johnny's way, they tell you that "it isn't off the ground" he got his sense of mission.

Johnny is 32 and probably playing the best football of his life. A big performance tomorrow should secure him a first All Star award that most people in Kildare protest should already have been his by now. He is, in many ways, a defiant emblem of the team that goes to battle with Down. For the work ethic that references every thread of Kieran McGeeney's thoughts on how football should be played could not find more perfect expression than in the humility of his captain.

Seamus 'Sos' Dowling is the current Allenwood manager and, of course, a link to the last Kildare team to play in an All-Ireland final ('98). He recalls an early season championship game against Suncroft this year.

The county players would have been deep in heavy training under McGeeney and, as such, a long way from their sharpest. One of the Allenwood players went down injured and Doyle instinctively came to the line, suggesting a possible switch.

Dowling recalls: "He came over to me and he was that much out of breath, he could barely talk to me. He was trying to suggest something, but he couldn't really speak he was gasping for air so much.

"He was totally knackered because he was leaving nothing out there. It was just unreal. That was the night I really saw it all. He was up and down the field, trying his heart out, getting belts. Look, he's just a special man. I remember saying it to my father later that night 'Jesus, that man is something'."

In an age when celebrity is bequeathed to mediocrities and when unexceptional types can be remote or socially clumsy, Doyle exudes an easy grace that seems to speak, essentially, of a grounded upbringing.

O'Sullivan, a Sarsfields man, recalls pitching up at a league game maybe three weeks ago and there, running the line for Allenwood, was Johnny Doyle. Morgan O'Callaghan tells a similar story of the Monday night after Kildare's victory over Monaghan, finding Doyle doing linesman at a club game.

Kildare's best footballer seems forever drawn back to the place that moulded him.

He was Allenwood's main man the year they won their only county title ('04), his greatest performance still a matter of conjecture within the club. O'Callaghan mentions a drawn first-round game with Raheens. His younger brother, Niall, disagrees.

Niall O'Callaghan was a team-mate of Doyle's at under-age and senior for the best part of a decade and insists that Johnny's display in the '04 county final against St Laurence's was maybe the one that best synopsised his greatness.

"It was very wet, a dirty enough day," recalls Niall. "I'd say Johnny covered every blade of grass on the pitch. He was appearing back in the full-back line at times, he was everywhere. It was his mission to make sure we won that game.

"Many a day he might have kicked 10 of our 12 points. But this wasn't one of them. It was just a day where all the other stuff, the hard graft, was very special about his performance."

O'Sullivan, who managed that team, isn't inclined to disagree. "We played him at midfield that day, because we felt it would give him more room rather than have him man-marked as a forward," he recalls. "And Johnny was absolutely exceptional.

"I would say, pound for pound, he's probably the best footballer I have seen around."

That year's dramatic semi-final victory over Sarsfields is one that has found its way into Kildare football folklore. Allenwood's captain John Wiltshire got married the morning of the game, with Johnny Doyle as best man.

Immediately after the ceremony, the congregation -- bride, bridesmaids, et al -- decamped to Newbridge for a late afternoon throw-in. And, that night, John and Julie Wiltshire had more people at their 'afters' than maybe any couple in matrimonial history.

Doyle was named Kildare 'Footballer of the Year' after that campaign and again in '05. He did so despite becoming accustomed to heavy-handed and, sometimes, unscrupulous marking that might easily have dispirited a man of such slight physique.

Yet, no less than Harry before him, size was never factored into Johnny's view of football.

Dowling tells a story offering a glimpse of the steel packed tight in the family bones. Moorefield were playing a league game years ago against Allenwood, for whom Harry was still going strong.

"Martin Ryan, who played corner-back with me in '97/'98, ran into Harry," remembers Dowling. "And whatever way they collided, Harry dislocated Martin's shoulder.

"Martin said it was just like hitting glass. And Johnny's the same now. Even though he's very light-framed, he's very hard. He wouldn't have the muscle of other lads. You can see how McGeeney has muscled some of them up over the last three years, but Johnny doesn't seem to have that.

"Maybe he's after getting harder alright. And, sometimes a bony lad does more damage than a lad that has more muscle. But Johnny takes terrible knocks. A lot of lads wouldn't have the hunger and desire to take those knocks and keep coming back. So he must have tremendous guts. You can only take them for so long. Forwards especially.

"But he's taken them and he's still there. He's obviously tough as nails."

John Crofton, Kildare's manager between '05 and '07, suggests the relevant word is 'honesty'. He has watched Doyle grow with the years into a man upon whom Kildare came to depend unreasonably. Remember, Doyle's first year as a county senior was 2000 and happened to bring a Leinster medal.

Since then, Kildare have been treading water and looking endlessly to Doyle.

"Johnny has this phenomenal honesty," suggests Crofton. "It shows all the time with his work ethic in training. He has such an engine, I always think if he had chosen a career as an athlete, he'd have been a more than decent middle distance runner.

"And he's always a fella that has a word for a younger guy coming in. He wears his passion for the game on his sleeve. He's very unassuming. He has no great pretensions. Go to any Kildare training session, Johnny is leading from the front. First in, last to leave. Constantly practising his free-taking. He's always been happy to be a hod-carrier if that's what it takes. And that element of his game, the work rate, is being really well used by the current management.

"Johnny was always a two-footed forward and, in actual fact, all six fellas playing in the forwards for Kildare now are two-footed finishers. Which is a remarkable turnaround in the space of a few years where we were struggling to get support for Johnny.

"Look, Allenwood have won one county title in their history. And, in club football, it's always Johnny Doyle versus the rest. He carries that mantle for them, whether he's playing midfield or centre-forward. He comes in for a lot of double-marking.


"And maybe the difference with Kildare this year is that he is a bit more freed up now. He knows that he doesn't have to carry three-quarters of the scoring burden. That's taken a weight off him."

Ironically, Doyle's contribution to Kildare's success this year has been working in inverse proportion to his success from frees. It is known that he has been exploring the mechanics of his place-kicking with Ireland out-half Ronan O'Gara. Yet, increasingly, there has been a sense of quiet liberation in his performances from open play. If both are happily synchronised tomorrow, Kildare may have one foot in the final.

After a decade of trying, the very idea of Johnny Doyle leading his county out in an All-Ireland final tugs at a few emotional strings in Allenwood.

Niall O'Callaghan suggests that, when people look at the Kildare captain now, they see "a natural leader".

He explains: "The thing about Johnny is that he doesn't see himself as any kind of superstar. He's one of the lads. No matter what any manager would ask him to do, he'd never call into question his role. I'm sure that's what McGeeney likes about him. You give him a job and he does it without grumbling.

"When we'd be up training, there might be underage games on. And every single kid playing would want to get a word with Johnny Doyle. And he'd always go over and spend time with them, talk about their game.

"He's so much the clubman. Everybody has time for Johnny. But, more importantly, Johnny has time for everybody. He gives everything for the club. You see him running the line, doing umpire, everything.

"He'd never take the attitude 'I'm the county man, leave me alone'."

'Sos' Dowling sees future management material in Doyle. Ray O'Sullivan describes him as "a plain gentleman". And the consensus view is that McGeeney has selected someone loyal to his own, flinty, Northern principles to now lead Kildare towards the Holy Grail.

Can he do it? If he's cut out of Harry Doyle, it's not open to discussion.

Irish Independent

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