'It is up to the other teams to try and catch Dublin'
Eoin Doyle is enjoying talking about positives for Kildare rather than his own injury troubles
Early last year Cian O'Neill deemed Eoin Doyle fit for the Kildare captaincy. That he was not immediately fit to play for Kildare didn't unduly affect the decision. They were thinking long-term and prepared to wait. Doyle sat out the entire National League while recovering from injury, having joined the swollen ranks of inter-county players with hip complaints.
In late 2013, a year after he joined the senior squad, he first experienced discomfort to the point where he had difficulty getting out of bed. He tried to play through the injury. Under O'Neill there was a clear directive that no player would be allowed do that. So he took the time out needed and came back last year to play the four matches Kildare had in the championship.
He has tended to spend as much of his time talking about injury as he does about football. Now he's hoping that that is changing.
"2013 was the first time I became aware of it; I started to get pains along the pubic bone," Doyle explains. "I got through 2013 and then at the end of that I had to get the various procedures and operations done. Since then it has come and gone every so often. Thank God this year it stayed away."
He had hip surgeries in Waterford with Patrick Carton at the end of 2013. "It was very frustrating in 2013 when I first noticed it because I had gone in with Kildare the previous year and I was looking to train hard and progress and keep going and then suddenly I couldn't," says Doyle. "So I missed some of the 2013 season and then had the operation in the off season and then ended up a missing lot of 2014 as well. Definitely it was frustrating. Nobody wants to be injured or missing games."
Promotion from Division 3 last season was achieved in his absence. This year he has been enjoying an uninterrupted run and only failed to finish one of his county's games in the National League. Today, after emphatic wins over Laois and Meath, he gets to lead out his county in a Leinster final for the first time. He is also the anchor in a defence facing an expected fusillade, though they'll hope not the kind that demolished Kildare's challenge two years ago in the provincial semi-final when they lost by 19 points. Doyle, a teacher in Dunboyne, missed the 16-point provincial semi-final defeat to Dublin in 2013.
Few outside the Kildare panel dare dream that he will become the first county man since Glenn Ryan in 2000 to lead them up the steps to receive the Delaney Cup this afternoon. But he is heading the challenge. Morgan O'Callaghan, a former Kildare selector, says Doyle showed natural leadership traits from early on.
"When he first came on the panel he was based in UL doing PE," recalls O'Callaghan, "but drove up from Limerick every Tuesday and Thursday without fail. You just knew about him that he wanted to be the best he could be as a county footballer. I remember Brian Murphy when he was minor manager and we were bringing young players in saying that he was the one that stood out."
Kildare introduced him to the squad when Kieran McGeeney was manager, in 2012, first as a sub in a National League game against Galway at the end of their spring campaign. It was a dramatic beginning. A penalty goal from John Doyle in Salthill secured Kildare a draw and promotion to Division 1 at Galway's expense.
From there Doyle's career has been through virtually the full cycle of emotions. They slipped back down to Division 3, went through another manager in Jason Ryan, and endured a radical mood dip in the championship in 2015 where they defeated Cork by eight points one weekend and were atomised by Kerry the weekend after that, conceding seven goals in the All-Ireland quarter finals in Croke Park. All the while Dublin have been leaving little room for optimism of a breakthrough in Leinster, with only Meath spoiling a sequence of wins going back to 2004.
Doyle's father, Andy, is from Wexford and a hurling mentor in the Naas club where his son learned to play football and hurling as a juvenile. He represented the county at minor and under-21 level and won an All-Ireland 'B' title at minor grade. He is barely old enough to remember a time when Kildare had grander designs.
"I remember going to Leinster finals - 1998 and 2000 would stand out. Although I was only seven in 1998 I can remember the hype before the All-Ireland final. I was at the game but I don't remember anything from it. I suppose when you are seven you don't really understand what it meant."
When he first came into the senior squad Dermot Earley was still playing, along with Johnny Doyle and Rory Sweeney. His own championship debut came against Offaly in 2012. In spite of his injuries, Doyle was good enough to earn a place on the International Rules team that played Australia in Croke Park in November 2015.
O'Callaghan highlights aggression in the tackle as one of his strong points. "There are some defenders that love tackling and if you were to ask Eoin what was one of his favourite parts of playing, it is tackling. He enjoys defending. Eoin likes being a defender."
He will presumably get to do a lot of tackling today.
"The thing about Dublin is that not alone have they dominated Leinster for the past number of years they have also dominated the All-Ireland series," Doyle says. "Not too many teams have been able to push them the full way. So we are under no illusions about how good they are."
As to what he sees as a realistic aspiration this afternoon, he is looking for his team to perform "for 75 minutes" and says they haven't managed that so far in any of their league and championship matches. "We've had patches where we were good and patches where we let the opposition come into it a bit too much. We have to perform for 75 minutes to have any sort of chance of beating Dublin."
But there are positives they can't ignore. Beating Meath ended a depressing sequence of six losing semi-finals in a row. In the National League they conceded three goals across seven rounds, bettered only by Cavan from all four divisions, and have conceded just one more in the three competitive games played since. That points to a defence doing a lot right. But they haven't met Division 1 opposition, let alone one like Dublin.
"They work very hard; they have great individuals that have great skill-sets, they are pacy, they are strong; they are well able to play football and they play to a game-plan, and when you mix all of those things together they become a very hard outfit to beat," says Doyle of the champions.
"If it was one of those things you could say we will try and eliminate that, but they have a very good mixture of a lot of key successful elements of a game and that's what they have worked on; they have set the bar. I have always said it is up to other teams to try and catch them. If we had 30-odd teams in the country performing at the level Dublin are at, what a championship we would have."
O'Callaghan sees Doyle now placed more defensively, almost in a Cian O'Sullivan role, at the top of the D. "He is very much a stopper if a team gets to a certain point," he explains.
Time to face the music.
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