John Doyle: 'There's Nothing on our minds except bringing down the Dubs'
As Kildare seek to end a losing run against Dublin that stretches back 13 years, the veteran forward, a survivor from that day, tells Vincent Hogan it's the desire to beat the best that keeps inspiring him
When you've been playing since the dawn of civilisation, a man becomes indifferent to other peoples' deadlines.
So John Doyle smiles when he hears the recurring chime of summer. He out-grew panic around the time some of his current team-mates were in national school and reckons that nobody will be tossing a tarpaulin over Kildare football tomorrow, whatever the Dubs might have in store.
In his world, there is no story to write then that hangs upon the expression 'now or never'.
His 14th championship takes him to a familiar place, splashing about with timeworn sounds and pictures. Dublin in Croke Park. In his first year, they spooked Tommy Carr's team with two drumbeat goals during a Leinster final replay to make off with the provincial silver.
Imagine. It was millennium year, Doyle's only concept of hardship at the time being a day without football. He'd made his senior championship debut alongside Tadhg Fennin just one month earlier, the two of them replaced before the end of a narrow win over Louth. Strolling together towards the Croke Park carpark afterwards, their dialogue was resolutely maudlin.
"Jayzus, is that it for us Johnny?"
"Didn't go great Fenners, did it?"
Then, like an apparition emerging from the dim city light, Mick O'Dwyer came striding towards them. Throwing an arm around each one, Micko was all reassurance and hope. He told them they'd start again the next day. And they did.
Doyle thinks of Micko's style now, the easy certainty of his ways.
There wasn't so much science to being a county footballer back then. O'Dwyer would take them to the so-called 'flat plains' of the Curragh and get them to run a circuit of five miles. And all Doyle would hear around him was grumbling about the hills. "Flat plains me a**e..."
Then match-day always brought its comforts.
If the game was in Newbridge, they'd as often as not head straight across the road to the nearest pub after. And, if the craic was good, they might even park the notion of dinner. "There'd be lads picking up their bags out of the pub maybe on the Monday," recalls Doyle.
"Like everyone did it and it wasn't frowned upon. It was the just the way things were done at the time. You wouldn't dream of it now. If you heard of a young lad doing it, you'd be straight on his case.
"Everything has changed."
Everything and nothing. Kildare haven't won a senior Leinster title since Micko's time, nor have they beaten Dublin in the championship.
Doyle suspects the county's supporters to be gaelic football's most resilient community. Their people, he says, follow the team "come hell or high water" and Heaven knows there's been plenty of the former. Kildare, after all, have won just two Leinster senior Championships since 1956. Dublin collected seven in the last eight years alone.
"Yet if we win two or three O'Byrne Cup matches, they're talking about this team being 'good enough to go all the way...'" he says, smiling.
Maybe it's the definition of love.
The first night Kieran McGeeney addressed them, in an upstairs meeting room at St Conleth's Park, he explained his view of the world and how Kildare – up to that moment – had no place in it. Everything McGeeney and Armagh came to represent during their All-Ireland breakthrough year of '02 was a repudiation of compromise.
They were hard-nosed, ruthless, coldly tactical and – if need be – mean.
Kildare, by comparison, were nothing. Between '04 and '07, they were evicted from the Leinster Championship by Wexford, Laois, Offaly and Meath respectively. In McGeeney's first year ('08), they went out to Wicklow. The men in white were football candy-floss.
And for an older hand, listening to McGeeney's view of Kildare wasn't easy.
"He was dead straight about how the outside world viewed us as a team," recalls Doyle. "He would have given it to us straight between the two eyes whether we liked it or not. Himself and Paul Grimley, it seems like an age ago now. It probably was a shock to the system. He told us he'd probably be falling out with certain people in that room, but that's just the way it would be. And he was true to his word on that too."
McGeeney's stated intention was to deposit some of that northern obstinacy inside the lilywhite shirt. Has he succeeded?
This will be his sixth championship in charge and the sceptics are – palpably – circling. Kildare have grown on his watch. They lost the '09 Leinster final to Dublin by a goal, then slipped to Down in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final by two points, famously falling victim to a 'square ball' goal by Benny Coulter. In a 2011 Leinster semi-final, Dublin got past them with a single point to spare.
Between '08 and '11, their eventual eviction from the championship never came earlier than the All-Ireland quarter-final stage, the average margin of defeats to Cork, Tyrone, Down and Donegal being just two points.
For a county that, in Doyle's words, had endured "a few years in the wilderness", this was better.
But last summer, Kildare fell to Meath by six points in Leinster and – having regrouped through the qualifiers (albeit needing extra-time to beat Limerick in round three) – they tumbled to a 13-point All-Ireland quarter-final hiding against Cork.
But his faith in McGeeney's methods is hasn't wavered. "The one thing he expects from his players time and time again is honesty. He'll tell you exactly how you're going and sometimes you don't like hearing it. But it's that honesty I feel that sets him apart.
"He challenges everyone all of the time and expects an awful lot from people. His man-management and professionalism are second to none but, above all, he has a great passion for Kildare. He wants Kildare to win as much as we do.
"I would say that he's a very loyal person and we're lucky to have him."
The prayer, naturally, is that that 2010 defeat to Down does not come to define the McGeeney era in Kildare. Doyle finds the very concept of moral victories repugnant and admits that that defeat "felt like a death". He was inconsolable for weeks after.
"The negativity kicks in and it can take an awful lot out of you," he says.
But John Doyle has been reared to keep picking himself up. His father, Harry, holds the distinction of having played senior league football for Allenwood in five different decades. He was 39 when they won the intermediate championship in 1990 and most people reckoned at the time that that was Harry's race run.
But he played on for years with the club's second team, even togging out in senior 'B' championship as a midfield partner to his only son. "As the mother would say, he was going one way and I was going the other," John chuckles.
It was off Harry then that he inherited a deep love for football and the physiology for a long career.
For, if Doyle weighed a sparrow-like 10-and-a-half stone in his debut season with Kildare, the years since have added just another two. Having once fretted about his lack of bulk, he is now happy to remain skin and bone.
A constant class-mate of Doyle's at Patrician College in Newbridge was Dermot Earley. They remain close friends today, though their race is run as football colleagues. John says part of the thrill of seeing Kildare reach the '98 All-Ireland final was watching Earley mix with the star men like Glenn Ryan, Anthony Rainbow, Martin Lynch and Willie McCreery.
But the years took a toll and some months back, he finally surrendered. Before a recent operation on his back, Earley told Doyle that he was having the surgery for a better quality of life, not to extend his football career.
"I knew he was in a bad way, but it felt like the end of an era when he went," he says. "I mean, I've been steeped by comparison. The only injuries I've had were small things. Dead legs, stitches, broke a few teeth. But I never broke a bone.
"I don't know what it is, whether it's in the genes. I think Dermot has been under the knife 12 or 13 times and bounced back time and again. I don't know whether I'd be able to do that."
through the long, rough haul of a Leinster championship campaign, Dublin will always represent the final truth.
After 2000, Doyle could never have imagined he would reach the age of 35 without beating the Dubs in championship again. He's started every single game for Kildare in that time, yet still faced no glorious sunrise.
This week, they watched a video of Donegal's defeat of Down last weekend and what struck him most was the calmness of Jim McGuinness's men. Even when the scoreboard was screaming trouble, they looked sanguine.
Earley referred to Dublin as "machine-like" this week and that's a description that fits Donegal too. Together they unite almost into an inanimate force. They become clinical.
Now Doyle gets another shot at the Dubs, quite probably his last. People have been talking this week about the advantage Croke Park gives Dublin teams, but the debate doesn't entirely interest him. "When you go out on the field, there's no great difference. Maybe a bit more noise, but that's about it.
"You're not thinking about how many lads are behind you on the Hill or what the crowd is like. I certainly don't feel any extra pressure trying to shoot into the Hill-end. You don't strike the ball any different because there's lads roaring at you.
"The goals are the same size, the grass is still green, the ball is still only a football. It's gas. You kick a ball wide against Dublin in Croke Park and people will say 'He's not able for the pressure...' But there's a good chance you could be playing a challenge match in Allenwood and you'd kick the same ball wide.
"And there's no pressure there..."
He is closing in on a time when football will no longer thieve him for small eternities from Siobhan and their baby daughter, Sarah.
Eventually, he says he will return to being a Kildare supporter, to standing on the terrace at O'Byrne Cup games and being startled that anyone in white might actually kick a wide.
But he's not ready yet.
"Look, we're going in with nothing on our minds only trying to bring down Dublin this weekend," he smiles. "Come Monday morning, whether we're heading for a Leinster final or the qualifiers, the show will go on.
"I mean, I hear people saying this is 'do-or-die for Kildare', but I've been hearing that for so long now. Inter-county football is like a conveyer belt. You step on and you step off, it still carries on with or without you.
"But, please God, it'll be a day for David slaying Goliath. Because that's what draws us all to the game."