The Doyle dilemma
Veteran skipper has been a revelation at midfield for Kildare. But is it a move that serves the team’s needs?
What does it say about the changing face of Gaelic football when a 33-year-old can exert such dominance on midfield as John Doyle has done in his last two championship matches? Perhaps more pertinent is what it says about Doyle.
For his 51st and 52nd championship matches, Doyle has performed in a position where his dimensions and his age suggest he shouldn't be an entity.
But birth certs, measuring tapes and weighing scales have become irrelevant in a career that continues to improve through the years.
And that is why Kieran McGeeney was coming to the conclusion anyway, before Daryl Flynn turned awkwardly on his ankle to remove himself from the picture for four weeks, that Doyle could serve the team best of all at the very heart of the action.
It had been coming. Kildare knew they had a problem when they were outplayed by Meath in the middle during their league match in March.
They lost the kick-outs by 27-16, yet still dominated the game.
It has been a phenomenal transition. Universally acknowledged as man of the match against Wicklow in Portlaoise, he was on every shortlist two weeks later against Meath.
Right now, if an index existed that could measure form in this championship, Doyle would be vying hard with Colm Cooper for the No 1 position. And Cooper is in the middle of one of the richest veins of form in his illustrious career.
To look at Doyle's waif-like, angular figure, he appears more cut out for the hard grind of National Hunt racing than the congestion of Gaelic football, hard-boned and square-jawed almost in the mould of Tony McCoy.
But no game stands still and pays homage to stereotype -- least of all football. And nothing advances the evolution more than the composition of the respective midfields on Sunday.
If the teams are picked according to expectation -- Hugh Lynch and Doyle for Kildare, Michael Darragh Macauley (a doubt through injury) and Barry Cahill for Dublin -- only Lynch can claim customary midfield status. The rest measure little more than six foot, with lightness on their feet a priority.
In that environment then, it has been easier to rebrand Doyle.
His transplant to midfield for the opening two games of the championship has, of course, opened up a debate in the county as to whether it's a luxury they can afford.
Kildare's cumulative wides total from two championship games is 35, a level of profligacy that has increased since last season. The logic of positioning your most accurate forward further away from goals just doesn't stack up in some minds.
In 52 championship matches Doyle has amassed 6-217. He has been held scoreless in only two of those games, his debut against Louth and the All-Ireland semi-final against Galway, both in 2000. In two of the last three years he has been Kildare's top scorer. Are they robbing Peter to pay Paul?
However, Kildare's former coach Paul Grimley, now with Meath, believes the switch is the masterstroke of the season so far.
"The thing about John Doyle that no one really factors in about him is that he's a wonderful fielder of the ball. He gets up and holds on to it," says Grimley.
"And he can tackle. He's very honest like that. There are plenty of talented inside forwards who can't tackle and won't tackle. Johnny isn't like that.
"The way a midfielder can dominate his opponent is by getting on the ball more than him and creating more and, in that sense, Johnny will always have an advantage.
"I'd say Kieran and Johnny would have discussed this at length before going ahead with it. Croke Park is a great place to be a midfielder if you have the mobility and Johnny has plenty of that."
In the Kildare dressing-room there is unequivocal agreement that, placed in just about any position, Doyle's value won't be affected in any way.
Ronan Sweeney uses the county's most established midfielder, Dermot Earley, as the ultimate barometer.
"He plays there for the club and I have seen him mark Dermot and hold his own. You could play him anywhere and he'd do a job for you. He doesn't stop working," explains Sweeney.
"But you could genuinely play him anywhere and you'd have full confidence in him being the best in that position.
"He's very hard to deal with around there and he's always looking to attack and when it breaks down, he's looking to go back down the field again. In years gone by people wouldn't have seen what he was doing."
People are starting to notice now.
Sweeney doesn't dispute the merit in those who argue that they are missing something by not having him closer to goals all the time.
"I suppose there is, but we're still scoring quite highly and it is up to everyone else in the forward line to take the burden," he says.
"Johnny still finds space out around the middle and still chips in with three or four points, which he has been doing."
Earley himself has long since stopped being surprised by anything Doyle does on the football field. "I've known Johnny since we went to school together. Nothing surprised me about him. He's still the fittest on the team. He's still probably the most committed," asserts the former Allstar midfielder.
"When most fellas are rolling out of bed, he's up at 7.0 in the morning out kicking. That's the commitment that he has, how much he wants to play with Kildare and win for Kildare.
"He plays midfield for his club. I've marked him many the times in Sarsfields v Allenwood games and I've come out the wrong side of it, so I wasn't surprised at all."
Central to Doyle's continued improvement at a time when others might be winding down, is his relationship with manager McGeeney.
On McGeeney's watch, Doyle has become an even more robust and energetic footballer, and tellingly the captain's armband has been thrust on him in three of the manager's four years at the helm.
"Ten years ago you wouldn't have entertained playing a player like Johnny as a midfielder," says Grimley. "But things evolve. Johnny is Kildare's most complete footballer. Why not have him in the thick of the action all the time?"