Monday 18 December 2017

Iconic figure Doyle a hard act to follow

Eamonn Sweeney

The great legends of hurling are perhaps Christy Ring, Mick Mackey, Nicky Rackard, Lory Meagher and John Doyle, who died last week at the age of 80. Future generations will decide which stars of the modern game join that pantheon.

At first sight Doyle is an anomalous presence on hurling's five-headed Mount Rushmore. He is the only defender among the quintet and he did not dominate games in the way the other four did. The Holycross man once said himself that Ring had won eight All-Irelands for Cork but Tipperary won eight All-Irelands for John Doyle.

Among his team-mates were players who probably had more talent, the likes of Paddy Kenny, Donie Nealon, Jimmy Doyle and Jimmy Finn. Yet though they are all greats, it was the man in the number four jersey who became the iconic figure of Tipperary hurling.

One reason for this was the longevity which enabled him to equal Ring's record of eight All-Ireland medals. Doyle won his first in 1949 against Laois, at the age of 19, and played his last final in 1967 when his bid for a record-breaking ninth was foiled by Kilkenny. To put this 19-year span into perspective, it's worth noting that Henry Shefflin, who seems to have been around forever, has played for 12 years at senior level and is unlikely to be togging out for the 2017 final.

There is also the fact that Doyle seemed to epitomise the character of his county's hurling. He was regarded as embodying a quality which Tipperary were known for, an extreme toughness which their rivals sometimes felt verged on brutality.

That may well have been unfair, and perhaps Christy Ring was closer to the mark when he said approvingly, "the only county you can hurl all out against is Tipperary." Doyle, and Tipp, dished it out but also took it without complaint, most notably in the thrilling Munster championship games between 1949 and 1954 which the Premier County and the Rebels split between them.

Yet there is no denying that while Ring was regarded as the John Wayne-style hero of hurling, Doyle, to fans of other counties at least, found himself cast as the villain who might have been played by Jack Palance. He probably didn't mind this. It is said that the 'Hell's Kitchen' nickname of the famously rugged full-back line, Michael Maher, Kieran Carey and Doyle, from the magnificent Tipp team which won the 1961, 1962, 1964 and 1965 All-Irelands, was coined by Doyle himself.

Such was his legend as an embodiment of ruthlessness that Doyle perhaps didn't get enough credit for his hurling ability. But there were no cavils about his selection at left corner-back on the Team of the Century. And there was no little appreciation in the stories handed down about him, a recognition that at a time when hurling was much tougher than it is now, no one was tougher than John Doyle.

The chances are that, for a long time to come, if you say to a knowledgeable GAA fan, 'name a legendary Tipp hurler,' John Doyle's name will be the one they shoot back at you. He's with Christy Ring now. They'll have shaken hands and then, perhaps, thundered into one more collision. For old time's sake.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

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