Johnny Doyle: 'Improvements have been made'
By Cian O'Connell
Johnny Doyle’s passion for Gaelic Football will never waver. Between 2000 and 2014 Doyle was a constant source of class and inspiration for Kildare.
Glory came early in Doyle’s inter-county career with a provincial title secured in his debut campaign, but Kildare are still looking to be reunited with the Delaney Cup. Significant work has been carried out in Kildare with recent underage successes offering encouragement.
Doyle was involved the last time Kildare came within a whisker of beating Dublin in the Championship in 2011 – a game which featured Stephen Cluxton, Michael Fitzsimons, James McCarthy, Denis Bastick, Michael Darragh MacAuley, Paul Flynn, Diarmuid Connolly, Eoghan O’Gara, Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon, who have all subsequently won four All Ireland medals.
“We were in a different place back then too, we had pushed hard in 2010, we felt we were in a good place after getting to an All Ireland Semi-Final,” Doyle recalls.
“It was difficult because we lost by a controversial enough goal in 2010 against Down and I'd always be a believer that you are going to get a bit of luck along the way too. It was difficult, but that is the way sport goes.
“We have regressed a bit since then, we've just watched Dublin become an awesome team in the meantime. You get over these things, you go at it again, that is all you know. Unfortunately we were on the wrong end of things.”
Since returning from Lilywhite duty Doyle has been busy acting as Kildare GAA’s Community Development & Participation Officer and is ideally placed to assess how Cian O’Neill charges have progressed.
Earning two successive Allianz Football League promotions provides hope and Doyle feels Kildare are heading in the right direction, but there is still a distance left to travel. “I think that is fair to say, I think the lads themselves would probably agree with that too,” Doyle admits.
“While there has been huge improvements, there was room for huge improvements. We all got a little bit excited with the Laois performance and then to follow it up with a performance against Meath.
“We haven't really been tested at the level we are going to be tested on Sunday. That is no disrespect to Laois or Meath, that is just the reality of it. Both teams have gone out of the Championship since that, Kildare are going to be met with something they haven't met before, certainly the vast majority of this team anyway.
“It is going to be a new level, but in saying that improvements have been made. They are still a little bit off where they are capable of getting and maybe a little bit off where they might need to be to beat Dublin on Sunday.”
Doyle is impressed by the manner in which talented footballers are being developed in Kildare. A huge amount of work is being done in Kildare,” Doyle says. “When I started playing there were no development squads or no huge emphasis on underage structures, whereas now it is a huge part of every county. Huge work is being done at underage, particularly in the clubs where all these players get their introduction to football.
“Looking at the squad that is there now, I think that the vast majority of them came through the development squad system. We had the Under 14s in a couple of weeks back and we had a couple of the seniors in - Paddy Brophy, Fergal Conway, and Tommy Moolick in doing some coaching. Tommy was telling me that seven or eight guys that were involved with him at Under 14 - the likes of Johnny Byrne, Paul Cribbin, Daniel Flynn all came through together and won at minor and Under 21.
“They are now the backbone of the senior team. You don't always get that, but it is a huge credit to the work that is going on within the clubs.
“That has to continue. You have to look at ways to improve, to take it to a new level. That is where the full-time staff come in. There is a challenge now to see if we can get to a new level, that is falling to us now in the Coaching and Games department.”
While there is optimism about the future of the game in Kildare, Doyle is adamant that the current crop are armed with belief and conviction.
“From a playing point of view you have to have belief,” Doyle states. “When all around you don't believe, I know even myself I'd be double checking myself when I'm talking about the game on Sunday.
“I'm glad I didn't think this way as a player because sometimes I think I have a bit of a defeatist attitude, but when I was playing you always believed you were good enough.
“Whatever I think or anyone else outside the camp thinks, inside they will be really believing that they can have a right good go and they are capable of competing. A lot of these boys have competed with these Dublin boys at underage level and have beaten them at underage level.
“That is what I would be focusing on if I was them. This Dublin team aren't made of iron, they are only made of skin and bone and flesh, the same as everyone else.
“The facts are there to say this is as good a Dublin team as good a team as I ever remember playing the game, still there is always that chance. That is what the boys will be focusing on this Sunday.”
Kildare haven’t defeated Dublin in the Championship since the 2000 Leinster SFC Final replay. It was a particularly thrilling triumph for Kildare.
The drawn encounter is what lingers in Doyle’s memory. “People always talk about the second game, but the first one is the one I remember,” Doyle recalls.
“I had a chance near the end, I took a shot near the old Nally Stand and it tailed wide. I didn't see, but seemingly Martin Lynch was standing on his own screaming for it. I didn't see him, but I came into the dressing room and Micko read me the riot act. I was only a young lad, but he was such a winner and competitor, he read me the riot act. I could feel myself sort of welling up with tears in my eyes, I nearly thought he was going to hit me.
“I remember Karl (O'Dwyer) said to calm down a bit there Micko, we have another day out. I thought I might struggle and he mightn't pick me again, but he did. It was great. We played very poor in the first half, we were five or six points down then we got the two goals.
“We probably should have been more down at half-time, we got a few scores against the run of play to drag us back into it. We came out to get two goals just after half-time, we never looked back then. I remember meeting some people in Naas the day after and they said they were halfway down the dual carriageway when they heard the first goal went in.
“They were going home so it was great. It is a pity we haven't been back to collect the Delaney Cup in 17 years, it is too long for a county like Kildare which is football mad.”
That Doyle got to represent the Kildare cause remains a source of pride and satisfaction. That first campaign was quite an adventure. “It was my first Championship year, it was strange, I was thinking about it during the week, it was a great time to come into Kildare football. In 1998 the team contested an All Ireland Final, I was a big supporter and had been for years.
“Even when it wasn't fashionable to follow Kildare we followed them. The father used to go to all the games, we would have followed them all over the country. I remember going to League matches in Ballinascreen or getting the train down to Tralee to look at Kildare playing Kerry and all that goes with it.
“To go from that into a dressing room with Willie McCreery, Martin Lynch, Glenn Ryan, Anthony Rainbow, guys that were heroes of mine. I didn't think about it too much which was probably no harm when you are going into play against Dublin in a Leinster Final.
“Declan Kerrigan had retired the year before, he had been the marquee centre forward for a good number of years, Micko sort of threw me in, he didn't even think about it too much himself. I played for a good number of years afterwards.
“It was a very enjoyable time to be involved, I probably didn't appreciate it because you felt that it was a Kildare team that was going to be there for a good number of years.
“We had won a second Leinster title for that group, but unfortunately that was my one and only Leinster medal. We didn't appreciate it as much at the time as we should have.” For the next decade and a half the country certainly appreciated Doyle’s dynamism on the football fields of Ireland.