Today, Balls.ie begins its search for the ultimate GAA cult hero. Our county-by-county search starts this week in the Lilywhite county of Kildare (the mission statement of our Cult Hero series was explained yesterday.)
With the help of local experts, we have drawn up a shortlist of five. These five men, we believe, are the finest Kildare has to offer in terms of cult-heroness.
Readers can pick the greatest Kildare cult hero of the lot from the shortlist below. Vote early and vote often. Please share your own personal narratives attesting to the cult hero-ness of your chosen candidate to [email protected] We'll be posting these over the week to influence the voting.
Kildare's cult hero will be announced on Friday afternoon.
Behold - the shortlist!
Some cult heroes become legendary for their exploits during 'the golden years', collecting stacks upon stacks of All-Ireland medals.
Others, however, are revered for their efforts during the down years, carrying a team on their back during bleaker times and never losing faith.
John Doyle won one Leinster senior title in his intercounty career. That's one more than the vast majority of Kildare footballers.
But it was in the autumn years of his career that Doyle became a legend, universally recognised as a standard bearer in the Kildare forward line.
As Daragh O'Conchuir tells us "he went from being just another forward to being their only forward."
"He was a better player at 26 than he was at 22. And he was a better player at 30 than he was at 26."
Doyle was a shock inclusion in the Kildare team for the 2000 campaign. He struggled to make the county U21 team in his final year at the grade.
As Kildare football retreated back into the pack in the mid-noughties, Doyle suddenly turned into by far their most important forward.
He became, dare we say, 'a marquee forward' - meaning he was the only on to be regularly name-checked by national news outlets in previewing matches.
While Kildare were only big news in the late 90s and then briefly again at the turn of this decade, Doyle played, and starred, all the way through the intervening barren years. Between his first and his last game for Kildare, he never missed a championship match.
Ger McNally, the Kildare FM Sport Editor pays tribute to his extraordinary longevity.
"He made his championship debut in 2000 and never missed a championship game. He started 67 championship games in a row... And for a large, large part of that he would have been Kildare's best player. And probably at one stage, he was nearly the only scoring threat at all. He came in for rough treatment from opponents. He was a very slight fella but he never shirked a battle."
By the time Kildare re-emerged back into the big time, he was a full-blown star. The early McGeeney era is filled with inspirational Doyle displays. He was caught in a Dublin defender sandwich early in the second half in the 2009 Leinster final. Moments later, with a large white bandage wrapped around his head, he kicked a monster point and roused the crowd.
His career reached its zenith in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final when Kildare came screaming past Meath in a glorious second half display.
In those desperate final moments of the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final, with Kildare's dream on life-support, Doyle gestured to the keeper to lash the ball in his direction. He was one of the smallest men in the middle at the time.
He called the kickout on him. Last attack for Kildare. He was 6 foot tall and he called the kickout on top of him. He caught the ball over those two big beasts that Down had in the midfield. To me, he was Footballer of the Year in 2010. (DOC)
Glen had that aura. He was a very good hard centre back. He was a leader, he'd go through a wall (DOC)
One of Kildare's most famous and admired players in their late 1990s rise to prominence. At half-time in the 1998 All-Ireland final, it seemed likely that Ryan would become the first Kildare man to lift Sam Maguire in 70 years.
For his only All-Ireland final appearance, he wore a hulking great big knee bandage. This was no hindrance in the first half. He delivered a stunning opening 35 minutes on Jarlath Fallon. Alas, Kildare were blown away completely in the second half.
A brief rundown of his career in white. His early days in the side coincided with Mick O'Dwyer's touchdown in the county - he made his debut the year before. The first few seasons failed to yield a provincial title despite a couple of final appearances.
After a two-year interval when Dermot Earley Snr failed to make any headway with the team, Micko was back. Kildare won championship silverware for the first time in three decades and were close to grasping Sam.
He kept soldiering into the mid-noughties as Kildare retreated back into the pack. He eventually said goodbye in 2006.
He was an inspirational player. He was the heartbeat of the team. He was the one who set the tone for everyone else in the dressing room. He was Mick O'Dwyer's man on the pitch. Even the established players in the team looked up to Glenn. When you think about that team under O'Dwyer, he was probably the one player who stands out. (GMcN)
After a reasonably impressive five year spell with Longford, Ryan is back in Kildare, and managed Round Towers to an intermediate title at the weekend.
(Obviously, at this point, we have to acknowledge the extraordinarily generous amount of injury time allowed in the drawn intermediate final which enabled Round Towers to force a replay from which they emerged triumphant. Glenn Ryan may have lost some votes from the Two Mile House club after this).
Dermot Earley is worthy of cult hero status on any number of grounds. There was Earley as a football talent - he was a majestic, and strikingly elegant, fielding machine who had an engine to match. There was his sheer resilience, surviving both serious illness and innumerable injuries and coming back for more. And then there's the added romance of his family heritage and his off-field personality.
It was said of Arsenal in the 1980s that their performance graph resembled a U-bend. Earley's fortunes in his inter-county career are much the same. He won two All-Stars in 1998 and again in 2009. In between, he had to battle injury and illness.
He began his career at wing forward and held down the position during Kildare's finest year in the past half-century. Earley is the only Kildare man to score a goal in an All-Ireland final in that time. He won an All-Star at wing forward that winter. But he was always destined to become a midfielder.
At the age of 23, with two Leinster titles under his belt, Earley was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He feared it would be the end of his football career. Fortunately, the cancer was caught early and was contained.
He got back playing but during Kildare football's recessionary period in the middle of the noughties, Earley was hobbled by injury and injury.
McNally remembers the frustration of those years.
"He seemed to have everything going for him. You look at Kildare's poor form in the mid-noughties, his injuries were a huge factor in that. He didn't get a proper run at it under Padraig Nolan and John Crofton. He seemed to be permanently either seriously injured or only coming back from an injury. He never got any momentum going to enable him to fulfill the potential he had."
"He rebuilt his career twice. He was flying early on. And then he contracted cancer. After he came through that scare, he returned and started breaking bones all over the place," says O'Conchuir.
Happily, his return to full health and top form coincided with Kieran McGeeney's arrival in the county. To outsiders, Earley felt a bit like a blast from the past during the 2009 season. He delivered one magisterial midfield display after another as Kildare reached an All-Ireland quarter-final.
"In 2009 and 2010 he was probably the best midfielder in the country. They say Johnny Doyle had an Indian summer under McGeeney. But it's probably even more apt to say that of Dermot Earley.
In 2009, he got his All-Star and in that year, he was absolutely brilliant. He was just dominating games from start to finish. He was outstanding. That carried into 2010 and that injury jinx struck again."
The 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final against Meath was a day of triumph for Kildare. They sauntered past the contentiously crowned Leinster champions after an exuberant second half-performance.
But Dermot Earley played a minimal part. Five minutes into the game, Earley ruptured his cruciate and was sidelined again. It was his last significant act in a Kildare jersey.
For all that, the most memorable sight of the emotional 2010 campaign was Earley lining out in a qualifier in Newbridge against Antrim on the evening of his father's funeral.
On the eventual confirmation of his retirement, the Kildare Nationalist paid tribute.
What saddens me about his retirement is not so much the fact that he leaves the game without that Celtic Cross but the thought that we won’t get to see him play for Kildare again...
At his best, Earley played football everyone could appreciate it, which is why his departure reverberates around the country. He will be missed by those who he played with but also by those who he played against. It is because of men like Dermot Earley that others were inspired to play the game of Gaelic football.
Anthony Rainbow wins inclusion on the list of nominees primarily for his outstanding longevity. This was a source of wonder for many far beyond Kildare's boundaries in the final years of his career.
His inter-county career back in that first spell of Mick O'Dwyer's back in 1991. By the time he finished up, Kieran McGeeney was moving mountains to try to and get Kildare back to the summit. The agonising defeat to Donegal in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final was his cue to call time on his career.
Kildare have never gotten as close to an All-Ireland final since.
He just kept going and going and going. He played in the forwards towards the end of his career. He was one of the first free flowing wing backs. He was always good for a score. He was always hardy. He had that edge. (DOC)
He remains involved. After 20 years playing inter-county football for Kildare, he hadn't enough of the scene. He dived into management with Carlow, as unglamourous a county job as there is. He even managed a win with the team, beating Waterford by a point in a qualifier match in 2014.
And now, he's with Sarsfields. At the age of 45, we're reliably informed that he is still one of the fittest players at training. A magnificent athlete.
He had a testimonial match after his retirement in 2011 and it drew some of the best players from around the country who all had some huge things to say about him. They all thought he was a gentleman. And on the pitch he was a top class player. One of the greats of Kildare GAA. (GMcN)
Buckley's star shone brightly in the late 1990s, as Kildare went hungrily in search of that All-Ireland. Within a couple of years, he was gone from the scene, emigrating to Chicago, where he was said to prefer the lifestyle and the relaxed training regimen.
He played no part in Kildare's run to the All-Ireland semi-final in 2000. There was talk of him being parachuted in a la Gerry McInerney but the GAA stepped in, asserting that he couldn't play for the county and his club in Chicago.
He reached the peak of his powers in 1997, when Kildare played the same number of matches as the eventual All-Ireland champs but didn't even reach a provincial decider.
He was regarded as probably the most gifted player of the Kildare crop that almost won an All-Ireland in 1998. As a very young man in the late 80s, he spent time with the Melbourne AFL club, the same team as Jim Stynes.
Injury hobbled him in the 1998 All-Ireland final and prevented him doing himself justice.
He had all the talent. He was a mercurial player. At his best, he really was absolutely class. He could kick points from anywhere. There's a lot of ifs and buts about his career. He wasn't fully fit for the All-Ireland final.
A lot of people still in Kildare to this day will tell you that had been fully fit and raring to go, Kildare would have won. But... that probably sums up Kildare GAA. There's a lot of 'what ifs and what might have beens' (GMcN)
He has been rediscovered by the Youtube generation for steamrolling Colm Parkinson with a shoulder before scoring an inspirational point.