The sun is shining, the Thursday weather is sweet, John Doyle is a tangled web of grey and misery. He's been like this all week but then again, that's to be expected. Of all the iconic images that came through in warm and brilliant colour last Sunday, the picture that will loiter in memory is a cold one – namely Doyle slumped to his knees, a broken man so distraught that Daniel McCartan came over and sat with him for a little while. But if you're wondering what the Down corner-back said to the Kildare captain, you won't find out here. In fact Doyle has been wondering himself because not one of the consoling words registered.
How different it might have been. Early last Sunday morning before Doyle left his home in Allenwood, he set his Sky player to record The Sunday Game Live. It wasn't out of arrogance, just hope. He did the same before the Meath quarter-final, savoured it all again when he got home and the next day, when his father called around for a cup of tea, he gave it another airing. But he hasn't once had the courage to press the play button this time. "I will some day," he sighs. "The wounds are still raw but maybe some night when I'm sitting at home on my own and there's nothing on, I might take a look and see the missed chances and the square ball and the shot that hit the bar because I haven't seen a single replay of any of it. And right now I don't want to."
In an era of muscular and manufactured Kildare footballers, Doyle is different. He's sitting in a Naas hotel with the cut of a jockey – the sharp, gaunt edges slumped deep into a chair as if he's fallen off the horse one time too many. He tries to remain engaging as the locals commiserate. "Everywhere you go you know it's going to be the same conversation. It might seem a bad thing to say and it's not a death but there are similarities. You are in mourning and at some stage you'll look back and say there were positives. But right now it's impossible to see beyond the fact we were beaten. It feels like a death. It really does."
As he claws his way through the twisted metal, he says the worst part was that there had been no illness before this passing. After the Louth loss in June, all Kildare needed was to push harder and Doyle even found himself one day in Carton House kicking balls with Ronan O'Gara to see if there was any way he could improve. He did. The team did. Even those surrounding the team did. In the days before the semi-final, he got a call from his wife Siobhán asking had he eaten and when he said he had had lasagne, she gave out saying that wasn't the right kind of food. It all meant that, come last Sunday, they were the momentum team. In the build up to it, he tried to stay grounded but occasionally found himself "tipping along in the car thinking maybe, just this one time, it'll be our year".
That feeling never changed no matter what went against them. When Alan Smith had a point waved wide, Doyle said it to Pat McEnaney and when he got no response, he argued his point with umpire Joe McQuillan who assured him it had tailed away. He didn't believe it but got on with it. Even when Benny Coulter took up temporary residence in the square to goal, he looked around and decided they'd get back like they've done all year. The slings and arrows would bounce right off them.
"Overall, while we didn't play to our potential, people say they were the better team but I'm not so sure. Little things just didn't go for us. That goal was one of them. I like to stay away from controversy; I am there to play football, but it's hard not to be annoyed. If I give Benny Coulter a puck on the lip, there's no problem using video evidence. But there are big calls and it seems so easy to go to a television umpire and 10 seconds would have the lot sorted. You just feel it's something obvious and it's a pity because sometimes the GAA are a bit slow with change. Little things leave a sour taste to it all. But I try and stay away because it's not going to change anything."
And so easily, it could have been the case that he wouldn't have wanted to change anything. With the game coming to boil, Doyle went back on the line for Martin Clarke's late free and as it veered wide, he told goalkeeper Shane McCormack to aim the kickout for him, the leader. He won it spectacularly and as he sent the ball towards the Down goal with seconds left and two between them, "the heart was beating out of the chest". Was it a penalty? "The boys were adamant it was handled on the ground. But someone said they stopped it and started it on the television and it was still hard to see. Pat has been a great ref and decisions like that – he shouldn't have to make. Referees are just like players; they make mistakes, and in the year we live in now they shouldn't be put in that position."
A moment later Doyle found himself asking McEnaney would they have time to kick two after being awarded a free close in. "John, I can't allow any more time, you have to go for it," responded the Monaghan official and with that the ball was given the Rob Kelly, "the man with the hardest shot on the panel. I still didn't think he'd get near it but I just said to him to aim high. In fairness he hit a rasper. And the ping. I thought it was in. I was sure. Even another inch. I just don't know. I just sank to my knees, it hits you like a bus. I am not one to show emotion but I have never felt anything like it. You think of everything that has just gone; you want to do something about it and you can't.
"Suddenly it's gone. There's an emptiness. You don't know what to feel. The only thing you can say is we did get to two quarter-finals and a semi-final in three years so it's not a flash in the pan but it is a long, long way back. Maybe it's a thing when you get older and you realise perhaps it won't be next year. Maybe it'll be never. When I started we won a Leinster in the first year, played in an All Ireland semi-final, and there were great players there. But we had to wait 10 years to get back. All we can do is dust ourselves down, and go at it again I suppose. There's always the dream that eventually the day will come. But next year Tyrone will be back, Kerry will be back, Cork will be back."
But crucially, at 32, Doyle will be back ("I'm not finished. I'll be back fighting the cause again"). He also reckons Dermot Earley will be back ("He's only six months older than me and will be there again too"). And Kieran McGeeney needs to be back. "It's unbelievably important, it's vital. I've been in dressing rooms with brilliant managers but Kieran is the best I have ever been involved with. He is so passionate and so honest. He has to stay for us to develop and if he doesn't, I cannot overstate the disaster it would be."
These last few years Doyle has found himself getting his hands on All Ireland final tickets, going to Croke Park, having a few beers with teammates and enjoying the day out. But not this time. Even as top scorer in the championship and a probable first-time All Star, it'll be too much because "we've been on the wrong side of too many hard luck stories, and the moral victories, too many of them. That's something that doesn't lie easy with you and it makes you think maybe we'll never get there."
And if Kildare don't, for all his brilliance, the lasting image of Doyle will sadly be the one you see on this page.