Doyle's focus on slaying an old enemy
Dubliner out to upset the odds as Leeds gear up for Old Trafford grudge match
Published 02/01/2010 | 05:00
MICHAEL DOYLE is making a healthy habit of emerging from the shadows for a big cup day out and the Dubliner has learned from the experience. That's why, this week, his mind has been on playing duties rather than those normally associated with an event promoter.
He knows the score by now. The 28- year-old is no stranger to the occupational hazards of landing a plum draw such as the trip to Old Trafford which his Leeds United team-mates have scored tomorrow afternoon. His mobile number is re-branded as a ticket hotline. Goes with the territory.
The lines have been closed this time, though. Two seasons ago, Doyle was part of a Coventry team that roared to Carling Cup success on Manchester United's turf, cheered on by a 12,000 strong visiting contingent that included over 20 family and friends.
Further big gigs followed. Successful trips to Blackburn in both the 2008 and '09 renewals of the FA Cup delivered positive memories and the latter upset, via a replay, led to a quarter-final showdown with Chelsea at the Ricoh Arena last March.
For Doyle, it was a watershed moment in terms of establishing priorities when these opportunities come around. He spent most of the week on the phone, juggling ticket options with a variety of callers. Any chance, Michael? Then came the usual spate of last-minute cancellations and re-organisations. A headache he could have done without before that 2-0 defeat.
"To be honest, it took the gloss off the whole experience a bit," he recalls. "I remember the final whistle going, and I almost felt a bit of relief that it was over. It shouldn't be like that.
"I said to myself after that I wouldn't let it happen. This time, I've looked after close family and they'll be there but that's it. I've got to be focused."
The sentiment is understandable, for this is a very different kind of cup battle. Not so much a giant-killing mission, as a grudge match. It's not David v Goliath. Instead, it's Goliath against an old foe whose been down on his luck. At the turn of the century, Leeds were briefly within touching distance of Manchester United in the upper echelons of the game. Recklessness took them to the brink, and the hearty world of League One football. Yet the old enmity remains. Every Leeds player has been reminded of that on a daily basis since the balls were drawn.
Doyle has enjoyed that aspect of the build-up, as it further validates his decision to opt for Leeds last summer when there were other options on the table. When Coventry told the ex-Celtic trainee that they would be open to offers, there were several Championship clubs in the frame. But the chance to move to Elland Road on a season-long loan made an impression in his mind.
An avid watcher of the game -- "I get in trouble for it, but I'm one of those who put on Sky Sports News in the morning" -- the ex-Sky Blues skipper was conscious that, despite their demotion from the top tier, the Yorkshire club retained an impressive support base. A remarkable following by the standards of the division they inhabit.
They have lived up to his expectations. More than 36,000 attended the recent local derby with Huddersfield, and home crowds in the region of 25-30,000 are the norm.
In contrast, Coventry's highest turnout at Championship level this campaign has been 22,000 and they average around the 17,000 mark.
Of course, positive results help and with Leeds eight points clear at the top of the pile with just one league defeat from 23 starts, the natives are finally feeling the good vibrations again. Overall, the experiment has provided the lease of life that Doyle required.
"I needed it," he admits. "When Chris Coleman came in to Coventry, it was great at the start and I was happy with how it was going but I really believe -- and this isn't a dig at anybody -- that they've a policy there now of trying to sign younger players with a view to making a profit on them. That's just the way they're trying to go.
"There was a lot of comings and goings when I was there. Don't get me wrong, it's a great club and a good place to be and I think the supporters are desperate for the club to get it together and make a push, but I'm just not sure if that's the priority.
"In fairness, Chris was great with me. He's as honest as they come. At the end of last season, he came to me and told me that if somebody came in then they wouldn't stand in my way after the service I'd given over six years. He said, 'Michael, I think you need a fresh start as well' and I agree, I did.
"And the challenge at Leeds appealed to me. The support is ridiculous really. I spoke to Simon (Grayson, manager) and he said he wanted the likes of myself to push it along. It just felt right and I've loved it from day one here."
The Cherry Orchard graduate still has a year remaining on his contract with Coventry and owns a house in the Midlands that he pops back to on days off, yet he can't imagine returning to the club on a permanent basis. His preference would be to stay at Leeds -- a full-time move was in the minds of both parties when the loan deal was struck -- although the topic hasn't cropped up for a while.
"There's no point putting guns to people's heads at this stage of the season," he explains. "I've no reason to complain at the moment, so we'll just see how things work themselves out."
Whatever happens, he has taken a lot from a taste of being at a club where victory is the minimum requirement in each game.
Without meaning to resort to cliche, he observes that it sometimes feels like there's a cup final every week at a level where they are the scalp that all teams wish to claim.
"You have a huge crowd at all the home games and most of the away games, at the smaller grounds, are sell-outs because Leeds fill their allocation and the host team gets better support because of who they're playing. Places like Brentford and that. We're bringing 5,000 fans or more to these places.
"It's a great place to be around, and the mentality is very good," he continues. "I know any dressing room where there's a winning run going, it's a nice place to be but the environment here is special because of the size of the football club and what it means to people.
"They really are a sleeping giant and no matter what happens at the end of the season, it's been a great benefit for me, as a footballer, to have experienced this."
Doyle has a fair idea what to expect tomorrow afternoon. With Alex Ferguson's charges facing a Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City on Wednesday, rotation or resting of star names is likely.
It's possible it could be a young, makeshift side, the kind which Doyle helped conquer when he was a Coventry player by unsettling the rawer, less streetwise talents wearing red. Either way, they can't obsess over opposition personnel too much because playing for Leeds is a responsibility in itself.
Hence, there was no novelty value when they took on Liverpool in the Carling Cup earlier in September. The prevailing reflection on that night was disappointment at losing a game they felt was within their grasp.
The mindset strikes a chord with Doyle and, at this stage of his career, the new departure was a case of taking the archetypal step back to make two in a forward direction. In that regard, it's so far, so good, but there's no time for complacency or distractions. The only ticket issue that matters is turning his trip to Leeds into a one-way journey.