Saturday 21 October 2017

‘I've had six years playing most of the games. I don't want to miss out when it comes to this’ -- Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle
Kevin Doyle
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

FROM rooming with Stephen Ireland during Grannygate to this. Kevin Doyle smiles broadly. He knows that the official start of Euro 2012 action marks the end of the journey.

His adult life has been geared towards reaching this summit, and the long, eventful climb has delivered its fair share of memories.

This major tournament experience makes it all worthwhile. As over 10,000 Polish well-wishers poured into Tuesday's opening training session in Gdynia, that was his prevailing thought.

There's been dark days on the way. He doesn't deny it. But through it all, the Wexford man retains the same positive demeanour, a natural cheeriness that disarms the suspicious and sets him apart from a large number of his peers.

That upbeat nature was tested by a miserable year at Wolves that would have driven many a striker into depression.

Yet there was always a light at the end of the tunnel.

positive

Poland. The Euros. Without that, he might have become a different man.

"I always had this to look forward to," he explains, "The other lads at Wolves were jealous of the Irish lads in the last month or two of the season. This is a chance to finish this season on a high, to have something positive come out of it.

"I've really enjoyed the training, and I'm feeling energetic. It's got the spring back in our steps, the change of atmosphere, the different environment, different people. And, obviously, it doesn't take much to get excited about the tournament."

He's never visited Poland before, but he is a fan. "A bit like Wexford," he jokes. "Better when it's sunny."

Home is never far from the heart, and he imagines that next week's arrival of his wife, Jenny, and other close family members will really drive home the enormity of this experience.

It's for them as much as him. This was the purpose of the hard work that drove him from the League of Ireland to the Premier League and the international stage.

"It's the reason you go on the end-of-season tours to America and Portugal and places like that, to try and build a team to get into this situation," he says.

The foundations were always shaky in his early days around the Irish set-up. After a handful of call-ups as Brian Kerr's regime crumbled, he emerged as one of the few positives from Steve Staunton's chaotic two years in charge. But it took him a while to believe that he really belonged.

"When I first got into the Ireland squad, I'd be petrified going into the games for the first year," he says, in discussion with the Irish Independent.

"Why? I'd only been in England a year. All the lads I play with now, I'd only seen on TV. It was a nervy experience and I basically didn't know anybody. Nowadays, it's a lot easier. I enjoy the games a lot more."

He is reminded of the dark nights in Cyprus and San Marino, and the disappearance of Stephen Ireland, the lowlights of a campaign which provided enough material for a tragi-comic novel.

"For a person coming into it, that was an eye-opener," he says. "I failed a fitness test before Cyprus and that was probably a lucky thing for me really. It was hectic. I scored a few goals, but we didn't get near qualifying. And nothing surprises me now after that time. It wasn't instant success, and we got plenty of criticism -- deservedly so.

"And it just showed that you can't just automatically do well. It takes some hard (work) to get where we have. We've been through tough times."

If he made mistakes then, they were forgiven because of his relative inexperience. Now, it's different. The year just gone at Wolves tested him like no other. He refuses to get bogged down in introspection about where it went wrong.

He's sitting outside a cafe in Sopot, gripped by Euros fever, and really doesn't want to hark back and start thinking about that. Instead, he speaks with relentless optimism, finding an upside in the loss of form that led to him being left on the bench by both Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor.

"It's a positive for this tournament," he replies. "I feel fresher than I've ever been at the end of the season and that's because I played less games then I would normally have. I'd prefer to look at it that way. Yes, it was a tough second half of the season.

"We were losing when I was playing. We were losing when I wasn't playing. It was frustrating, but I'm not going to worry about that now."

It leads into the elephant in the room, the issue of his security within Giovanni Trapattoni's starting XI. Doyle doesn't buy into the theory that the manager's team is absolutely set in stone, and will only believe he'll start in Poznan when it is officially lodged an hour and a half before kick-off on Sunday.

All this talk about the need for an extra midfielder has prompted the question of whether he could be sacrificed, and his removal at half-time in Monday's game with Hungary to give Jon Walters another audition accelerated that discussion.

"I wouldn't say I'm worried," he replies. "I just want to play. I've had six years in or around playing most of the games. So I don't want to miss out when it comes to this. I feel fit and sharp so if I play, then fantastic, and if I don't, I'll be ready when I come off the bench."

Trapattoni has dropped him before, favouring his roomie Shane Long before last September's crunch qualifier with Slovakia.

A subsequent injury to the Tipp man gave Doyle his place back, despite the manager's concerns about his recovery from a knee problem. Neither the player or his irate club boss McCarthy agreed with the Italian's reasoning at the time.

In hindsight, the 28-year-old has revised his opinion and, rather than increasing his fears about the chance of history repeating, he again comes away from that setback with a glass half full.

"I didn't want to admit it at the time, but he was right," he says. "He thought I wasn't 100pc and, looking back, I wasn't at all. I was off the pace, trying to come back from injury. And it was still hurting me.

"He (Trapattoni) has seen plenty of players, millions of training sessions. He knows when he's right or wrong. But he said to me the other day that, looking at me in training, he feels I'm 100pc now. And that was nice to hear."

His rival, Long, is the perfect friend away from the pitch. Neither consider themselves to be huge football fans. They don't have it on in their room. The game doesn't consume their every thought, and Doyle feels that's a good thing when it comes to reining in the excitement of this adventure.

confessed

Perhaps, it is the reason that he is able to move on from the disappointments. Some Ireland players have confessed that it was a long time before they got over that night in Paris which cost them a place at the South African World Cup. Doyle's response to a similar query is trademark.

"It affected me on the night, but we had Chelsea away at the weekend," he says, matter of factly. "Mick brought me in and I said I was fine to play, but he didn't want to play me, not just because of the extra-time and the travelling, but because of the torment of it. So I played the week after. I didn't have time to feel sorry for myself.

"But I never felt my chance was gone," he adds, unprompted. "I just thought 'The manager is here for another campaign, we'll just do it next time'. And all through the qualifying campaign for the Euros, I thought we'd qualify, and I think we'll qualify for the next World Cup as well, even though it's a tough group.

"I never thought that I wouldn't play in a major championship with Ireland. I always thought I would, I've always had that belief."

He thinks about those words, and inserts a disclaimer to the end of the sentence. "I think I'm a naturally positive person," he says, with a hint of a grin.

Come Sunday evening, he wants the chance to leave the entire country feeling the same way.

Irish Independent

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