Thursday 29 September 2016

Refreshed Doyle ready and waiting to answer Ireland's call for vital goal

Published 13/11/2015 | 02:30

Ireland striker Kevin Doyle feels reinvigorated after his move to the Colorado Rapids
Ireland striker Kevin Doyle feels reinvigorated after his move to the Colorado Rapids

Kevin Doyle has come to recognise the importance of change in his life, how ritual diminishes him.

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Even in the clamorous world of professional football, the endless repetition of familiar stadiums and faces and sounds can make a man stale without him knowing. He spent 10 years in English football, most of it good, some of it lousy. His blessing was to always leave the best and worst of it at the hall-door. It never fooled him, never scarred him.

In one, ruinous, 15-month spell with Wolves, five different managers took the dressing-room, each one selling a different philosophy.

What does a player do in the face of such tumult?

The only thing he can. He plays. But, by the end of his time with Wolves, even that refuge came to escape him. Kenny Jackett could see no future in mounting a League One scrap through players on Premier League money, so he prioritised cheaper options.

Doyle went on loan to Queens Park Rangers, then Crystal Palace. In both cases, injury quickly sabotaged the move. Then, last February, a new world opened to him.

Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates with Kevin Doyle after the game. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Shane Long, Republic of Ireland, celebrates with Kevin Doyle after the game. UEFA EURO 2016 Championship Qualifier, Group D, Republic of Ireland v Germany. Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

He'd never been to Denver, never even watched a game of Major League Soccer on TV. But the Colorado Rapids were interested and Wolves gave him permission to see what might be on offer. A two-day visit with his brother, Padraig, proved a revelation.

"I honestly wasn't sure going over," he says now of an eventual May move to the 'Mile-High City'. "I thought it might be just too hard with a two-year-old son and a new baby on the way. But, when I got there, straight away, I just sensed it would be a great move for me.

"You're obviously nervous moving your family to a new place. You're thinking 'If we don't like this after six months, what are we going to do?'

"But I came home and my wife Jenny asked 'Do you like it, does it look like a nice place to live?'

"When I said 'Yeah!', her response was 'Ok, let's do it!'"

There hasn't been even a fleeting moment of regret since. True, the Rapids finished bottom of the MLS Western Division, losing six of their last eight games.

For a club hoping to be in the play-offs, it wasn't good enough. They will recruit busily in the off-season now and, when Doyle returns in January, he expects to encounter a host of new faces.

But he'll feel better prepared himself too. Acclimatising to the heat and altitude took longer than he'd anticipated. The travelling (three-day round-trips for an away game) dragged at first.

Colorado Rapids forward Kevin Doyle (9) is congratulated by forward Vicente Sanchez (7) and midfielder Sam Cronin (6) after scoring a goal during the second half against the Vancouver FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids won 2-1
Colorado Rapids forward Kevin Doyle (9) is congratulated by forward Vicente Sanchez (7) and midfielder Sam Cronin (6) after scoring a goal during the second half against the Vancouver FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. The Rapids won 2-1

And the standard?

"What level would I put it at?" he asks. "I don't know. There's a different mix, it's very technical. I play with some very good players and against some very good players. There's definitely no mugs there."

It is Tuesday in the Castleknock Hotel and his season has two games still to run. Doyle is one of just three strikers available to Martin O'Neill for tonight's first-leg Euro play-off in Bosnia, with Daryl Murphy expected to start ahead of him and Robbie Keane.

By the conclusion of the second leg next Monday night, he will - officially - be off-season.

The move to America might, he concedes, have drawn a curtain down on his international career, but it wasn't something he could afford to fixate upon.

"I always wanted to still be involved with Ireland, but I knew it would be harder to get seen over there than it would be if I was in England. So it's nice that Martin still sees a role for me."

The Wexford man is 32 now and hardened to the unromantic side of football.

Doyle's six years at Wolves introduced him to just about every storyline likely to be encountered in a football dressing-room. And the experiences brought to mind the wise counsel of Steve Coppell some years earlier when they were part of a Reading story lighting up the Championship.

"It was my first season there and we won the title, romped it with a ridiculous number of points. And I remember him saying to us 'Enjoy this, because it isn't normal!'"

It took a while for that reality to dawn. Midway through the following season, Doyle was joint top-scorer in the Premier League with Didier Drogba, his name being linked with many of the big houses of European football. In time, it was to the more modest surrounds of Wolverhampton that he went to, but he seemed - at the time - impervious to the stresses of the trade.

It was in their third season of Premier League life that the madness began to take hold.

"I think it was February that they sacked Mick (McCarthy), which was wrong," he remembers now. Through the next 15 months, Terry Connor, Stale Solbakken, Dean Saunders and, eventually, Jackett would sit in the manager's chair, the club plummeting down two divisions.

"It was a disaster of a period," he reflects. "There just didn't seem to be any way out of a spiral for the team. From that February, to the end of April the following year, it was just panic all the way."

Just five months after moving to Wolves in June of '09, Doyle represented Ireland in that infamous World Cup play-off second-leg game against France in Paris. The circumstances of Ireland's eviction would obscure arguably the team's finest performance of modern times.

"That French team had some really top players," he remembers "but we more than matched them on the night. It never actually felt like we were going to lose and that's why it was so devastating.

"The handball thing didn't bother me. That's football, it happens. We should probably have won the game before that ever came about. Because we had them, we were on top."

Had the grief weighed upon him for long after? "No, it doesn't really stay with you," he reflects candidly. "Not me anyway. I remember I had a 6am flight back to Birmingham the following morning because I had training. We were travelling to Chelsea that Saturday. I know there was uproar at home (about Thierry Henry's handball), but we were all straight back to our clubs.

"So it's just gone. Maybe if we were living and playing in Ireland but in England it wasn't that huge. Just a bit on Sky or whatever. As a player, you don't have time to mope around and think about these things."

He was suspended for the first-leg of the Euro play-off against Estonia two years later but played in the second-leg, Ireland qualifying on a comfortable 5-1 aggregate. What followed left him frustrated and mystified.

"I look back on that as just a wasted opportunity," he says of Euro 2012. "I still think we all felt good going into the tournament, but it just never seemed to ignite.

"It sort of tends to get overlooked that we were in a really tough group too. We almost get mocked for it, people saying that we were useless out there.

"But two of our group opponents (Spain and Italy) got to the final. Our group was pretty much the Group of Death and it was all over in eight days.

"But maybe the biggest regret is that we didn't get to the previous World Cup because we had a really good team at the time and (Giovanni) Trapattoni was having his biggest impact on us at that stage. Everything was fresh. He was at the height of his powers with us.

"But like any manager, after a long time together, ye get bored. People start questioning things and the atmosphere becomes a little negative. In 2010, everyone was behind Trap. The whole country was behind him and us."

Maybe it took until the recent victory over Germany for the fall-out from those finals to finally dissipate.

Doyle remembers a different attitude towards the players instantly, an attitude he now senses permeates their self-esteem. Observing the squad in Dublin this week, he was struck by a palpable confidence.

"A lot of the lads have experienced those play-offs against France and Estonia," he reflects.

"So we've seen both sides of it. Because of that, I don't think we're as nervous going into this as in the past. Everyone's pretty confident, there's a feeling that we have a very good chance here."

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