Thursday 19 October 2017

Aidan O'Hara: Success of Doyle and O'Brien provides a shining example

Very few players grow up dreaming of playing in League Two – but it takes some dedication to forge a career there

Portsmouth captain Michael Doyle lifts the League Two trophy. Photo: Andy Lloyd/PA Wire
Portsmouth captain Michael Doyle lifts the League Two trophy. Photo: Andy Lloyd/PA Wire
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

On the bus back from Donegal, Michael Doyle's name was the only one read out by the local radio station although it wasn't for the reason he would have wanted.

"Michael Doyle missed the only penalty in the shoot-out as Munster beat Leinster in their under-17s inter-provincial final after extra-time," said the newsreader somewhere near Letterkenny, on what must have been a slow day in sports news.

As a few heads turned to get a reaction, Doyle saw the positive side.

"I didn't hear any of your names get mentioned on the radio," he said, dead-pan, and shut just about everybody up.

From the tournament, one - Damien Delaney - made it to the Premier League, a few others went on to have decent League of Ireland careers, most played in provincial Senior Leagues and one is just happy that he can remember a tiny incident from almost 20 years ago just to get an intro for a column.

But then days like Saturday come along and Doyle's career gets a rare moment of exposure.

Among a batch of Irish players, Doyle captained Portsmouth to the League Two title with the club having timed their run to win by a nostril. For most of the season, they were in a battle for the third automatic promotion spot while Doncaster and Plymouth headed the field.

When the final whistle went on the season, Doncaster had led the league for 129 days, Plymouth had led for 102 days and Portsmouth had led for 10 minutes. It was, however, the last 10 minutes and they won the league with a squad that, as well as Doyle, contains David Forde, Enda Stevens, Eoin Doyle and Noel Hunt and is managed by former Sligo Rovers boss Paul Cook.

Having filled a couple of their teenage years with dreams of being a professional footballer, this is the time of year where English clubs release hundreds of young players and move on to the next batch of young hopefuls but, for the Irish among them, it's the likes of Doyle who should be held up as one of the great success stories.

Doyle never made an appearance for Celtic and could easily now be back home, like so many others are, with older lads pointing out what a good player they were as a kid while regaling anyone who will listen about their talent and becoming a better and better player as every pint is downed.

Instead, Doyle has forged a career by first stepping out of his comfort zone to play in Denmark on loan at Aarhus while still at Celtic, then embarking on a career which while rarely sexy or eye-catching, requires a huge amount of dedication.

In the 14 years since making his debut for Coventry, Doyle has never gone through a season in which he has played fewer than 30 league games which, as a battling central midfielder who is well able to look after himself in England's lower leagues, takes some doing.

This season, at 35, he started every one of Portsmouth's 46 league games - to add to the 43 he started last season - and as the pressure rose for the club to push for promotion, he managed to avoid a booking since mid-January and not be suspended when his team needed him. It would be churlish and childish to point out that him being a former Cherry Orchard player makes this statistic even more impressive.

Doyle was also captain at Coventry City and Sheffield United - his two other permanent English clubs - while he helped Leeds United gain promotion from League One on a season-long loan.

Whether he returns to that division at Portsmouth next season is unclear with his contract up for renewal later in the summer but, after an incredible 681 games as a professional, there will certainly be a club in England that will help him over 700.

At the other end of League Two, Mark O'Brien will never again have to buy a drink for himself in a certain part of Wales after scoring a last-minute winner to keep them in the league.

Unlike Doyle, O'Brien was heralded in Ireland from a much earlier age, winning the under-16 player of the year award in 2009. Very much like Doyle, however, he is, even at 24, another great example to keep believing even if they currently feel like their dream has died.

Surgery

The same year as O'Brien won the award, he had surgery to correct a problem with a valve in his heart. Then, having signed a four-year contract with Derby in 2011, he tore his cruciate ligament which prevented him from starting a game for 13 months.

In the final year of his contract at Derby, he went 270 miles north for a year's loan at Motherwell; when he was released by Derby he travelled 100 miles south for a two-year deal at Luton where things didn't work out so a 188-mile move for a loan at Southport was next on the agenda. From there, it was 200 miles down to Newport when his contract with Luton was ended by mutual consent.

For a 24-year-old from Ballyfermot, it's a long road to have already travelled which, without a pun on his previous experience, is heartening to see the scenes after his first professional goal.

On Saturday, as Doyle was about to pick up the League Two trophy, O'Brien hit a 90th-minute winner for Newport which kept them up at the expense of Hartlepool.

"Nothing compares to this - I will never forget this moment," O'Brien said. "It is a highlight of my career - and it will live long in my memory.

"I'm going to watch that goal over and over again - I will show it to everybody at home."

Like Doyle, his fellow Cherry Orchard man, he even got his name read out on the radio.

Irish Independent

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