As he nears the 800th appearance of his career, Dubliner Michael Doyle talks to David Sneyd about his love for the beautiful game, beating Manchester United and his fond memories of the late Liam Miller
Michael Doyle spreads three jerseys across the gleaming kitchen island.
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They are all Barcelona shirts of a different vintage.
There is a home one from 1999 with "Rivaldo 11" on the back, Luis Enrique's No 21 from 2004 is gently laid out and folded while a more recent orange-yellow abomination with "Iniesta 8" is carefully placed between both. "Beautiful," the Dubliner enthuses. "I love Barcelona."
So much so that Doyle, 39 this summer, has taken on the challenge of putting together a Lionel Messi collection, having first fallen in love with the club on family holidays to Santa Ponsa in the early 90s when the names on the back would be Koeman, Stoichkov and Romario. "I'd always get the fake jerseys from the fellas who'd come around selling them."
The plan now is to hunt down the home and away shirts from all 15 seasons that the world's greatest footballer has lit up the Nou Camp.
"People will probably think I'm a geek," he laughs.
Bona fide match-worn items aren't quite within his price range. "You're looking at £900 and up and I just can't justify spending that kind of money," Doyle sighs.
He spends some of his spare time trawling the website Classic Football Shirts for additions to his haul, with the aim of eventually putting them on display in the garage which he is planning on converting once his playing days come to an end.
He's simply not ready to confine his own career to a museum just yet. Doyle is still fighting the good fight with Notts County in the National League - the tier below the Football League - and is just three games shy of 800 games in English football.
A sending off against Dagenham and Redbridge has led to a three-game ban meaning he will have to wait just a bit longer to reach that landmark.
But with 669 Football League appearances, the only Irishmen to have amassed more than Doyle are Pat Jennings (757) and Denis Irwin (682), with Frank Stapleton just behind on 614. This is his 22nd campaign as a professional and the reasons for being able to go so long are simple.
"I don't want to work around d***heads, basically. Now maybe people think that about me, which is fine, but I'll always hope they think I'm a d***head that tries to do things right. Work hard, train hard, I won't come in late. I'll always give it my all and support my team-mates. That's what I expect from everyone else," Doyle reasons.
"I'm not a martyr, they are just the minimum requirements any player should have if they are to be trusted by managers every weekend. I have kept going because I've been lucky with injury too. I love the focus that is needed every week for every game. I love football, of course I do, but I've seen it wear people down. I have to say I f**king love the grind of it all."
It is why he takes just one week off a year and has paid for a sports therapist to come to his home twice a week for the last 15 years, helping his body to recover with massages and acupuncture sessions.
Still, as a husband with two young daughters in the quaint town of Market Bosworth, where Range Rovers and combine harvesters co-exist on the same country lanes, normal life cannot be ignored.
On days off like this one he has no problem taking his visitor for the day to the garden centre near his home for a bacon and egg breakfast bap. A Wispa with a cup of Lyons Tea isn't out of bounds either.
"Chocolate has to be kept from the fridge, have it nice and cold. So there you go, that's the secret to it all. Freezing cold chocolate."
It was only when he met his wife, Ruth, that he began to eat vegetables regularly and decided to cut out the weekend drinking sessions. "I was 25 and just thought, 'Right, you have to keep going for as long as you can and prolong your career'," Doyle says.
"Come on, let's go upstairs and show you the other jerseys," Doyle continues quickly, leading the way past Cali, the family's large auburn Dogue de Bordeaux, and their aptly named chihuahua Mini, who screeches along the floor in anticipation.
A wardrobe in the spare room tells the tale of a career that is remarkable not only for its longevity - 22 years, seven clubs, three countries and one senior Republic of Ireland cap - but for the quality of service at places that had fallen on hard times: Coventry City, Leeds United, Sheffield United, Portsmouth and now Notts County.
Doyle has never played in the top flight or cost a transfer fee. "But I count myself so fortunate to have played for those clubs. If they had been where they should have been at the top, maybe I wouldn't have got the chance to be a part of the history there, so just to be asked to go there and help them when they needed it, it was a privilege."
Memories come flooding back as Doyle slides open the wardrobe door, adjacent to which are rows and rows of football books, deflated match balls and used boots. Inside is a kaleidoscope of colour with a treasure trove of kits; some are decades old, others with the bang of sweat still fresh.
"Feel that material and the badge, the old smell of," Doyle says excitedly, as he begins to pore through them.
"I have the programme from every game I've played in, too.
"Sometimes I'll just go by the room and sit down on the floor flicking through them. It's amazing what you can remember when you do that."
As well as the programmes - including one from Boca Juniors after toying briefly with the idea of signing for New York Metro Stars while on a tour of Argentina following his release by Celtic - there are also editions of the newsletter he still receives from his old schoolboy club Cherry Orchard.
"I used to get the 76 bus from Tallaght to go training in Ballyfermot. You'd be on the top deck and it felt like there would always be someone doing drugs, smoking heroin or whatever. So I'd get the 77 into Walkinstown instead and jog up to Ballyfermot. I see it now as character building."
For as long as he can remember, Doyle's heroes have always been footballers. He didn't have to look far. They were all around him in Springfield. His father Michéal played until he was near 50, and managed local clubs like Marks Celtic, Killinarden and Bangor Celtic.
"I'd play my game at a weekend and always get to wherever my dad's team was. I'd go back to the pubs with them, these were the footballers I idolised, they were the ones I wanted to be as a kid. He'd have teams up to Butler Park and I could be a part of those sessions.
"I brought that work ethic with me. I've wanted to keep myself as fit as possible all the time and I would say that my bad experiences have drove me on, I just thought, 'No f***ing pr**k is going to stand in my way'.
"I had it growing up. This lad is this and that. When I signed for Coventry I was picked up by two players who asked where I played. I told them I was a midfielder and they were on me straight away, 'Oh, f***ing hell, you'll be up against this fella and he's a machine.'
"I was thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, he's good, no problem, we'll f***ing see about that'. I'd heard all that s**t growing up. No more. I'd gone through all this s**t of being intimidated by people and bowing down to people. I was ready for it.
"That first week of pre-season, Gary McAllister was player-manager and he prided himself on fitness. I was going after these fellas. No one was coming near me in my head. McAllister came over and was like, 'You can f***ing run'.
"Straight away I thought that was the mark I want to leave, that is the impression I want people to have."
It's why he captained Coventry in his early 20s, was a leader for the year he spent on loan with Leeds and wore the armband again with Sheffield United and Portsmouth.
One of Doyle's most prized possessions is the sleeveless Cameroon jersey from the 2002 World Cup, a gift from his former Coventry City team-mate Patrick Suffo, who was part of the national squad. He runs his hand over it and puts it back before taking out another top that has caught his eye.
It's the one he wore at AGF Aarhus, the Danish club he spent a season on loan with in 2001 during his formative years in British football with Celtic. Memories of his late friend Liam Miller, one of the signatures on the top, flow naturally.
"I remember my first day, it was a Friday when I went over and the first-team were back but the youth team were still away. John Barnes and Kenny Dalglish had taken over. They arranged a barbeque in Celtic Park to get to know everyone and when I arrived I had never seen a stadium like it.
"It had the smell of a football club walking through the reception. Then we walked out the tunnel and all the families were out on the pitch. I looked around and was in awe of it. For the next few years, every day I would be in there cleaning boots and doing jobs because there was no training ground and when it was quiet I'd go into the directors' box and take it all in.
"Then I got to know Liam and we hit it off straight away. We lived together. He was so mischievous and a bloody headcase for a laugh. He was so generous too, what happened to him…" Doyle trails off briefly.
"You learn to bottle things up in football and try not to get too teary but the memories you have with those people, with Liam, they stay with you forever and make you who you are. It was like football club on the training ground because we were all so competitive and hungry.
"When we were in digs, me and Liam were out in these converted stables and Jim Goodwin stayed in the house with the landlady. Bridie, Liam's mam, came over once a month to do our shopping and cleaning. She is as mad as Liam and was such a massive part in my life. Liam's death was heart-breaking and I wasn't going to miss the funeral for the world.
"It got me back in touch with Bridie and I went down to see her in Ovens last summer. It was nice."
Miller and Doyle went their separate ways in life and after leaving Celtic for Manchester United and Coventry, respectively. The latter could have become a Premier League player when Steve Bruce tried to bring him to Birmingham City, but with talk of an American takeover of Coventry and a push to return to their former glories, he stayed loyal to the Sky Blues.
"It felt like the right thing to do at the time," he reasons. "I don't look back and kill myself over it because I never played in the Premier League."
He spent one memorable year helping Leeds gain promotion from League One 10 years ago, even if he was not entirely welcome by all when he joined. "David Prutton, the lad who does Sky Sports now, absolutely smashed me in the first session. He done me. It was him marking his territory. Simon Grayson (the manager) went mad. He thought there was going to be a row. I got up and said, 'Nah, it's grand, all good, no problem'. I was ready for the fight at Leeds."
Indeed, he remains so well regarded by the Elland Road faithful that The Square Ball fanzine recently sent him a copy of their book, 'Makes You Proud', that chronicles the season.
Beating Manchester United at Old Trafford in the FA Cup was a highlight of that campaign, even if there is no opponent's jersey from the tie as a keepsake. "None of them would swap," he laughs, pointing out John O'Shea's red shirt from when Coventry knocked United out of the League Cup.
While he couldn't help Sheffield United escape League One during his four-and-a-half years there from 2011 to 2015, he did skipper Paul Cooke's Portsmouth to the League Two title in 2017, gaining hero status after it later emerged he played the second half of his first season with a fractured shin.
"I was on a dosage of painkillers, eight on the Friday and four on the Saturday to get through the game. I'd be sitting there on a Friday night and it felt like I was floating. They were as strong as anything and the longer it went on I just lowered my dosage because I was feeling better.
"You're selfish as a footballer because you want to play every game but you always get a feel for the people down there and they had been through so much with their club. They had it for years of people coming for the money and not caring. Again, I'm not a f***ing martyr for it, they loved our team because we gave our all."
It is why the only hint of anger and frustration that seeps out during a day of conversation is saved for one particular topic.
"You get the usual s**te on social media and I can't stand them after a game, 'Oh, the fans were amazing today'. Those players p*** me off so much. I'll openly say it, they come out and play the politics," Doyle fumes.
"All players in dressing-rooms know these lads, coming out saying all the right things. They're fan-pleasers. And then everyone in the dressing-room is thinking, 'You f***ing busy p***k, shut the…' They're only playing the fans, there are a lot of people that do that.
"There are managers that look on fans' forums and websites, we've spoken in dressing-rooms about it. A lot of people play the game. Chairman are persuaded by it and stuff so managers are having a sly look too and who the favourites are.
"I always be up front, it's not done me favours with some managers. There are fallouts, it is what it is. But I'd never go over a manager's head. Why kick them when they're down? He's in a job, you're in a job.
"It does happen. I've heard of players going around to the chairman's house and stuff. It's baffling. That's the thing, people can't get it out quick enough with stuff that happens in dressing-rooms. It was quite a wild place before. You fight and have arguments and then move on. You can't do that now. People are happy to leak things out, there is resentment there. You have to be able to trust people. Social media is one side of it.
"Players are being told they have to do it, put up all the good stuff, build your profile, someone might see it and give you an opportunity on the back of it. There are not too many people telling the truth on there."
Regardless, Doyle's love for the game endures. And yet, the completely contrasting football worlds which he inhabits could collide at the end of this season. Ruth has booked a family trip to Barcelona for a game in the middle of May, but it falls on the same day as the FA Trophy final at Wembley.
"If we make it to the final I'll just have to give the trip a miss and hopefully get to watch Barca another time," Doyle accepts.
The type of sacrifices he has had to make to keep the shirt on his back for so long.