Monday 23 April 2018

Football must pay heed to Doyle's words of warning

Retirement message from hard-working Irish striker opens up important debate on health

Kevin Doyle wheels away to celebrate scoring the winning goal during a World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan at 2012. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Kevin Doyle wheels away to celebrate scoring the winning goal during a World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan at 2012. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

In his early years in England, the commentary back home about Kevin Doyle centred on the fact he was a trailblazer.

The context was his career graph, his late development to go from the League of Ireland to a side in the English Championship and help them to the Premier League in his first season.

He was 22 when he left Cork City for Reading in 2005 and his rapid ascension showed others that it could be done, that your dreams were still alive if your mid-teens passed without a move across the water.

Doyle flourished with experience and went over when he was ready. He was good enough to stay there and went on to play at the highest level for club and country.

Euro 2016 was a bridge too far but the picture of ex-League of Ireland players that was staged in Paris was dominated by others that followed in his footsteps.

When the time came for the likes of James McClean, Seamus Coleman, Stephen Ward and David Meyler to pack their bags, 'doing a Kevin Doyle' was the ambition. In his retirement, which was announced last night, Doyle paved the way for another discussion.

His confession that he was hanging up his boots because of the effects of repeated concussions should encourage a broader debate about where football stands with regard to an issue that is generally raised these days as a red flag for rugby.

Earlier this year, Doyle hinted in an interview that it was a subject he had strong views about.

"There have been times when I have been knocked out cold in a game and would get back up and carry on, even if I had a headache," he said.

"It was not the done thing to do in the game to go to the physio and say you had a headache or that you should come off.

"You just dusted yourself down, throw a bit of water on your face and get on with it. That is the way things were done."

Without putting a time-frame on it, the inference was that he was referring to his career pre-America.

"To be honest you probably didn't want to look like a wimp in front of your team-mates by saying you needed to sit out a game due to getting a knock on the head, but the education we are all given in this area now is so different to what it was when I started out in the game," he continued.

Indeed, it was Doyle who went to doctors after the first game of this season with Colorado Rapids and said he was still feeling the after-effects of a punch to the head in pre-season.

That kicked off an interrupted campaign which ultimately led to the decision that was confirmed last night.

"Today I'm sad to announce that after listening to medical advice I will play no further part this season and will be retiring," he said

"This year it has been clear to me that heading the ball was becoming problematic and causing me to have repeated headaches.

"Two concussions this season and numerous others over the years have made this more concerning.

"After consulting the experts in this field, it has been decided that to avoid the possibility of these symptoms becoming more serious and permanent, I will be hanging my boots up for good."

There is sometimes a tendency - likely fuelled by the theatrics of players - for outside observers to assume that football is not a particularly physical game.

Indeed, there are plenty of old-timers who will say that it's not what it used to be in that regard. But that doesn't mean that it's easy on the bodies of players that line out more than 40 times a year in a high-intensity environment.

Football has its own history with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that has struck down NFL players and is now a buzzword in rugby debates.

Jeff Astle, the former England striker, died in 2002 after suffering with the problem and his family was contacted by scores of relatives of former players who reported similar symptoms.

Bennet Omalu, whose work was chronicled in the 2015 film 'Concussion', spoke out to say that it would be folly to dismiss the damage suffered by players involved in repeated heading and aerial collisions.

"I am speaking out because I recognise that it is for the long-term survivability of the sport," said Omalu, whose ideas included a total ban on heading below the age of 18.

That radical suggestion is never going to gain any real traction, but Doyle's words should provoke introspection - especially as football still has the attitude that a player who is unsteady on his feet can walk to the sideline dazed before jogging back on.

Even when players are forced from the pitch, there are instances where there has been a reluctance to cite concussion as the reason because it means the individual sits out the following week's match under the return-to-play guidelines.

Still, the road to awareness is only at an early stage. Doyle is an articulate character who should be able to help.

The work-rate he put in during his career certainly left himself open to punishment. As a kid at St Patrick's Athletic, Doyle was a right-sided player who didn't strike team-mates as a future star.

Influence

But the influence of Pat Dolan - who later acted as his advisor - was substantial. He knew what Doyle could do and brought the one-time Wexford Youths star to Cork City where he grew into a fine central striker.

In England, his unselfish attitude and physical strength meant he was a front man that did a lot of his best work outside the box making things easier for others, especially at Wolves where he frequently functioned as Mick McCarthy's battering ram.

That was the same for the bulk of his 64-cap Irish career, especially under Giovanni Trapattoni, where he did the unglamorous work that helped Robbie Keane to get into the right places.

There were big goals too - Slovakia, Cyprus and Kazakhstan spring to mind - and there was a low-maintenance approach to life that made him easy to deal with.

Doyle worked behind the bar of his parents' pub in his youth so he had a real-life grounding unlike many others in his profession.

Off the park, there was always a wise head on the shoulders. The important message contained in his departure showed that while his playing days might be over, he still has something to offer.

Irish Independent

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