Monday 10 December 2018

Desire driving Doyle to stay in heat of battle

Michael Doyle will be hoping to write another chapter in his remarkable career when he lines out for Coventry against Stoke this afternoonmidfield with three academy Photo: Getty
Michael Doyle will be hoping to write another chapter in his remarkable career when he lines out for Coventry against Stoke this afternoonmidfield with three academy Photo: Getty
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

"His mouth was pouring with blood but as I was running out of the box he tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'I love that, I don't mind that,' while licking the blood off his lips."

Michael Doyle in action for Ireland’s U-21s against Denmark at Turners Cross in March, 2002 Photo: Sportsfile
Michael Doyle in action for Ireland’s U-21s against Denmark at Turners Cross in March, 2002 Photo: Sportsfile

In October, the journeyman pro Carl Baker told the 'Coventry Telegraph' about his battles with the local club's captain Michael Doyle. The piece was headlined 'Blood, Elbows and Fear.'

"You always have to be aware of where he is on the pitch," Baker explained. "You know he's going to try and frustrate you and annoy you by pinching you off corners or standing on your feet - anything he can get away with on the pitch he will do."

The opening quote was Baker's description of the time where a pinch from Doyle prompted him to instinctively swing an elbow and draw blood. Fearing a violent punishment from the Irishman, the satisfied reaction surprised him.

Doyle chuckles as Baker's words are recited. There is no denial about the detail. As it happens, the pair spent a brief time as team-mates at Coventry and were also part of the Portsmouth group that won the League Two title last term. Baker's bottom-line conclusion was that it was preferable to have the Dubliner as a friend than a foe.

Making a career for one's self in the cut-throat world of English football is really a case of survival of the fittest and Doyle is a perfect example of that.

The 36-year-old recently passed the 700 mark for career appearances and, save for a loan cameo at Danish side Aarhus while he was on the books of Celtic, all of his outings have come while employed by English outfits below Premier League level.

Eight years at Coventry with a season-long loan at Leeds thrown in. Four with Sheffield United. Two with Portsmouth.

And now a second spell back at Coventry, a troubled entity struggling to regain its dignity after a sobering drop to the fourth tier - with a season based in Northampton along the way - where the club's very existence was in doubt. Question marks continue to hang over their direction.

Last summer, Mark Robins moved swiftly to recruit Doyle, a switch that made sense for both parties. They needed a savvy old pro to help steer a youthful group in the right direction. Doyle wanted to relocate back to the area where his wife and three kids live in the family home.

Travelling to Portsmouth was a wrench, even though they had successfully escaped the fourth tier.

Like every transfer in his career, Doyle moved on a free. That in itself requires a certain awareness of how the game works.

He enjoys imparting his knowledge to others, and has taken on the role as mentor in a Coventry midfield with three academy graduates that are still eligible for U-21 level.

This is how the baton is passed down. They were toddlers when their old-school team-mate was sharing dressing rooms with the likes of Gary McAllister and Dennis Wise as they neared the end of their respective journeys.

Wise played a part in honing the combative streak that endears Doyle to managers, even if it's led to a fiery confrontation or two along the way - with both team-mates and opponents.

"Football has changed so much from when I started," he says. "I was in the group that was caught in the change between the old way of doing things, when training grounds were competitive places. There was no problems with tackling.

"From Monday to Friday, there were people chomping at the bit to play. And I always had that mentality in me, I suppose.

"I like to go out and get stuck in and give it to someone and if they give it back, you shake their hand. That's the best way to be. It's a fine line now, with referees. In the Premier League, every tackle is scrutinised from Monday to Friday.

"In the lower leagues, there's a lot more stuff that goes on. You know what you can do, and what you can't do. It's just about being clever."

Wise was just that. "I played against him when he was player-manager at Millwall," he explains. "And he was probably the master of the dark arts. I was only a young lad and when the referee wasn't looking, he was grabbing you in all parts of the body. Bloody hell, it was a shock.

"But he was absolutely brilliant. And when I played with him, he would take you out and look after you.

"Gary was the same. I played with them at different times - but they were both 40 and still the best in training, as fit as anyone. I was taking that all on board because I wanted to play as long as possible."

With 29 appearances already under his belt this term, there is no sign of Doyle slowing down and that is a considerable achievement. He may not have hit the same heights as some of his teenage contemporaries, but he has outstayed them.

His solitary Irish cap came as an 88th-minute replacement for Andy Reid in a 1-0 friendly win over Holland in 2004.

Reid, who is 11 months younger than Doyle, retired 18 months ago. A good number of rivals from his underage days were out of the sport by their mid twenties. In that context, he is a phenomenal success story.

Desire prolonged the battery power. A six-hour trip each way to Carlisle last weekend is the kind of chore that drives players to question whether it's all worth it. But Doyle grafted his way through a successful 90 minutes there and was back on the park 48 hours later for a home win over Chesterfield that moved Coventry into the automatic promotion places.

This afternoon is a different type of test, an FA Cup tie with Stoke City that offers novelty value as an escape from the grind of a 46-game league campaign.

Provided the body is okay, Doyle will play his part. Some of his happiest moments have come in cup competitions. He was in the Leeds side that won at Old Trafford in this round in 2010, a second giantkilling act at that venue following a League Cup triumph with Coventry.

At Sheffield United, he was captain of the side that belied their League One status to go all the way to the semi-finals in 2014. He will tell his young associates to savour every minute, without getting carried away by the outcome.

It's not the one-off glories that define your standing in his sphere. Instead, it's the day in, day out consistency of dedication. "There are people watching football who see you playing every week and judge you on that," he says. "But they don't see what you have to push your body through every week, or the times you are willing to play through injury. Once you get a bit older, you're like a little physio yourself. When you get a knock, you know what to do. Everything is about rest and recovery."

The real hard yards started in his teenage years. Doyle left school after his Junior Cert, determined to get a trade. Football was the ambition, but there was nothing lined up. "All my family were in the building game," he asserts. "I'd work with my dad over the summer. My brother was a tiler."

He recalls unloading trucks for H.A. O'Neil's and counting down the hours to go training with Cherry Orchard. Eventually, he tried his hand as a plumber, but he never missed a football appointment. "I look back now," he muses. "And see how dedicated I was."

Celtic spotted him playing in an FAI Under-17 Inter-Provincial Tournament in Donegal in 1999. Doyle actually missed the crucial penalty for the Leinster side in a shoot-out with Munster, but that memory is now a happy one because of the doors it opened. "What's meant to be," he laughs.

After two years of work, he wasn't convinced that opportunity would ever come.

At Celtic, he made friends with shared ambitions, most notably Liam Miller who then joined him in Denmark to try a different culture in the search for games at adult level. They remain good pals, and Miller's recent cancer diagnosis came as a shock.

The Corkman never sought the limelight and wants to keep it that way as he faces into his toughest challenge.

"He's a very close friend," says Doyle. "And we've been through a lot together. He's just getting his head down, plugging away and going through his treatment.

"You support people that are close to you and there's a lot of people supporting Liam. He's a very family-orientated man and people have to respect his privacy."

That is a real-world problem that makes everything else seem trivial. Doyle remains immersed in football and wants to stay in the game, but his priorities are in check too and family comes first.

Home has taken on a different meaning. He's now spent more of his life based across the water than in Ireland and the relentless three-game-a-week lower league schedule does not exactly lend itself to regular jaunts back to Irish soil.

"Football is a selfish environment, and when you're playing, you're in a bubble," he says. "You're not thinking about hopping on and off flights to get home. You always have a game or something to plan for.

"And I still feel good, I feel like I'm a young 36. A lot of lads retire early because they're in a rush to get into coaching but I don't feel that way. I'm getting a buzz from what I'm doing now, watching young players learn the game. I'm demanding of them.

"I try and lead from the front and if people aren't at it, I won't be shy about letting them know. They respect that. But if they need anything, they know I'll always be there."

Today, just like most Saturdays, there will be 21 other players on a pitch who will know exactly where Michael Doyle is.

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