Doyle’s not calling time just yet
Michael Doyle has amassed more than 800 appearances in a long and distinguished playing career, and the 38-year-old says he isn’t finished yet
By Damian Dolan
Michael Doyle just couldn’t contain his excitement. There was no nonchalantly turning away, perhaps with a hand raised fleetingly to the air in acknowledgment, or just calmly strolling back to his own half.
The adrenalin kicked in and Doyle was away – bursting free of his ecstatic teammates to race towards the crowd and accept the acclaim, for something stupendous.
The veteran midfielder had just scored from close to the half-way line in stoppage time to give Notts County a 2-1 win over Dagenham & Redbridge, and send them into the Third Round of the FA Trophy.
“What are you doing Michael Doyle! You’re 38 years old!” screamed County’s own tv commentator, after Doyle’s strike had sailed over the head of the stranded Dagenham goalkeeper and into the net.
Off his line and out of his goal, the Dagenham ‘keeper’s clearance had gone straight to Doyle. One touch to control it, Doyle sent it back with interest, to send the home fans into ecstasy.
Just thinking about that commentary brings a laugh from Doyle – even two months on.
“It was an amazing feeling to score a goal like that, but the commentary makes it! Charlie, who did the commentary, and I share that goal,” Doyle told the Irish World.
“At the time, I didn’t realise quite how good a goal it was.”
“The referee said to me afterwards ‘I was just about to blow the whistle’,” adds Doyle, who has amassed more than 800 appearances during spells at Coventry City, Leeds United, Portsmouth and Sheffield United, and now Notts County.
“I saw the ball was coming to me, and I knew immediately I was going to take a touch and shoot.
“I caught it so well, but the ball went missing in the lights and I couldn’t see it, and then I saw the net rattle. A lot of adrenalin comes over you then!”
They’ve since gone on to reach the FA Trophy semi-finals – a two-legged affair the future of which is uncertain due to the coronavirus – and within touching distance of yet another Wembley appearance for Doyle.
The National League play-offs could offer Doyle another Wembley trip. Seven points adrift of pace setters Barrow, The Magpies look destined for a play-off semi-final.
Although, as Doyle stresses, they haven’t yet given up the ghost on automatic promotion.
“We were hitting form at the right time; we were feeling very confident that we could close the gap,” said Doyle.
They still have Barrow in their sights, having won four in a row – including a notable 2-0 win at Barrow – before the National League was suspended indefinitely on 31 March,
“You can’t beat the play-offs at the end of the season – they’re brilliant,” says Doyle, who has experienced both ends of the Wembley play-off final pendulum.
In May 2012 he was on the losing side in a penalty shoot-out, as Huddersfield Town beat Sheffield United to gain promotion to the Championship.
The shoot-out was already in sudden death when Doyle, Blades captain that day, strode forward to try and make it 5-5.
“That feeling of walking up in sudden death, knowing that if you miss….it’s a horrible feeling,” he recalls.
“There’s so much pressure. I’ll never forget that feeling – it’s one of the worst I’ve had in football.”
To a back drop of Huddersfield fans behind the goal, Doyle sent the ‘keeper the wrong way, before turning away and slowly jogging back to join his teammates on half way.
He added: “When I scored I didn’t even celebrate – it was just pour relief.
“It’s takes a lot out of you mentally – there’s so much mentally that goes into taking penalties.”
Huddersfield recovered from missing their first three spot kicks to eventually win 8-7.
“I don’t know how we didn’t win that shoot-out. We let them back into it – it was certainly an opportunity missed,” reflects Doyle.
Doyle would also taste FA Cup semi-final disappointment at Wembley with League One Sheffield – losing 5-3 to Premier League side Hull City in 2014.
Beaten in the League One play-off semi-finals in 2012/13 and again in 2014/15, Doyle would never get that promotion with the Blades in his four and a half years there.
“It haunts me that we never got that promotion. We’d be top of the league at Christmas, but then things would go against us and we were always the team out of form come the play-offs,” he said.
He was back at Wembley again, though, in May 2018 – this time with Coventry. Returning for a second spell at the club where he made his name, Doyle captained the Sky Blues to a 3-1 win over Exeter City in the League Two play-off final.
“I did feel that when I went there with Coventry in 2018 that I had a monkey on my back,” says Doyle.
“I was nervous going into that game. I was thinking ‘I can’t lose a third time at Wembley’.”
But third time proved to be a charm for Doyle.
“It’s something I look back on fondly – to win at Wembley and get promoted is really special,” he said.
A product of Dublin’s Cherry Orchard, Doyle’s first experience of British football came with Celtic, when he signed professionally in August 1998.
He spent a season on loan at Danish side AGF Aarhus in 2001/02 along with Liam Millar, before Gary McAllister brought him south to join Coventry in 2003.
He spent the next six seasons trying to get the club back to its glory years, while equally trying to stop it slipping any further down.
Doyle was a regular under a succession of managers in the Sky Blues hotseat; Eric Black, Peter Reid, Mickey Adams, Iain Dowie and Chris Coleman. Dowie made him club captain.
In 2009 he joined Leeds on a season long loan and helped the club to League One promotion – Doyle establishing himself as a firm fans’ favourite, just as he has everywhere he’s gone in his career.
Even though Leeds meant dropping down from the Championship, it was an opportunity he “couldn’t turn down”.
“It was brilliant to play for a club like Leeds. I knew I was going there with a chance of promotion and fortunately it worked out that way,” said Doyle.
Leeds, under Simon Grayson, finished second behind Norwich City.
He’s since watched the club go from strength-to-strength. Currently top of the Championship, they’re on the cusp of a return to the top-flight.
“It’s nice to have played a little bit of a part in their history,” he says.
At the end of that season, his loan deal up, Doyle returned to Coventry. Adrian Boothroyd had since taken over charge from Coleman.
It would be his last season for the Sky Blues – in his first spell at least. In 2011 he joined Sheffield United.
“Like Leeds, it’s a tough club to play for because expectations are through the roof,” says Doyle.
“I played with players at Sheffield who just couldn’t handle the crowd. It was tough environment if you weren’t winning games.
“But I was there every Saturday to put that jersey on and play – I never shirked it.”
The play-off final defeat to Huddersfield is the “one that got away” for Doyle. The Blades finished the regular season in third, three points off automatic promotion, and nine clear of Huddersfield.
It was a campaign overshadowed by Blades striker Ched Evans being convicted of rape.
“And it affected us as players – it was a horrible time. We thought we were going to get second place, but everything went downhill after that,” he said.
“Charlton were really strong, but we were the next best team in the league. We should never have been in the play-offs.”
His second promotion came at Portsmouth, whom he joined in 2015 as captain.
Having lost in the League Two play-off semi-finals in his first season at Fratton Park, Portsmouth clinched the title in 2016/17 on a dramatic final day of the season.
Already assured of a top three place and automatic promotion, Portsmouth’s 6-1 hammering of Cheltenham was enough to send them top, as rivals Plymouth Albion and Doncaster both slipped up.
It was the first time they’d been top all season, and gave the club its first piece of silverware since Harry Redknapp’s side won the FA Cup in 2008.
“The scenes that day at Fratton Park were amazing and that weekend will live with me forever,” said Doyle.
“We went down to the seafront on the Sunday and there were thousands of fans down there, and they gave us a great welcome.”
But rather than going up with Portsmouth, Doyle opted to stay in League Two and re-sign for Coventry, under manager Mark Robbins.
🎶 WE’VE GOT MICHAEL DOYLE…
➡️ https://t.co/OApiOminOt pic.twitter.com/VkcK4SMURE
— Coventry City (@Coventry_City) May 19, 2018
The city was still his home and having given him his opportunity back in 2003, it’s the club above all others that he has a “real affiliation” with.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to go back to Coventry. I’d just won the league at Portsmouth and loved it there, but the opportunity came to go home and to cut out the travelling.
“I was torn, but it worked out great.”
Again handed the captain’s armband, Doyle led the Sky Blues to promotion via the play-offs at Wembley, and that 3-1 victory over Exeter.
He helped the club cement its League One place the following season, finishing eighth, before been drafted in by Notts County in January 2019 to help in its fight against relegation to the National League.
He couldn’t prevent them from beating the drop, but they were well on course to bounce straight back until Covid-19 intervened.
It’s at The Magpies, though, that Doyle passed the 800 appearance milestone. He’s since moved on to 806.
His tally of 674 Football League appearances has put him in good company – the only Irishmen to have amassed more are Pat Jennings (757) and Denis Irwin (682).
“It’s something to be proud of; there’s not too many players who passed 800 games,” says Doyle, who has set no time limits on how long he’ll carry on for.
“I know I’m at the latter stages of my career, but I’m enjoying it at Notts County. You take it as it comes.
“I’m playing a large amount of games and I feel good…I don’t feel like retiring.”
As long as he can keep up with the younger lads in pre-season training, he’ll keep going.
“I’m always up around the front [on team runs] – I haven’t been falling behind. When I start dropping nearer the back, then that will be time for me,” he says.