Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt on 'special' time with Reading: ‘I wish I knew it wasn’t a normal season’

Ahead of the 2005/06 Championship campaign, Kevin Doyle signed for Reading from Cork City for just over €100,000. Stephen Hunt was 24 and had endured eight seasons of struggle at Crystal Palace and then Brentford. Then everything changed
Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt on 'special' time with Reading: ‘I wish I knew it wasn’t a normal season’

PLUCK OF THE IRISH: Reading’s Stephen Hunt and Kevin Doyle join forces in a bid to thwart Manchester United full-back Patrice Evra in a Premier League clash in 2008. The Royals’ promotion to the top flight was a stunning development. Picture: John Peters/Getty Images

tT was the season that changed the course of their careers, and their lives.

Ahead of the 2005/06 Championship campaign, Kevin Doyle signed for Reading from Cork City for just over €100,000. He was 21 years old and an unknown back-up. He ended the season as the club’s player of the year, joint-top scorer (18 goals) and a Republic of Ireland international.

Stephen Hunt was 24 and had endured eight seasons of struggle at Crystal Palace and then Brentford. An injury-plagued 18 months left him on the precipice before his old boss, Steve Coppell, brought him to Reading.

What followed was an historic promotion, setting a points’ record of 106 that, 15 years later, remains today.

So, too, do the memories as the two men reminisce over a Zoom call.

Kevin Doyle: There were only 12 players in my first training session, so it was in nobody’s head that we were going to be promoted. What I remember thinking most was how nice everyone was. I hadn’t been to England as a kid so wasn’t one of those that came back and maybe had a negative attitude towards it. I’d heard that from other people: ‘Ah, it’s a different world over there’. Blah, blah, blah. All that negative talk. So, when I went over there I was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, I’m going to be so out of my depth here, what’s it going to be like?’ But I was accepted. It was great.

Stephen Hunt: I suppose I knew the dirty politics that can come with it. I’d also been a bit of a success and was seen as a bit of a reject. I was by no means a fashionable signing, but Steve Coppell had faith in me.

It was an opportunity for me to step up and try make things happen in my career, similar to Kevin really. It was a buzz, they were exciting times.

I’m trying to remember if I was one of those 12 players on the first day?

KD: I couldn’t tell you who most of them were. I had no clue who [winger] Glenn Little was. I thought he must be a centre-back cause of the size of him. My mother had more pace than him but he could chop anybody inside out.

SH: Can you remember the name of the training ground?

KD: Ah ... the training ground. Ah…

SH: Come on now, Kevin.

KD: Hogwood! That’s it.

SH: Well done, Kevin, you got there. Just testing you.

Coppell was under pressure having missed out on the play-offs by three points the previous season. After losing their opener at home to Plymouth Argyle, Reading didn’t lose for another 33 games, finishing 16 points clear of
Sheffield United in second place.

SH: If you don’t know Steve Coppell you would think he might be a very boring person. But he’s very witty, very smart I would say, and one clear identity he had was how he wanted to play.

KD: I loved him. He was on my same wavelength. I don’t think I had a manager like that since. He always encouraged me to turn and take players on. He would tell me, ‘excite me, don’t just pass it back because I don’t mind what you do in the attacking half of the pitch’.

Whereas later in my career all I heard from certain managers was, ‘if you don’t hold it up and lay it off, get off’. It was the end of the world if couldn’t hold it up and bring others into play.

I don’t know if Stephen remembers it differently but after that first game, I remember thinking the manager could be gone here. There was definitely relief after the Brighton win.

SH: I remember nearly getting in a fight that night. I got in argument walking across the pitch with a big meathead of a centre-half.

KD: Ah yeah. I remember Coppell telling people to run him in behind. But he dropped back about 25 yards.

SH: He was on the goalline!

KD: We got into a rhythm after that. Before the season you look at all the fixtures and think, ‘how are we going to get through this?’ But once you start winning it becomes fun.

SH: You know what, I wasn’t thinking [this is great].

KD: Really?

SH: I was only on a year contract and it was not like I would get a three or four-year deal on back of a season when I was coming off the bench for 20-30 minutes every week. Maybe it was inexperience as a player, good nature, or stupidity but I wasn’t chasing money, I was chasing the dream of the Premier League more than anything.

Kevin was getting a lot of attention very quickly and after three months he had an agent behind the scenes working hard for him so I’m sure he signed more contracts than me [laughs].

KD: All of a sudden we were win bonuses and all this other stuff coming out of nowhere, left, right and centre. Financially, there were bonuses every week. You see this pay slip at the end of a month and you’re thinking, ‘what is gong on here?’ It all changed very quickly. I was getting Ireland call-ups, World Cup qualifiers, people knew me. I was trying to get my head around that.

After that Christmas we knew we were going up and then some talk switches to, ‘what are we going to get in the Premier League? What does your contract say? There was a row at the time, we didn’t have promotion bonuses in contracts because it was so unlikely we would get promoted.

SH: Our promotion bonus wasn’t worth a shite to us. It literally wasn’t worth a thing. Remember we were in Marbella, Kev, the Sheffield United lads were there, they finished second and I was giving it the big’un, ‘nothing for second lads, nothing for second’. Little did I know they got paid five times what we did. They killed me with that.

KD: But we went to Cheltenham knowing we were promoted. Sheffield United lads were there as well but were well behind us and didn’t know if they would go up. They were like nervous wrecks but we able to stroll around Cheltenham loving life.

It was the year everything changed for both men. They became seasoned internationals, eventually representing Ireland at Euro 2012. Hunt even married Doyle’s cousin, Joanne.

KD: My mother took the medal down a few days ago because my son wanted to see it. There are actually two medals. One is a big Coca Cola one and the other is the actual old one you would get for winning the First Division.

It’s only now you realise the achievement and how much has to fall into place to do it. I wish I knew then as a kid that it wasn’t a normal season.

SH: You learn in life that clubs and football move on. Kev is trying to breed horses now and get something out of them, I’m trying to find young footballers to play well (he’s an agent). I’ve learned to look forward and not back because we have another life now.

KD: But it’s nice history. There is only so much good that can happen in your career and that was a special time.

The other Irish Royals

Shane Long: The Tipperary native was 18 when he followed Kevin Doyle from Cork City. “He came into the youth team first. Half way through the first season he came in and started training with the first team,” Doyle recalls.

Long spent six years at the club before leaving in 2011 for spells with West Brom, Hull City and Southampton. Now 34, he is currently on loan with Bournemouth.

Friday marks the second anniversary of Long scoring the fastest goal in Premier League history, when he found the net for Southampton against Watford after just 7.69 seconds.

Jonny Hayes: Another who was part of the youth team, the Dubliner had a nomadic career in England, pitching up at four clubs before signing for Inverness in Scotland, and then Aberdeen. A move to Celtic delivered three league titles in a row and a place in the Ireland squad. Now 33, he is back at Aberdeen.

Graham Stack: The former underage Ireland international was a back-up goalkeeper who didn’t always get a chance to play the role. “I was sub goalie a lot of the time because Steve Coppell wanted an extra outfield player on the bench,” Doyle recalls, which seemed news to Stephen Hunt. “What about Stackie?” to which Doyle explained: “He would be at games but in the stand.”

Stack began his career at Arsenal and was 25 when he joined Reading. Retired in 2018, he is now Watford’s head of academy goalkeeping.

Conor Sinnott: Originally from Wexford, the centre midfielder spent a year at the club before returning to the League of Ireland. Named in the 2007 and 2008 PFAI First Division team of the year, he was nominated for the player award in ’08 while at Wexford Youths. Spells with St Patrick’s Athletic, Drogheda United and Waterford petered out in 2011.

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