Michael Doyle searching for light at the end of Pompey’s dark tunnel

He has never played in the Premier League, and no club has ever paid a transfer fee for his services.

But Portsmouth’s Michael Doyle is heading for 500 English league appearances and has another contract taking him to 34. Today, it’s an FA Cup duel at former Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich.

On Saturday August 9, 1997, the day after his 16th birthday, Michael Doyle sat down at home with his dad in Dublin to follow the afternoon’s Premier League football in England.

This was before the days of mobile phones and blanket internet coverage, and before Sky’s Soccer Saturday had really taken off.

“We followed it on Teletext,” recalls Doyle. “It was brilliant. It was Robbie Keane’s debut for Wolves and he scored twice. It was against Norwich and I can remember it now. To think that someone we knew was playing in the Premier League, scoring two goals as a teenager. Fantastic.” Doyle was from the same part of Dublin as Keane and knew him. “My mum and dad were friends with his parents. It was exciting to be around such a great player.” A year later Doyle was playing part-time for Cherry Orchard and working as a plumber on a building site when a letter arrived from Scotland: Celtic wanted him.

He signed up, and during his time in Glasgow he would become a close friend of club mate Liam Miller.

By 2004 Doyle was playing alongside Robbie Keane, his boyhood friend and hero, in the Ireland shirt. He made his debut in a 1-0 friendly win in Holland in which Keane scored the only goal.

Miller signed for Manchester United that same year. Keane was on his way to becoming Ireland’s record goalscorer in a career that took in World Cups, Euro Championships, and more Premier League glory at Tottenham and Liverpool.

But midfielder Doyle never got a first-team game for Celtic. In 12 seasons in English football, his only medal is for finishing second, as a loan player at Leeds, in League One. He was on the losing side in the play-offs three times at Sheffield United and tasted defeat in semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup. He has never played in the Premier League. No club has ever paid a transfer fee for his services.

And that appearance for Ireland was a one-off.

“I was just brought on for a couple of minutes at the end to run down the clock,” he says. “I got a couple of touches over in the corner.” So, does he look back over his career with a sense of disappointment, of what might have been?

Michael Doyle searching for light at the end of Pompey’s dark tunnel

“Not at all. I’ve had my moments of heartbreak, but that’s football. I’ve been very lucky all these years, and I’m very proud of my appearances record.” Doyle has enjoyed every minute. He has just signed a new contract at Portsmouth and has at least a season and a half to come, at the age of 34.

“I’m not planning to give up playing any time soon,” he says, “and when I do stop I want to get into coaching. I’m already doing my [Uefa] B licence and I’m taking in every word. I’ve done some work here with Portsmouth’s under-16s.” Doyle is due to make his 500th Football League start on February 2, at Morecambe. He will pass 600 starts in all competitions this season — more than Robbie Keane, Roy Keane, and Niall Quinn in English football. And he has a chance, in his 13th campaign in England, of winning a champions’ medal. Portsmouth, having gone bust and dropped down three levels after their heady years in the Premier League, are eight points off the top of League Two but in good form. Today Portsmouth and their travelling army of fans — 2,300 tickets sold out very quickly — take on Mick McCarthy’s Ipswich in the FA Cup. The Championship side are strong favourites but Portsmouth, who won the Cup in 2008 and lost in the final to Chelsea as recently as 2010, will give them a good game.

“There’s no pressure on us, and we haven’t been able to say that very often this season,” says Doyle, who was made club captain soon after his arrival in the summer. He will watch from the stands, taking a much-needed rest during a relentless campaign. “We’re an attacking team and it will be exciting.” Portsmouth, now owned by a supporters’ trust, were pre-season favourites to go up and have attracted average crowds of 16,045, more than 10 times as many as Accrington Stanley and Morecambe, their next two opponents on the road. “Everyone knows what great fans Portsmouth have, and I experienced it first hand with Sheffield United,” he says. “Portsmouth’s first home game after the fans’ takeover was against us and we never had a chance, the crowd were so behind the team. We lost 3-0.” Doyle’s career highlight was at another big club who were in the wrong division after going into administration. He joined Leeds on a season-long loan when Coventry changed managers, and helped them back into the Championship. They had a man sent off, trailed 1-0, but famously rallied to beat Bristol Rovers in their final game and clinch promotion in front of 40,000 at Elland Road.

“That was my best season, and I loved it at Leeds,” he says. “I really wanted to stay there — but I wanted to stay at Sheffield United, too, and before that there was a time when I could see myself happily finishing my career at Coventry. I was there for eight years. Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always been happy.” Before Doyle joined Coventry in 2003, Celtic, managed by Martin O’Neill, offered to keep him on despite the fact he was in the reserves or, with Miller, out on loan at Aarhus in Denmark.

“When I realised I wasn’t going to get into the first team, because the squad was so strong, I went to see Martin O’Neill myself, which was quite a thing to do for a young man. I wasn’t going to wait around for agents to sort something out, I just told him I wanted to move. He was great about it and said if I got a move, fine, if not I could have another year.

“I was lucky I was 18 when I left Ireland, not 15 or 16. I was very homesick — there was a time when I was in my digs crying about that move to Denmark, but I got through. I’m not surprised so many talented young Irish players go back home. It’s hard to settle.” Eric Black, who had coached Doyle at Celtic, was at Coventry and they took him. He met his wife Ruth while there. They have three young children and he now sees England as home, rather than Dublin.

He has plenty of Irish company in the Portsmouth dressing room. Goalkeeper Brian Murphy, left-back Enda Stevens, and midfielder Adam Barton have all been capped at underage level by Ireland.

The managers he has learned most from are Danny Wilson, at Sheffield United, and his current boss Paul Cook — a Liverpudlian who spent five years in charge at Sligo Rovers and is, like Doyle, a stalwart of the lower divisions. “Tactically he’s brilliant, he can change a game at half-time or with a substitution,” Doyle says of Cook. “He is old school, he wears his heart on his sleeve and I can see him having a big future as a manager, either taking this club up the leagues or somewhere else.

“He is very much about the players having a hunger for football. That’s good, because there’s no question I still have that.”


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