Doyle walks in footsteps of giant

IRISH football has been trying for a few years now to find a replacement for Roy Keane.

Brian Kerr probably came closest when he persuaded Keano to replace himself but, long before Thierry Henry became a hate figure in this country, the Frenchman spoiled any chance of Keane finishing the second chapter of his international career on a high note, with a winning goal at Lansdowne Road to kill off our World Cup 2006 qualifying hopes.

Since Keane walked down the tunnel that night (injury subsequently ruling him out of the remaining qualifiers), Ireland has — not surprisingly — struggled to find a similarly inspirational figure, a player who could reasonably be described as the heartbeat of the team.

But now it seems that we might just have been looking in the wrong place, tinkering around in the engine room when the answer was to be found a bit further up the pitch. Step forward Kevin Doyle and take a bow. A modest one, naturally.

On the face of it, of course, the two men could hardly be less alike. Where Keane favoured the thousand yard stare, Doyle appears almost sleepy-eyed. Where Keane could silence a room with a tart one-liner, the room has to listen up carefully to catch the softly spoken words of Doyle. And, though bright and articulate in his own right, you couldn’t very easily imagine the laid-back Wexford man scorching the back pages with corrosive attacks on managers, players, the FAI, shopping or whatever else might ail him. In short, if there is ever to be a ‘Saipan — The Sequel’, central casting will hardly be phoning Kevin Doyle.

But, where it matters, down on the pitch, Doyle has slowly but surely emerged as Roy Keane’s spiritual heir. Geographically, his sphere of influence may be restricted by his nominal striker’s role but, psychologically, his impact extends the length and breadth of the pitch.

And, beyond the necessary ingredients of intelligence and skill, what Doyle has most in common with Keane is an utter selflessness on the field of play, a quality reflected in his willingness to run the hard yards, compete for every ball and, whenever possible, bring his team-mates into play.

Having debuted for Ireland some six months after Keane departed, Doyle quickly went on to make himself an automatic choice under, first, Steve Staunton and then Giovanni Trapattoni.

But it has been his back-to-back, man-of-the-match performances in the opening two games of the current European Championship qualifying campaign which have elevated the Wolves man — who turns 27 today — from the ranks of the reliable to become one of Ireland’s indispensables.

Among the current crop, the holy trinity used to consist of Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. Then came Richard Dunne and John O’Shea to swell the list of those without whom no Irish manager would want to go into battle. Now, Kevin Doyle has cemented his place in that elite group and, should he continue to progress, could yet come to be regarded as among the best players ever to wear the green.

In the meantime, it will be enough that he maintains the towering form with which he has set out on the road to Poland and Ukraine. In the opening game in Yerevan, he was magnificent, his full-on performance all the more admirable considering his post-match admission that, in the energy-sapping heat, it had taken him almost 15 minutes just to catch his breath. It didn’t show: from the off, he was the main target for Ireland’s long-ball approach, his power in the air undiminished by some rough handling on the part of the Armenian defence and sufficiently potent to set up two good chances for Robbie Keane. Later, when it was the turn of the Irish defence to come under sustained pressure, Doyle was the main outlet, at one point not only lifting the siege but racing the length of the pitch to get off a powerful shot on the Armenian goal. The effect on the rest of his team-mates of the sight of Doyle single-handedly turning defence into attack can only be imagined. And it hardly came as a surprise that when the breakthrough finally arrived for Ireland, Doyle was centrally involved, using his strength to hold off his marker before laying off the ball for Keith Fahey to strike the decisive goal.

It might have been a much easier night against Andorra in Dublin but that didn’t prevent Doyle from turning in another committed display and one which, this time, was rewarded with a spectacular goal out of nothing, itself a reminder that though, hardly as selfish as perhaps the classic striker needs to be, he retains a formidable eye for goal.

Mick McCarthy, a professed Doyle fan, won’t need any reminding of that, though how he might feel about having ‘the new Roy Keane’ in his team is another matter. For now, he’ll just be pleased that, remarkably, he has managed to hold on to a prized asset. Today, Wolves are at Spurs, which means that the birthday boy could come up against his Irish skipper Robbie Keane. Despite his reserved, almost shy personality, I don’t doubt that, like both Keanes, Doyle could one day captain his country. But, even if that’s not to his taste, what matters most is he stays fit and continues to do what he’s currently doing better than anyone: leading by example.


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