At the age of 18, Kevin Doyle was as likely to be found serving behind the bar at his parents’ pub as he was scoring goals on the football field. Debuting with St Patrick’s Athletic in the League of Ireland, international recognition seemed a long way away. Having spent the 2002 FIFA World Cup pulling pints whilst watching Robbie Keane fire the Republic of Ireland into the Second Round on the television, Doyle could well find himself playing alongside Keane in the Irish attack if the national team can seal qualification for the 2010 Finals in South Africa next summer. On Tuesday night, Doyle was given the biggest indication yet of how far he has come in the last few years when he was handed the captain’s armband by Ireland Coach Giovanni Trapattoni for the friendly with South Africa. Whilst it is true that the team was without key senior figures Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea and Keane, it was still a massive honour for the 25-year-old who has become an important member of the side, winning 31 caps so far.
Doyle was typically modest when talking about his surprise at being given the honour, saying: “It’s a massive honour, my first time to captain my country. It came as a bit of a shock, it never entered my head as I’ve only been in the squad for a few years. Very few people get to captain their country and the fact that it is a friendly game doesn’t make any difference to me – I want to remember it and relish it. I am delighted.” For those that have followed the Adamstown, County Wexford-born striker’s career, seeing Doyle lead his country out should come as little surprise. Doyle came to England in 2005 as a 21-year-old unknown, at least outside of Championship level scouting networks, for a tiny fee of £78 000. Signed in the same pre-season by Reading as the club record £1m man Leroy Lita, Doyle barely registered on the radar. Within weeks, he had forced his way into the Royals’ first team and exploded into life with 18 goals as Steve Coppell’s side smashed record after record on the way to winning the second tier title in England. In just his second season on these shores, he hit 13 goals in the Premier League before injury halted his progress and worrying the big names at the top of the scoring charts. Full international honours soon followed, as did the captain’s armband for his club on occasions following Reading’s subsequent relegation back to the Championship.
A childhood Manchester United fan, it was fitting that Doyle should mark the moment that the Premier League sat up and took notice of both the player and his club by scoring a penalty against the Red Devils. Although Cristiano Ronaldo eventually equalised for United, for a period the Berkshire top-flight debutants were leading the biggest club in England on a level playing field. Six games into his Premier League career, Doyle had already struck three goals and his team sat seventh in the league, one place above Arsenal. Reading were to go on to finish eighth – just a solitary point off a place in the UEFA Cup. A less successful second season for both parties followed, but the Irishman remained a firm fans’ favourite, his work-rate and willingness to play out of position on the right wing making up for his return of just six goals. Having been given his chance at the big time by Reading, Doyle opted to remain at the club following their relegation and was again the club’s top scorer with 18 goals back in the Championship.
Perhaps more than anything, the legacy left by Kevin Doyle on Irish football is the willingness of English sides to look to the League of Ireland for talent. Impressed with the ability, attitude and impact of the man who has struck eight goals for his country, clubs moved to sign further Irish talents including Roy O’Donovan, Keith Fahey and Dave Mooney. Whilst none of these players have lived up to their trailblazing countryman, it is perhaps even more of an affirmation of how well Doyle has fared since leaving Cork City for Reading that players rated just as highly in Ireland have failed to live up to the standards he set. Doyle appears to possess a mental strength and desire to succeed that surpasses that of many other wannabe footballers, something that stems from losing his brother Bernard to testicular cancer at a young age. Typically humble, he attributes his success to his loving family: “Whenever something good happens to me now – a penalty situation, or whatever, and I’m under pressure – my mother’s always looking to the skies and saying a little prayer to my brother. He’s working overtime the last couple of years.”
Having given an extra year of service to Reading outside of the Premier League than anyone could have demanded of a player of real top flight quality, this summer saw Doyle complete a £6.5m move to newly-promoted Wolverhampton Wanderers. He leaves Reading fans with many happy memories, from his debut season scoring feats as a bargain buy appearing from nowhere, to topping the Premier League scoring charts for periods, to hitting consecutive home hat-tricks in the Championship. Typically for Doyle, he chose to join Wolves rather than other potential suitors based not on who was the highest bidder but who was keenest to sign him. “Wolves were the first club that actually came in and settled things with Reading and so they were the first club I spoke to,” Doyle said. “It was nice to see how keen they were and when I came in and met the manager I just got on really well with him. I had a good easy conversation with him and it felt right.”
Like much of Doyle’s career to date, his debut as captain of Ireland went very well. Trapattoni’s men sealed a 1-0 win over the forthcoming World Cup hosts thanks to a sensational Liam Lawrence free-kick. Doyle was given an hour-long run out up front alongside Caleb Folan before being replaced by Leon Best. South Africa dominated much of the early stages and Lawrence’s goal came somewhat against the run of play. The Irish could have had two clear penalties, first when Supersport United defender Morgan Gould took out Folan with his shoulder and then when Gould handled. On both occasions the referee turned down all Irish appeals. Ireland have a great chance of achieving a play-off spot if they can continue to churn out the results like they did against Cyprus at the weekend. Automatic qualification is still possible and will be boosted significantly if they can beat Italy in Dublin next month. They will need to improve on tonight’s performance if that is to happen, but one suspects that the world will have a chance to see Kevin Doyle on the biggest of stages next summer. Having come this far, it would be a great shame if Doyle was to miss out on completing one of football’s most deserved of fairy tales.