From Wolves to horses…Kevin Doyle swaps goals for foals

“I’m just on my way to get a horsebox fixed and my two-year-old is in the car…so this could be an interesting interview.”

There aren’t too many former Premier League and international strikers who would start a conversation like that.

Then again, there aren’t too many former Premier League and international strikers who are living the post-football life of Kevin Doyle.

And doing so with exactly the same calm and unassuming approach as when leading the line for Cork City, Reading, Wolves, QPR, Crystal Palace and Colorado Rapids.

Whether turning out for Cork in the League Of Ireland, for Wolves in front of over 75,000 at Old Trafford, or feeding horses on the family farm in Wexford where he is now pursuing a ‘full-time hobby’ as a horse breeder, you fancy that Doyle would tackle each and every task with consummate professionalism.

In an era where perhaps more footballers than public perception would agree are very much normal human beings, Kevin Doyle is certainly more normal than most!

“I always tried to look at the football as a job, like it was,” says Doyle, who turned 37 last Friday.

“You have so many highs and so many lows that mentally it becomes tough, and so treating it like a job was my way of dealing with it.

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“Of course it’s very different to most jobs, with everything that comes with it, but I tried to make it that way, concentrating on giving my very best for whichever club I was at but not getting too carried away, good or bad.

“That meant it wasn’t the end of the world if I went through a bad season, or was on top of the world after a good one, and it wasn’t as much of a major upheaval when I retired.

Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers smiles as makes a return to the bench (AMA)

“That was the way I approached it and, to be honest, there might be a few that are different characters but most footballers are actually fairly normal people.

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“I bet you could pick up the phone to any of that bunch I played with during my time at Wolves, and they would be just the same as they were then, normal people who were just giving their best for the club.”

There were never any complaints about Doyle on that score, perhaps shaped by his humble beginnings as he progressed from watching the Republic of Ireland on television whilst collecting glasses at the family pub, to earning 64 caps for his country, scoring 16 goals.

Moving to Reading from Cork, he was Royals’ Player of the Year as they won the Championship with a record number of points, and so had already subsequently enjoyed Premier League experience before Wolves came calling in the summer of 2009.

It was very early in the summer, too.

Wolves’ recent £35million capture of Fabio Silva is the sixth time in four years of Fosun’s ownership that the club have broken their transfer record.

That wasn’t so much the case over a decade ago, with Wolves having spent so long away from the top flight with the exception of 2003/04.

And so the £6.5million splashed out on Doyle – almost double the previous club outlay of £3.5million on Ade Akinbiyi in 1999 – was a big deal in more ways than one.

“It was very soon after the season finished that Wolves met Reading’s buyout clause and had a bid accepted and I found that really impressive,” Doyle recalls.

“Usually in those situations you go through July and into August and the rigmarole of this, that and the other as clubs make up their minds and don’t really know what’s going to happen.

“Wolves were right in there straightaway – bang, we want to sign him.

“I think it caught a few other clubs who were interested on the hop.

“Roy Hodgson at Fulham had tried to sign me the year before and still wanted me to go there but their hierarchy were slower at getting down to business than Wolves.

“And I was a little bit nervous about Wolves because they had only just got promoted and if possible I didn’t want to join a club that could end up being relegated.

“But as soon as I met Mick (McCarthy) – I hadn’t met him before even though he had been manager of Ireland – I was really impressed, and Jez (Moxey) the same.

“It was nice to feel wanted, they were really eager for me to sign, and there was no to-ing and fro-ing or bulls***ting and playing games.

“It was ‘this is our training ground, this is our stadium, we are offering you this wage, we want to sign you, can you let us know as soon as you can’?

“You get used to so much cloak and dagger in football but Wolves were really up front and straightforward and that is why I was delighted to sign.”

Interest in Doyle circled right up to the moment he signed the contract, with Fulham having a bid accepted late on, but by then he had made up his mind, and embarked on a new chapter which would take in the next six years of his career.

It was at a time when signing on the dotted line at Wolves meant lining up for a thrill-a-minute ride where you never quite knew what was going to happen next.

Oh yes, all aboard the Molineux Rollercoaster!

With stability at the start and end of Doyle’s Molineux tenure thanks to Messrs McCarthy and Jackett, and a spell in between when he played for five different managers in 18 months, three years in the Premier League were followed by a double relegation and then promotion back to the Championship.

Kevin Doyle celebrates

Towards the end Doyle was twice despatched on loan, but twice he returned, his final Wolves appearances greeted with much acclaim by a Molineux fanbase who never forgot the magnitude of his contribution to the cause.

For all the ups and downs of his dances with Wolves, for the most part, Doyle loved it.

“There was actually more pressure on me joining Wolves instead of say, Fulham,” he explains.

“Fulham had spent a lot on players and it wouldn’t have been so big a deal, but for Wolves, being a record signing brought added pressure and responsibility.

“I loved that though, and I really knuckled down to make sure I was in the very best condition I could be.

“We had a good season that first one, we flirted with relegation a little bit but pulled away towards the end and finished off strongly.

“And then we managed to stay up on the last day in the second season, even though it got mighty close.

“We had a lot of good players – a lot of lads who were hungry to succeed at their first chance in the Premier League and we picked up some great results along the way.

“Everyone wanted to get established in the Premier League and a number of them went on and did that.

“We weren’t pretty at times, but we couldn’t be, we were fighting for our lives to stay up and hadn’t spent as much as other teams who were in the same situation.

“Even so, I think we still played fantastic football at times, and ended up beating some of the top teams over those first couple of years.”

All of a sudden our call is interrupted.

A very long and loud beeping of a horn, which sounds like it is coming from some sort of extremely chunky articulated vehicle.

“Everything o-k Kevin?”

He is on hands-free, of course.

“Yeh yeh all good, just going around an island.”

Talking of traffic, memories quickly resurface of Doyle’s frequent light-hearted jibes about the amount of traffic lights on the A454 Willenhall Road interrupting his journey from the Sutton Coldfield home he rented with wife Jenny during his time at Wolves.

There was certainly nothing stopping him in his tracks when operating in the lone centre forward role at Molineux, which many observers have speculated affected his fitness over time and ability to get among the goals.

Doyle refutes such suggestions, and indeed highlights the team ethic and desire to work hard for each other and for boss McCarthy as the key behind the team twice surviving in the Premier League.

“It was a really enjoyable time in my career, and I loved it,” he says.

“It was hard work, but every player would have said the same.

“Playing up front on my own was absolutely no problem at all.

“Football at the time was changing, and more teams were moving from playing two up front to one, as it is mainly now.

“Infact sometimes teams don’t even have an out-and-out centre forward now, if you look at how Liverpool play with their front three.

“We were a team fighting for our lives in the Premier League, so maybe playing up front on your own was harder work than some other teams, but we had to do it to survive.

“Wolves fans were more used to seeing two centre forwards but a lot of teams were changing, and for me, I was just happy to be in the starting eleven.

“It was new to me, more of a hold-up role bringing others into play, but I took the challenge on, and enjoyed it just as much as I would have enjoyed playing two up front.

“I liked the responsibility, being the focal point, and while there was a lot resting on my shoulders it brought a different aspect to my game.

“There were some tough games and some tough battles with defenders, but I relished that, and gave as good as I got.

“It is a question I have been asked a lot about playing that position but I genuinely never had any problem with it and just maybe one of the reasons we ended up getting relegated in that third season was because we departed from that and went back to a 4-4-2.”

The successes of that team in sometimes fighting above their weight were not solely down to their ability and youthful exuberance.

Team spirit played a vital role, expertly developed and nurtured by McCarthy, his assistant Terry Connor and the rest of the backroom staff.

They worked hard, incredibly hard, but at times – the right times – they played hard as well.

“I remember not long after I signed we went for pre-season in Australia,” Doyle recalls.

“We were in Perth, in the middle of Winter when there was nothing going on, but we made the most of it!

“There was also a fair bit of banter around the 600 metres run which fitness coach Tony Daley had set up at the WACA cricket ground.

Kevin Doyle celebrates scoring

“We couldn’t work out why none of us were managing to meet the targeted times, until we worked out towards the end of the trip that he had mis-measured the distance and it was actually a fair bit longer!

“Another time we went over back to my home town in Wexford to play a friendly which was part of the transfer deal.

“I was really worried about that one, we had been struggling in the league and the last thing we probably needed was to go and play a game like that on a Monday night, but it all went really well.

“For team bonding it was really important, we had a night at my brother’s pub and had some great fun.

“I’ll never forget Foz (John Hendley), who worked in the press office at the time and is sadly no longer with us, he had such a great time that night as he kept telling me whenever he could for months afterwards.

“That was another thing about Wolves – behind the scenes all the staff worked so hard and everyone got on really well together, it was a really good, family atmosphere.”

For the record, the charge of mis-measurement is one which Daley vehemently denies, this week citing support in his defence from locals over at the WACA, although it’s fair to say Doyle is not the only witness for the prosecution!

There were meanwhile some incredible Doyle performances to savour during those Premier League years.

His goal and selfless overall display in the 1-0 win at Tottenham, a performance in a goalless draw at home to Liverpool that McCarthy labelled as one of the best he had ever seen from any striker, a clinical opener on a crucial night at Wolves next opponents West Ham, a headed winner – despite what George Elokobi might say – to end Manchester United’s long unbeaten run.

Even as things turned sour for Wolves, Doyle would still pop up at crucial times, and even in the ultimately fruitless scrap against back-to-back relegations, he struck three winning goals in the space of six games to try and arrest the Championship decline.

“Those were the difficult times,” Doyle recalls.

“Getting relegated from the Premier League was always possible with the quality up there, but to go down again from the Championship was a massive shock.

“I got on very well with Stale (Solbakken), and remember he was under a lot of pressure to get us in the top six.

“He ended up getting let go when we were some way off the top six, but little did we know how we’d have taken mid table at the end of that season!

“Unfortunately for Dean (Saunders) he just didn’t get the new manager bounce that you are always hoping for, it took a long time for us to win a game, and we just went into freefall and couldn’t turn it around.

“For everyone at Wolves – players, staff, supporters – it was a tough time.

“We got plenty of stick that year, and deservedly so, but it was hurting us just as much as the fans.

“That season was definitely the low point of my career, not just from a football point of view but the whole mental side of it as well.”

As Kenny Jackett set about restructuring the Wolves squad, ultimately paving the way for the club’s record-breaking League One triumph, several of the senior players were consigned into a ‘Group 3’, less affectionately known as the ‘bomb squad’, training on their own in the afternoons whilst waiting for opportunities to move on.

It was never fully clear to what extent Doyle was part of that group, but he did remain in the plans on different occasions sandwiched either side of loan spells with QPR – ending in play-off success and promotion to the Premier League – and Crystal Palace.

“I flirted around with Group 3 and probably made a couple of appearances,” Doyle says with a laugh.

“Listen, I had no problem with that at all and I totally understood the situation.

The shirt of Kevin Doyle of Wolverhampton Wanderers hangs in the away dressing room before kick off (AMA)

“Again, everything was very open and straightforward.

“My wages weren’t compatible with League One, and if the club wanted me to move on then that wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt bitter, I never fell out with anyone and I hope no one fell out with me.

“I ended up playing over the first half of that promotion season, and then coming back towards the end of the following one, and it was good to get a few appearances and finish things off on a nice note.

“I just hope the fans could see that I always gave my all to try and help the club – I might have played crap at times, but I was certainly always trying.”

Towards the end of his career, Molineux reserved one of its special rousing receptions for Doyle, as he came off the bench for a first appearance in over a year during a 5-0 rout of Rotherham.

It was an emotional moment in front of wife Jenny and family and “tingling” is how the man himself described it at the time.

Next stop was a new and exciting challenge in America with a Colorado Rapids team now currently boasting Neil Emblen on the coaching staff and Jack Price in midfield, although after two years it came to an end as Doyle retired on medical advice in 2017 after suffering headaches following a series of concussions.

Happily he has suffered no after-effects since, and is feeling fit and healthy and very much enjoying life back home in the green fields of Wexford, on the picturesque banks of the River Slaney.

Doyle now works with dad Paddy on the family farm, breeding horses, and at the back end of last year added to his own equine ‘squad’ with the purchase of a half-brother to the brilliant Altior, currently one of National Hunt racing’s brightest stars.

It is another lively existence – morning feeds, letting the horses out of their stables for exercise, on call through the night during foaling season.

And all that alongside a busy family life with Jenny and the couple’s three children – Benett, 7, Arianna, 5 and Ethan, 2.

But just as football was a job, a job he thoroughly enjoyed, Doyle continues to take things day-to-day with his new vocation which he terms ‘a full-time hobby’.

“I played football for so long and was away from home for so long that I made a conscious decision that when I finished I would come home and do something else for a few years,” he explains.

“I’ve been involved in horses all my life, and since coming home I’ve been proper hands-on every day and loving it, and that is what I will be doing for the foreseeable future.

“It doesn’t seem like work, because I enjoy it so much, and it also means I can do the school run, see the kids more, and get involved with all the other stuff that families do.

“It is so different to being a footballer that my playing days seem like a distant lifetime ago now.

The Republic of Ireland’s (front row left to right) Seamus Coleman, Robbie Keane, James McCarthy, Andy Reid (back row left to right) Anthony Stokes, Kevin Doyle, Marc Wilson, David Forde, Darron Gibson, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea line up before the FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifying, Group C match at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin.

“With looking after horses, doing school runs, at times I’ve even forgotten that I used to play!

“But I still feel very lucky to have enjoyed the career that I did and I look back with so many happy memories.

“It could have gone a little bit better, but it could have gone a whole lot worse as well.

“Sometimes I miss the buzz and the adrenalin about being part of a dressing room, but I don’t miss that week-to-week existence where results dictate your life so much.

“Above all else, I feel comfortable that I got the very most out of the ability that I had, and enjoyed playing for all the clubs that I played for.”

And yet, while his second career as a breeder is something he is greatly enjoying, and even if the hard work involved still sounds rather more idyllic than making a long coach trip home up the motorway after a disappointing away defeat, don’t rule out Doyle returning to football in a more formal role at some point in the future.

He is still involved in media work, including covering League of Ireland and Champions League fixtures for Irish television, and also had a spell coaching the Irish Under-17s.

He talks too of seeing a ‘sparkle in the eye’ of his eldest son Benett when they sometimes check out a few YouTube clips to show just what Dad used to get up to in that previous lifetime.

“Maybe I might just pop up somewhere down the line in a few years,” he muses.

“You just never know in football.”

First up though, time to fix that horsebox.

This article was originally published on expressandstar.com