Grant Doyle: Derbies and demons

Mike Doyle was a Manchester City legend who died recently after years of drinking. His son tells Tim Rich about the sadness of his death and the joy he brought to so many in life

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The Independent Online

He had never hidden his dislike of Manchester United and now here he was surrounded by their supporters on the pitch at Old Trafford. They were boys, not the forty-somethings who make up so many of the Premier League's season-ticket holders, and Manchester United were about to be relegated. One spat at the man in the blue shirt and Mike Doyle turned and scattered them with a single look.

Doyle was like that. He was the son of a policeman and heartbeat of Manchester City's last great team. The 1974 encounter, the one that relegated Manchester United, was one of 16 derbies he played in and only one was lost. In July, when his body, worn down and hollowed out by alcohol, was laid to rest, the cortege did a circuit of Eastlands before making its way to Ashton under Lyne where he was born.

Only two men have ever played more games for Manchester City and none has won more trophies. He was dying of liver failure when City's 35-year quest for more silverware was ended although he watched the club win the FA Cup from a television by his hospital bed.

But for care from the Sporting Chance clinic, his son, Grant, thought he would have died two years beforehe did. Now, for the first time, he has spoken publicly of the struggle his father had with alcohol. "When he went back on the drink at the back end of last year I remember telling him, that he would die soon, that he wouldn't last a year. To us he was indestructible. The Bionic Man we used to call him. We thought he would live to be 100 but he was dead at 64.

"By the end, the toxins were getting to his body and he had trouble recognising people. We had been waiting for weeks and weeks but you can't stop your life, can you? I was working as a pilot and went off to Palma and ended up at Blackpool. I got the phone call literally the minute I pulled on to the stand. It was my sister, Stephanie, saying I needed to get back to the hospital quick. He died the following day.

"My brother, Scott, and I are trying to get a golf day organised at Northenden next year with all the proceeds going to Sporting Chance. I am absolutely certain that without them he would have been dead a couple of years ago. He was off the drink for 18 months and they were a good 18 months."

To those on the Kippax at Maine Road, he was granite-hewn. "He was a full-on footballer," said Glyn Pardoe, perhaps his best friend at Manchester City, whose daughter, Charlotte married Doyle's son, Scott. "He could attack, he could defend, he was an all-round midfielder. What modern player did he most resemble? Roy Keane would be about right. He had this tremendous will to win."

It extended beyond football and beyond his retirement. Mike was a scratch golfer and Grant combines his role as the professional at Northenden, where Denis Law still plays, with that of an airline pilot.

"One of the best memories of my father involves golf. We were out in Spain and were delayed coming back and dad had a final the next day against the pro and he was knackered. Dad was three or four down, I went over to him and he was in his car. He'd had two pints and he was asleep. He woke up, played the second round and kicked the pro's arse. He won easily. It was the best game of golf I have seen in my life."

Drink is everywhere in football from the crates of Lanson champagne that are unloaded at Old Trafford the day before a Champions' League fixture to the many advertisements for it which ring the grounds. Attitude to drink was different in the Seventies and Eighties. When Liverpool won the 1984 European Cup, the players went on a post-match binge that is said to lasted for days; when, 21 years later, Liverpool next won the trophy the players were handed champagne on the flight back from Istanbul and Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso are said to have reacted as if they had been given a urine sample.

Doyle was a footballer of his time. What Paul Gascoigne most admired about Bryan Robson was his ability to be the last to leave the bar and the first to arrive at training, where he would sweat out the booze. There was something of that in the former captain of Manchester City.

Grant tells a story that Mike and a friend went to a conference in Southport and retired to the bar. After eight or nine pints, the mate went to bed and staggered up at 11am to be told that Mike Doyle had already checked out, having polished off a bottle of whisky with the barman and then got up to run on the beach at 6.30 the following morning.

"He was almost religiously disciplined," said Grant. "He got a lot of post from Manchester City fans and would deal with it the moment he arrived. There would be football cards or photographs to sign or requests to deal with. He was quite impressive in dealing with it. And he would talk to anyone about football, he would chat and chat."

It was his inability to play golf that helped break down that discipline about alcohol. He had thrown every sinew into the service of the clubs that employed him and in retirement his body weakened to the extent his doctor told Doyle he could never play golf again. It provided a gap in his life for the drink to seep into. He was drinking a bottle of spirits a day, his marriage broke up and, in his autobiography he conceded that he would not have been alive to write Blue Blood, which was published in 2005, but for Grant's support.

It was mutual. Becoming a professional golfer and then an airline pilot is no ordinary career path. "Mum and dad supported me through everything," he said. "There were times when I thought: 'I just cannot do this.' I was doing pilot training when I was 24 or 25 and dad was in his early 60s and he would give me a bollocking for being a mardarse. He just said: 'Get on with it; get it done'. Becoming a golf pro was easy; you just have to swing a club, do three years to get a qualification and find a course. But without my dad I wouldn't have had the drive to become a pilot.

"I spent a lot of time with my dad and he always spoke about how he loved me, my brother, Scott, my sister, Steff, and mum. When we were in the hospital I had only recently got the job with Jet2 and he asked what plane I was flying and I brought up a picture of the plane on my phone and showed it to him. He said: "I can't believe my son flies something like that. It's amazing." I was made up about it because you didn't get a lot out of my dad."

His hatred of Manchester United was played up for the cameras and the notebooks, though for varying reasons he disliked George Best, who also succumbed to drink and liver failure, and loathed Rodney Marsh. Neither were team players. Doyle blamed Marsh for fatally unbalancing the Manchester City side that appeared destined for the championship in 1972.

On the golf course, the then City manager, Joe Mercer, confessed it was his assistant, Malcolm Allison's, idea to bring Marsh up from London. Doyle disliked him from the moment he offered to show him some houses in Sale, in Manchester's southern suburbs. Marsh turned up in a Lotus and affected a disdain for the place.

Best rarely performed well in Manchester derbies and Doyle thought him inferior to Bobby Charlton. "Bobby was much more difficult to play against," he would recall. "We always seemed to have an answer to Best. We were not afraid of him as many teams were. The more we looked at films of him, the more we saw how defenders used to commit themselves with sliding tackles. Nobody ever stood there and put the ball into his court and asked him to make up his mind as to which way he should go."

And then there was the tackle on Doyle's friend, Glyn Pardoe, which dramatically curtailed his career at Manchester City. "It was December 12, 1970," Pardoe recalls. "I haven't forgotten the date. He broke my leg, destroyed it, really. They tell me Mike grabbed Best by the throat; I didn't see it because I was writhing on the floor with my leg hanging off. How would you describe the tackle? Let's say it was a bit late. I was in plaster for nine months." Doyle scored the first goal, a header at the Stretford End. United lost 4-1.

He may have won more medals than any other footballer at Manchester City, but Doyle's ego appears to have been remarkably small. "The medals didn't really have much of a hold on him," said Grant. "When we were moving house, he pulled his memorabilia out of the loft – boxes and boxes of the stuff. He genuinely thought the medals were worthless. He said he didn't need them to understand what he had done. He said people knew who he was. He never moaned about what players earned now, he never felt he had missed out. He had 64 years of being Mike Doyle."

Doyle's derby days

March 1968 Old Trafford W 3-1

August 1968 Maine Road D 0-0

March 1969 Old Trafford W 1-0

November 1969 Maine Road W 4-0

December 1969 Maine Road W 2-1 (League Cup)

December 1969 Old Trafford D 2-2 (League Cup)

January 1970 Old Trafford L 0-3 (FA Cup)

March 1970 Old Trafford W 2-1

December 1970 Old Trafford W 4-1

November 1971 Maine Road D 3-3

April 1972 Old Trafford W 3-1

November 1972 Maine Road W 3-0

April 1973 Old Trafford D 0-0

March 1974 Maine Road D 0-0

April 1974 Old Trafford W 1-0

September 1975 Maine Road D 2-2