Kevin Doyle: 'I don't think I would have liked being coached at an early age'

Reading's low-maintenance striker did not fancy the academy route and preferred to learn his trade at home in Ireland. It has not done him any harm, he tells Glenn Moore
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There appears to be near universal agreement that the underlying problem with English football, the cause of the national team's ongoing failure to repeat the success of 1966, the reason so many foreign players are able to cruise into Premier League teams, is the inadequacy of youth coaching.

The new panacea centres on coaching children in the seven-to-12 age group, the period, according to one expert, "of critical readiness". Soon the Football Association will be seeking to take a leaf out of Ignatius Loyola's book and be demanding the first seven years of a child's life as well.

But if the theory is true, and there is plenty of logic to it, explains Kevin Doyle, the man Middlesbrough's defenders will be worried about at the Madejski Stadium this afternoon. From seven to 12, said the Reading striker with a grin when we met on Thursday, "my brother and I were coaching each other in the garden". At 16 he was still dividing his energies between two football codes, association, and Gaelic. At 18 he joined St Patrick's Athletic, in the League of Ireland, and encountered his first professional coach. At 21 he was still playing in the League of Ireland, for Cork City.

He is 24 now, has scored 35 goals in 90 league appearances for Reading, and five in 15 internationals for the Republic of Ireland. Were Reading to sell him, which is not something they would do willingly, the bidding would start at 10m.

"People develop differently," reflects Doyle. "I don't think I would have liked being coached at an early age. I liked the freedom to do what I wanted and to express myself. When I started being coached I thought it was tedious, but I realise you can't just be playing five-a-sides all the time. You have to learn how to develop your technique and improve."

The penny, or, rather, the centesimo, dropped in Turin, because it is not strictly true to state Doyle first encountered a professional coach at St Pat's. Two years prior he and a friend had enjoyed the privilege of two months coaching at Torino, arranged through the manager of his youth team. It was, as can be imagined, a huge culture shock, on and off the training ground.

"It was a totally different experience," recalls Doyle, "even down to what we ate. We would try to smuggle in cans of Coke and we'd get caught. As for training, it was even totally different to what we do at Reading now. They taught me how to kick a ball, how to run, how to sort my feet out, how to become quicker. I didn't like it for a while but then I realised I was getting better, and when that happens you like it.

"Nothing was provided for us. We had to get the tram to the bus station, the bus to the training ground. All this in Italian. We had to communicate in Italian at the club, too, and had classes three times a week. The Italian lads would get us to do our English homework. I can still curse in Italian, and I can remember how to say 'quicker'. I didn't love it at the time, but looking back it taught me a lot. It brought me on another step and prepared me for when I trained with League of Ireland teams."

It also confirmed to Doyle he was not ready to leave home on a more permanent basis, so when several English clubs offered trials, he turned them down. Instead he went to work at the family pub, and joined St Pat's.

Until Doyle's emergence, the League of Ireland was little regarded in England. The days when it produced Roy Keane, who was nearly 19 when he joined Nottingham Forest from Cobh Ramblers, and Paul McGrath, who signed for Manchester United from St Pat's at 21, appeared long gone. The success of Doyle, and to a lesser extent Shane Long who crossed the Irish Sea with him, has prompted the transfers of several former Cork team-mates including Sunderland's Roy O'Donovan, Reading's Alan Bennett (on loan to Southampton), and George O'Callaghan of Ipswich (on loan to Brighton). Only Doyle has established himself as a Premier League regular but he insists the Eircom League was perfect preparation.

"The team was full-time, which not everybody here realises. I played in the Intertoto Cup, and the Uefa Cup. I played against clubs like Malmo and Nantes. We had 7,000 to 8,000 sell-outs and I had to deal with the local press in Cork. All that gave me a base for doing the same here, just on a bigger scale. Some players might do better coming here and doing the academy route but I wouldn't have stuck it out. I like the fact I finished school, and that I kept my friends, the friends you have for life. I did leave home, but I could drive back in two hours."

Those friends, that experience in the real world, all help now he is a Premier League superstar, a status he clearly still finds slightly odd, especially when it collides with his old existence.

"I've got used to seeing people wearing Reading shirts with my name on it here, you expect that, but at home it's strange. I'm used to seeing Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool. Now it's Reading too. My mother's always asking me to sign shirts for kids I've never met. My nephews at school are swapping football stickers, like I did, and I'm one of the stickers. It's very strange. No one really bothers me though, just the odd person comes round to have a shirt signed or picture taken."

Visitors to the pub will find a few of Doyle's shirts on the wall but none of his opponents' Doyle does not swap shirts in the Premier League. "I'd love someone like Ryan Giggs' jersey, but unless someone asks me to swap one I won't. There's nothing wrong with it but I'd feel embarrassed to ask someone for a jersey when I'm playing on the pitch with them. I don't want to be worrying, "Where is he?" at the end of a match. If we lose I just want to go in, if we win I clap the crowd and go in. Maybe in a few years' time, if I'm still in the Premier League, I'll swap some."

When he goes back to the family pub, now run by his brother, Doyle gets behind the bar, serves himself, and chats to the same old faces. "My friends come over for matches and keep me pretty grounded. They say, 'How did you miss that? How did you not score there'. The sort of things that people who don't know you well might not say. They would big you up."

Doyle can take the stick. He is not one for introversion. A predecessor in the Irish front line, Tony Cascarino, has recalled the little voice in his head which piped up whenever he was prospering, or facing a one-on-one with a goalkeeper. It would whisper 'it can't last, your legs have gone', or 'you're going to miss'.

Doyle hears a voice too occasionally. In Stuart Roach's account of Reading's first Premier League season, Reading Between The Lines, he recalled preparing to take a penalty against his boyhood idols, Manchester United, when the voice said: "This is United. This is your team. It's 0-0 and you're about to take a penalty against them in front of millions of people watching on TV." Cascarino often missed when the voice got into his head. Doyle, who had missed a penalty earlier in the week, buried his kick past Edwin van der Sar.

"You go through periods in a game when you think, 'What am I doing thinking this?'" he now says, "and when you take a penalty time seems to stand still, but you learn to deal with it. I got used to it in Ireland. It's the same experience whether there's 300 to 400 people behind the goal or 10,000.

"When it comes to finishing, often the instinctive ones are the easy ones. When I was 20, 21, missing chances affected me more. Now instead of thinking, "What if I miss?" I think, "What if I score?"

Such positive thinking was useful at the start of the season as Doyle took eight games to get a first goal. Three more have followed as he pursues last season's impressive tally of 13. "It's the way it goes as a striker," he says. "Last season I went nine games without a goal but it was mid-season so no one noticed. It builds on you a bit but I looked at the stats and I had the most shots, on and off target, so I was doing everything I could. Over the last few years I have realised there's no point in getting depressed about it, just remember it won't last for ever. Top players always face pressure and to be one you have to learn to cope with it."

It is not a surprise to hear Doyle is regarded by Steve Coppell, Reading's manager, as "low maintenance", an increasingly rare compliment in the Premier League. He sits opposite me wearing a chunky watch and a Hugo Boss top, but he is far from flash, with no side to him. A pair of new, signed, red boots have just been added to the pile of gifts under the Christmas tree, Reading's Giving Tree, in the club's reception, for distribution to underprivileged children, and it is a fair assumption they will be more popular than The Independent's Thomas the Tank Engine goodies.

Reading were into community projects long before it became fashionable. It is another aspect of an impressive club who suit Doyle and vice versa. They may be among the lower payers but he is happy there and if, or perhaps when, he leaves it will not be for the money but for the prospect of a tilt at honours, or a return to Europe.

"The club have been good to me," he says. "They have twice given me a new contract without my asking. But I don't care what I was paid if we get beat and I played crap. What makes me happy is playing football, playing well, winning the game and contributing to doing so. If I lose I'm not someone to spend the evening with. I'm sure Ronaldinho, even if on 150,000 a week, is the same if he has a bad game."

He looks out of the window of the executive box, at the gleaming stadium. "This is a club that is working hard to become bigger. It's developed the training ground, is working to develop the stadium [to 38,000]. It wants to be better and bigger, same as the players. As long as that's the case this is a great place to be."

But such progress will inevitably mean bringing in new players. One of Reading's strengths is the familiarity of the team [see panel]. "It's still a very similar squad to when we started the Championship. There will come a time when it can't be like that, but the manager has stood by us and we have done very well for him so far," says Doyle. "You have to accept it if they sign someone. If he is a very good player, you have to work hard to try and be as good. I want the club to sign good players, centre-forward or whatever, as long as he makes us better."

Reading are yet to match last season's heroics and are close enough to the bottom three to make today's match, against struggling Boro, uncommonly crucial. "I don't think it's second season syndrome," says Doyle, "it's tougher because of what other sides have done. Man City beat us last week. We beat them twice last year. But in the summer they spent millions, a lot of clubs have."

That is not Coppell's style. "He just takes everything in his stride," said Doyle of the manager. "If we've won 3-0 he just says the team done well, if we lose he doesn't tell us we're all crap, he just tells us the reasons he thinks we've lost. I think he would be very good at the England job, and in a way I'd love to see him get it even though I don't think he'd want it. But I don't want to lose him." The sentiment, one suspects, is mutual.

Familiar faces: Continuity at Reading

Of the 13 players who figured in Kevin Doyle's Reading debut, in the Championship in August 2005, 10 started last Saturday's Premier League match at Manchester City.

Of the three exceptions Glen Little is injured, Leroy Lita dropped and Steve Sidwell is at Chelsea. The two players involved at Eastlands who had not figured in Doyle's debut, Shane Long and Brynjar Gunnarsson, also joined Reading in the summer of 2005.

* READING 1, PLYMOUTH 2 (Championship, 6 Aug, 2005)

Reading: Hahnemann; Murty, Ingimarsson, Sonko, Shorey; Little, Harper, Sidwell, Convey; Lita, Doyle.

Subs: Kitson, Hunt.

* MAN CITY 2, READING 1, (Premier Lge, 24 Nov, 2007)

Reading: Hahnemann; Murty, Ingimarsson, Sonko, Shorey; Hunt, Harper, Gunnarsson, Convey; Doyle, Kitson.

Sub: Long.