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From 20th in February to final-day promotion - the Irishman at the heart of a remarkable success story

Eoin Doyle on Bolton’s unlikely triumph and becoming the first player at the club since Michael Ricketts to score 19 goals in a season.

Bolton Wanderers celebrate sealing promotion to League One.
Bolton Wanderers celebrate sealing promotion to League One.
Image: PA

ON 8 FEBRUARY 2021, the League Two table did not make for pleasant reading if you were a Bolton player or fan.

Ian Evatt’s side sat 20th, after 25 games played, with 10 losses, seven draws and eight wins.

Anyone tipping them for promotion would have received long odds.

If anything, a relegation battle looked more likely. Such a fate would have been in keeping with the club’s dramatic descent in recent times.

It’s less than 10 years since the team were playing in the Premier League. They were also a Championship club as recently as 2019.

Yet the 2018-19 season saw a full-blown financial crisis at the club.

Back-to-back relegations compounded their woes, while the pandemic has similarly made life difficult.

The club were deducted 12 points after going into administration in League One last season, which contributed to their tenuous position when the campaign was postponed owing to Covid 19.

Things got worse in June. At an Extraordinary General Meeting, League One clubs voted by majority to end the season early due to all the disruption the pandemic had caused.

It meant that, for the first time in over 30 years, Bolton would be playing in English football’s fourth tier — they had been relegated by a points-per-game model.

But after a gloomy few years, the situation gradually began to improve.

After the club had been run so poorly previously, the Football Ventures (Whites) Limited takeover spearheaded by new owner Sharon Brittan has created a more positive atmosphere around the club.

One key signing they made ahead of the new season was recruiting Irish striker Eoin Doyle on a three-year deal.

The former Sligo Rovers and Hibernian man had helped Swindon get promoted the previous season and finished as League Two’s top scorer, with 25 goals in 28 games for the club.

He could have stayed at Swindon and tried his luck in League One, while a number of other clubs in the division were also interested.

However, when newly relegated Bolton expressed their interest, Doyle jumped at the opportunity.

Of course, on the face of it, choosing to play at a lower level as opposed to staying in League One may seem unusual, but for the Dubliner, the decision made perfect sense.

Based in Liverpool, he would make the three-hour-plus drive every week on multiple occasions, staying in Swindon some nights, away from his wife Ciara and three children.

Bolton, by contrast, is just a 40-minute drive from his home, while the extra time he spent with his family during the pandemic also impacted his thinking.

“I have Ciara and the three boys. Every decision I make in my life now, first and foremost, they’re up top of it.

“Obviously, the whole Swindon thing was kind of cut short because of the pandemic. I realised that I needed to be up around them as much as possible.

“Being away from the house three or four nights a week wasn’t something that was sustainable long term. 

“If I was to continue [at Swindon], it would probably have been a matter of having to bring the family down, which is something we didn’t really want to do. Our eldest is in school and the others are starting in creches, so it’s a bit of a difficult situation. We’ve lived everywhere over the last decade or so. It’s a matter of trying to settle down before we eventually make the move home.

“It’s obviously hard to tell [if the pandemic hadn't happened] but looking back on it now, I think Swindon was always going to be just a one-season thing.”

salford-city-v-swindon-town-sky-bet-league-two-peninsula-stadium Doyle scored 25 goals in 28 games for Swindon last season. Source: Martin Rickett

And so while the location was clearly a big factor, that’s not to suggest football reasons weren’t part of the attraction too.

“It’s obviously a massive club. The stature of it, the history behind it and under new ownership, they’ve got great ideas, great plans.”

Midway through the season though with the club performing so poorly, Doyle would be forgiven for feeling a tinge of regret at his choice.

That has all changed in recent months, however, with the team going on an incredible run.

After a 1-1 draw with Morecambe on 9 February, they won five games on the trot.

Their defeat to Tranmere on 23 January was their 10th loss from 24 matches. In their next 22 games, they would taste defeat on just three occasions, winning 16 and drawing three.

Despite that formidable form, it still all came down to the final day.

Doyle feared his team had blown it after a 2-1 loss at home to Exeter in their penultimate game of the season, after which some harsh words were exchanged in the dressing room.

“I think there was a bit of complacency there with all of us in the club going into that Exeter game and it kind of backfired on the day,” he admits.

Yet the team used this disappointment as fuel in their final game, as they earned a comfortable 4-1 win away to Crawley, with Doyle putting his side 3-0 up just after half-time.

A remarkable comeback was complete, as Bolton sealed their return to the third tier at the first time of asking.

It was the fourth time in Doyle’s career he has been promoted, and the accomplished attacker describes it as the best yet.

“Obviously last year would have been very enjoyable if we did it naturally and there was no pandemic. Great things were happening at Swindon at the time.

“The first one at Chesterfield was very enjoyable under Cookie [Paul Cook]. We had a great team there, I’m still friends with a lot of the lads. But I was in and out of that team, I only got in towards the end of it and cemented my place, so that was a bit different.

“And obviously, I went up again with Cookie when we were at Portsmouth. But I went on loan in January and it got cut short through injury. I think I only played 12 or 13 games, but we managed to get the club up that year.

“Then this year, to be in amongst it for the whole season, and the way we went about it, obviously a terrible start to the season, then you win four or five games in a row and there’s a terrible month again. Then we got that January window and to go on a run as we did and just to come up the league is… I don’t think there was anyone on the planet who thought in the first week of February that we’d be going up automatically from 20th, so it was some achievement.”

crawley-town-v-bolton-wanderers-sky-bet-league-two-the-peoples-pension-stadium Bolton Wanderers players celebrate with fans gathered outside the ground. Source: PA

So what does Doyle put the team’s drastic post-January improvement down to?

“The first thing is the ownership backed the manager to go out and get who he needed. It’s since been scrapped, but at the time, the league was kind of tailored to the salary cap. So it was difficult getting personnel in, it wasn’t one of those situations where you could just go and splash out. He had to be very smart with who he brought in. The ownership let him do it in the way he was able to — he brought in some great players and they helped us massively getting over the line.

“When they came in, they suited the system we wanted to play. And we hit the ground running straight away.

“It was a very enjoyable couple of months. The first week of March, I probably would have snapped the hand off for 10th.

“The club has been through hell the last few years. Obviously, the ownership that’s come into the club now, Sharon Brittan knows what she wants and she’s been great for us players. The management can’t say enough good things about her.

“And you can see the club is really connecting again with the fans. I know it helps when you’ve got success as we have over the past four or five months. But the celebrations on Saturday really showed that. We got back to the stadium at midnight, it took five and a half hours on the bus, and it was madness. A couple of thousand fans turned up to see us.”

Doyle’s goal on the final day meant he became only the second Bolton player to score 19+ goals since the turn of the century, with Michael Ricketts grabbing 21 for a Sam Allardyce-managed team in the second tier during the 2000-01 campaign.

“I’m not silly enough to [overlook] the league we’re in,” adds Doyle. “If some of the lads that were there before me played in this league, they’d be getting double what I did. 

“But it’s great, an achievement I’ll always cherish. One of the local reporters a few weeks back told me I’d scored more goals in a season than Nicolas Anelka, Kevin Davies and Kevin Nolan were able to do. I told him ‘that’s probably the best sentence I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

Moreover, at 33, Doyle is excelling at a time when many footballers’ careers are winding down. Only Cambridge’s Paul Mullin managed more goals in League Two this season.

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He attributes his durability to doing “all the right things, eating and sleeping right”.

He adds: “I’m flying it at the minute, it does take me the extra day to recover after games, I’m more tired than I used to be, but I still see myself getting about the pitch and the data seems to suggest that as well, so long may it continue.”

jim-lauchlan-celebrates Doyle cites former Sligo player Jim Lauchlan as having a big influence on his career. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Doyle credits retired Scottish footballer Jim Lauchlan as a significant influence. He played alongside the then-veteran player in his early days at Sligo. At 34, Lauchlan still looked in peak condition and would never fail to weigh his food, among other good habits. Doyle took note at the time and it’s paying dividends now.

“For Jim to come into that dressing room at Sligo, everything changed,” he recalls. 

“The condition he was in and how he looked after himself, he was really committed to the cause and I took it on from him, asked him for advice and he was willing to help me.

“Obviously, the next season with Sligo was when I had the good run of form and got the move to Hibs.

“And when I was at Chesterfield, Shane Nicholson was the fitness coach. He asked me would I like to speak with a proper nutritionist. So he put me in touch with a guy called Liam King and he went into the depths of it. He put me on all sorts of machines which told me how many calories I’d be burning throughout the day by just lying down, et cetera, and mad stuff into the diet plan, which I took forward and did for a good eight months.

“Ever since then, I’ve known what’s good for me and what’s bad. I know the right things to do. And I’m sure it’s played a massive part in my longevity.”

And Doyle was not the only experienced Irish player who stood out in the division this year.

Despite turning 39 next week, Wes Hoolahan was pivotal to Cambridge’s successful promotion bid, earning a place in the official League Two Team of the Year as well as being nominated for Player of the Year.

“Wes has been brilliant this year and he deserves all the plaudits he gets. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get to play against him the two times.

“He was only able to play on Saturdays, not on Tuesdays. The first time we played them was a Saturday and I think he had a knock that day.

“And then we played late on this season on a Tuesday, I was unfortunate not to see him on the pitch myself.”

Doyle continues: “We were doing analysis before we were playing them on the Tuesday. We did two different types of analysis, just in case, he did play for them that day because it was a big game at the time. They’re a different team when he’s not playing, so we kind of had to have two plans going into the game.

“So he’s a credit to himself and I hope he can keep going really, and even if he doesn’t, what a way to bow out.”

forest-green-rovers-v-bolton-wanderers-sky-bet-league-two-the-new-lawn Source: PA

Doyle is currently very happy at Bolton and if he sees out his current deal, the striker will be there for another two years.

However, he lined out for Shamrock Rovers early on his in his career and would love to return to the Tallaght club someday.

“To be fair, if it’s my choice now, my next club will be Shamrock Rovers if they’d have me and that’d be it,” he says.

All going well, Doyle will get back to Dublin for a short visit during the off-season, though he hopes to eventually return on a permanent basis to Ireland. In 2019, along with former Sligo team-mate Danny Ventre, he set up a Ballycullen-based childcare facility (more info here).

The pandemic inevitably posed some problems, but the business is still going strong and they are set to open up a second facility in the Ballyboden St Enda’s GAA clubhouse on Firhouse Road in July.

“Myself and Ciara were vaccinated as well, I think they gave us the all-clear to go back, so I’m looking forward to getting back to see people.

“It’s been a bit of a rocky road getting through the first few months of the pandemic, but once things settled down, we kind of got to grips with it all and please God, it keeps going in the right direction.”

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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