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Dublin: 9°C Wednesday 12 May 2021

'Players who travel away, they might have loads of money but they don't have the memories I have'

Paul Doolin chats to The42 about a distinguished career as a player and coach in the League of Ireland.

Paul Doolin won 17 major trophies including five doubles over the course of a decorated life in football.
Paul Doolin won 17 major trophies including five doubles over the course of a decorated life in football.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

A COUPLE OF thoughts spring to mind after an hour-long conversation with Paul Doolin.

The first is that, as is the case with many successful football coaches, he is a very positive person. The words ‘great’ and ‘fantastic’ are used liberally throughout the interview. Even when discussing the two lowest points of his career, the end of his tenures in charge of Drogheda and Cork City, one of the first points Doolin makes is how ‘fantastic’ the clubs and the people there are.

1. A winning mentality

What’s also noticeable is that he is unapologetically proud of his achievements. He can tell you, without pausing for thought, how many major trophies he won (17), how many finals he appeared in (14, winning 11) and the number of goals he scored in any given season.

While the clichéd response for footballers who are asked about success is to almost appear shy and insist that ‘my teammates deserve most of the credit,’ Doolin is honest enough to acknowledge the scope of his individual achievements as a footballer, while still emphasising all the great players he was fortunate to play alongside.

In addition, another striking aspect of his career is just how much there is to cover. In 2014, the Derry Journal devoted over 5,000 words to just one season he was heavily involved in — the Candy Stripes’ famous treble-winning campaign. Since making his senior debut, Doolin moved clubs 11 times, before going on to manage three League of Ireland sides prior to his most recent role in football — a six-year stint in the Irish underage set-up. Despite what his Wikipedia page says though, he has unfortunately never played for Barcelona.

2. Teenage kicks

But the natural place to start, of course, is at the beginning. He grew up in the Liberties in central Dublin, playing first for Pimlico Rangers (“not one of the stronger teams in schoolboy football,” he admits) before linking up with St John Bosco through a friend.

Despite a heavily competitive league that included the likes of Home Farm, Stella Maris and Cherry Orchard, Doolin would go on to win the Premier Division and the FAI Youth Cup at U18s level — the first of many big trophies he would claim over the next two decades.

When I was growing up, we always played football,” he tells The42. “I remember we used to have games over different streets and different roads and play challenge matches as kids. At the time, there probably wasn’t a lot to do compared with the present day with all the electronic things that are around, computers and Playstations. It was always football and I was no different.

“We played until all hours in the day. We’d go in and come back out. So it was a fantastic time.”

Doolin did enough to impress and subsequently sign for Bohemians, who he joined along with three other young St John Bosco teammates.

IRISH SOCCER Paul Doolin, pictured here playing for Shelbourne against Cork in 1993. Source: EMPICS Sport

And while now, once a player joins a League of Ireland club, he is usually required to progress through the ranks at U17 and U19 level, Doolin was thrown into the deep end fairly quickly.

After the club’s disappointing start to the season, then-Bohs manager Billy Young placed faith in the 18-year-old winger, handing him a debut against Sligo at the Showgrounds. If Doolin was nervous to be playing alongside big figures at the club including Tommy Kelly, Gino Lawless, Jackie Jameson and Barry Murphy, it didn’t show.

I managed to start the game and score,” he recalls. “It was a header at the back-post, which probably went on to be a trademark of mine for the next 21 years.

“It was great to start and get a goal. We won 2-0 I think that day. As always, there was a passionate crowd in Sligo.”

With a good frame for his age, a teenage Doolin was well able to handle the physical demands of the game at that level and he had no shortage of skill either, registering 13 goals in his debut campaign, which was particularly good for someone playing wide right.

But while Doolin managed to go from strength to strength at Dalymount Park, success remained frustratingly elusive. They lost two FAI Cup finals — to Limerick in 1982 and Sligo in 1983. A league triumph was also so near yet so far. In his debut campaign, Bohs surrendered a sizeable lead at the top and ultimately finished third, with an experienced Dundalk side pipping them to the title amid an unusual system that awarded four points for wins away from home and two points for away draws.

Doolin and co continued to fall tantalisingly short thereafter. They came second in the league to Shamrock Rovers two seasons on the bounce between 1984 and 1985.

3. Glory days

Having grown increasingly frustrated by his lack of silverware, Doolin figured — if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. And so ahead of the 1985-86 campaign, he accepted an offer to join Bohs’ bitter rivals.

It’s the same whether it’s League of Ireland, the Premier League or La Liga — everybody’s always envious of people that are successful,” Doolin says.

“As much as people might say they like teams, everybody wants to win and to get the opportunity was great.”

Doolin was coming into a Rovers side that had won the league two seasons on the bounce. Ultimately, his presence in the team would help them secure a famous four-in-a-row sweep, while they also won the FAI Cup in three consecutive campaigns, with the Dubliner involved in two of these successes.

Leaving Bohs to join Rovers didn’t go down too well with some people, but it was a great time, Milltown was a fantastic pitch and there were fantastic people.

“Having lost the cup finals with Bohs and finished runners-up in the league, it’s only when you get the opportunity to win a Premier Division title and follow it with the cup against Waterford (that you fully appreciate it).”

Rovers' captain Pat Byrne Rovers' captain Pat Byrne and teammates celebrate with the FAI Cup in 1986. Source: ©INPHO

The famous Shamrock Rovers team included top players of that era such as Pat Byrne, Dermot Keely, Peter Eccles, Mick Byrne, John Coady, Noel Larkin and Kevin Brady, but the young Doolin managed to hold his own in such esteemed company.

I developed as a player from playing there,” he adds. ”You join a club and you never know what way it’s going to go at the start. You become part of it. There were the main players there ahead of me, I was still young at the time.

“We had some great European games — Celtic and Honvéd. We played some great football at the time and it was really enjoyable.”

Yet despite being a big part of this success, Doolin remained full of ambition and was not prepared to rest on his laurels.

4. The Derry revolution

After three years at Milltown, Doolin along with Rovers teammates Brady, Larkin and Mick Neville moved to Derry City and linked up with former Rovers boss Jim McLaughlin, while John Coady was brought in from Chelsea.

The new signings were rumoured to have cost around £30,000 — an exorbitant fee by Irish football standards back then. Consequently, the pressure was on Derry to deliver, with critics suggesting that the Candy Stripes, who had only officially joined the League of Ireland in 1985, needed silverware to prevent the season being regarded as a failure.

Liam Coyle Doolin played alongside Liam Coyle in Derry's great 1989 treble-winning side. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

However, with the pressure on them, Doolin and co delivered in the most spectacular fashion imaginable. After a slow start, the new signings began to gel with the talented likes of Felix Healy, Paul Carlyle, Liam Coyle and Stuart Gauld.

By the end of the campaign, Derry had achieved a feat that hasn’t been matched in Irish football since, winning a domestic treble of the League Cup, the FAI Cup and the league title.

We knew going to Derry that we’d always be under pressure — because of the players that had signed, they wanted success,” he recalls.

“It took us a little bit of time. The start of the season was the League Cup. We played Finn Harps and we didn’t set the place alight. But the more it went on, I think it was down to having good experienced players who knew their roles, did their jobs well and trained well.

Jim had a big influence as well. People say ‘being a manager, anyone could do this’. But it’s not so easy in football.”

It was a wonderful season for Doolin personally too. He had now moved from the right to central midfielder and scored 19 goals during the campaign.

The Rovers four-in-a-row team and that Derry team, the players that were in it, you couldn’t help but play football,” he says.

The Candy Stripes could not repeat this success the following season, however, with St Pat’s pipping them to the title by three points.

Source: John Green/YouTube

5. Northern exposure

After two years at Derry, Doolin left for another new and exciting challenge. With legendary boss Ronnie McFall just four years into his incredible 29-year tenure as manager of Portadown, the Dubliner made the move up North for a fee in the region of £25,000.

And the success did not stop, as Doolin became the first Irish player to do the double with teams on both sides of the border, as Portadown overcame their main rivals Glentoran 2-1 in the cup final at Windsor Park.

I didn’t start off too well, because it’s a totally different league, totally different standard of football, you’re getting used to new players.

“There are a lot of expectations. But again, I managed to come out of it at the right end.

I was coming from Derry and Rovers and had to get used to a different style. I thought it was a lot faster, a little more direct as well.

“I found it difficult when I was first there and wondered did I make the right decision. I managed to see it out, which is probably something that stood to me.

I always had good character, I was mentally strong, and there was a lot expected after they had signed me, and thankfully we managed to do the double.”

Soccer - Irish Football League - Linfield v Portadown Doolin played under legendary Portadown boss Ronnie McFall. Source: EMPICS Sport

Particularly in that era in the early 1990s, the North could be a hostile environment for a footballer from the Republic to enter into, yet Doolin says his background was never a big issue, despite himself and teammates not always being made to feel especially welcome at away grounds.

I remember one particular game, it was abandoned. We were locked into the ground afterwards.

“We couldn’t leave the stadium. There were some supporters on the pitch. We got grabbed by the other supporters down at the fence.

It was different time in our lives and there were not so many nice things said. It’s certainly not the great place it is now between everybody on this island.

“So it was difficult, but I never really had any personal issues. It’s no different from playing against anyone in the League of Ireland. Other teams wanted to win, we were no different.

It was very enjoyable going to places like Glentoran and Linfield in competitive football.

“No matter where you go in football, I think a hostile atmosphere adds to everything. The supporters up there did sing and chant a lot more (than usual fans). With those games against Glenavon in particular, there were great crowds.”

6. The twilight years

Despite the immediate success he enjoyed and the thrilling atmospheres there, Doolin left Portadown after just one season, signing on for a second spell at Shamrock Rovers. Yet by that point, the glory days were a distant memory. The club had just moved stadium to the RDS in Ballsbridge and were going through a turbulent period. Noel King, the manager who signed Doolin, was promptly sacked. His successor, the late Ray Treacy, deemed the midfielder surplus to requirements at the club.

Leaving Shamrock Rovers after just a season there, at 29, most players would have just one or two more moves left in their career before retirement — Doolin had seven. But the fondest memories of the latter half of his playing career were undoubtedly at Shelbourne, where he had two stints — 1992-1994 and 1999-2001.

Paul Doolin and Pat Scully 19/7/2000 Shelbourne's Paul Doolin and Pat Scully celebrate after a Champions League First Round Qualifier in 2000. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

Doolin won the FAI Cup with Shels in 1993 as they beat Dundalk 1-0 in the final in front of 11,000 at Lansdowne Road, but it’s the second spell at Tolka Park that stands out as being particularly sweet. Doolin was 36 by then yet determined to disprove those who had written him off as past his sell-by-date, and he succeeded in emphatic fashion.

The veteran star, by then, had reinvented himself as a holding midfielder, having previously been more renowned for his attacking prowess.

Mark Herrick and Paul Doolin 5/12/1999 Cork City's Mark Herrick and Paul Doolin of Shels during a 1999 League of Ireland match. Source: Andrew Paton/INPHO

In 2000, Shels won the league and cup double — the fifth time Doolin had achieved this feat in his club career. In a recent interview with The42, former teammate Owen Heary cited the experienced midfielder’s influence as crucial to the side’s success.

“I went to Dundalk for a short spell… Before that, I was at Bohs – Joe McGrath had just taken over as manager. Joe said he didn’t think I’d play a lot for them — I said okay.

I didn’t hold any grudges against managers who asked me to leave. So long as we knew what they were doing.

“I ended up going to Shels and picked up three more trophies including another double. To this day, I don’t think anyone else in Ireland has five doubles.

Source: retroloi/YouTube

“(In my first spell at) Shels I could have done another double because we were in the playoff for the league the year we won the cup.

Managers always seemed to sign me when they wanted to be successful.

“A few people were probably thinking I was coming towards the end, but I probably played as well as I’ve ever played in that second spell (with Shels).

I played with very good midfield players at the time. Pat Fenlon was there — I had a good partnership with him in the middle.

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“There were a couple of players signed from Holland — one being a midfield player. I probably looked like I wasn’t going to start, but I ended up getting in (to the first XI) and staying in.”

Tony Sheridan/Jim McIntyre Shelbourne v Kilmarnock 28/8/1997 Doolin counts ex-Shelbourne star Tony Sheridan among the best footballers he ever played with. Source: © Billy Stickland/INPHO

As impressive as the likes of Pat Scully, Steve Williams, Stephen Geoghegan, Declan Geoghegan and Mark Rutherford were, one player in particular stands out from Doolin’s time with Shels.

Probably one of the best footbellers I played with was Tony Sheridan — an unbelievable player. I’d never seen a fella to have the technical ability that he had.

“I can remember one particular incident in a game where we were playing on St Stephen’s Day. I don’t know whether he started or came off the bench. The pitch was bobbly and frosty.  This fella had the ball at his foot and his head was up, the ball was bobbling everywhere, but it didn’t leave his foot once. That, to me, showed he was a really fantastic player.”

Between his two Shels stints, Doolin also narrowly missed out on another double with Derry during the 1994-95 campaign.

Going into the last day, the Candy Stripes simply needed to beat Athlone at St Mel’s Park to secure the league title, but helped by a penalty save by ex-Roscommon Gaelic football goalkeeper Shane Curran, the hosts who had by then been consigned to a promotion-relegation playoff pulled off a stunning 2-1 upset to hand the league title to Dundalk. There was significant consolation in the form of a 2-1 FAI Cup final victory over Shelbourne, but the league disappointment still rankles to this day.

7. The mature student

Paul Doolin DIGITAL Paul Doolin playing for UCD in 2002. Source: INPHO

A testament to his remarkable fitness, Doolin kept playing well into his late 30s, joining UCD as player-coach after leaving Shels in 2001.

The older I got, you had to change your game, but still, I always kept myself in really great condition.

“In 21 years of playing, I never missed one pre-season, which is fair going.

I see players nowadays who I know are poor trainers. I find it hard when people laud those players, because they change and I’ve seen them in a bad way.

“I didn’t have a lot of injuries — a couple of minor ones. I was out for a few months, but nothing major.”

The Students’ manager Martin Moran soon stepped down to focus on his business, and so Doolin was handed the reins at Belfield.

I always found it strange — I finished playing and had been such a successful player. The norm then was that most successful players go on and get an opportunity (in management).

“No one gave me an opportunity but when I did get the opportunity, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me going to UCD as a coach.

I didn’t envisage playing as much as I did. But it was a very good team and at the time, we would have introduced a lot of decent players into the squad. The league was changing — it went to 10 teams. Invariably, (the powers that be) were probably hoping that we’d get relegated.

“But UCD produced so many good players for the league and we managed to avoid relegation.

A lot of young coaches go in and take big jobs in their first tenure. If you don’t do it in a big job, you find it hard to get one again.

“To keep UCD up when I was there, playing some great football with some really good players at the club, it was really enjoyable.”

While working in Belfield, Doolin also managed to pick up some invaluable methods he would continue to use throughout his coaching career.

There was a coach who used to come over from Holland called Foppe de Haan when the great Tony O’Neill was involved with UCD. He was very friendly with Tony. He’d invite me over — I didn’t go, then I did go, and then I couldn’t stop going (to visit him). He was a fantastic coach and years ahead of what I had seen. I introduced a little bit of it at UCD and I definitely think it stood to me when I went to Drogheda then.”

8. The agony and the ecstasy

After two-and-a-half years at UCD, Doolin left halfway through the season to join relegation rivals Drogheda in 2003. Taking over with the club third from bottom, the new coach managed to steer his side to safety on the final day, beating Bohs to ensure they avoided the dreaded promotion-relegation playoff.

Free from the inevitable pressure that comes with managing the more high-profile sides in the league, Doolin was afforded time to build a team. And the owners’ faith in him was ultimately repaid handsomely. Having just avoided relegation, Drogheda came fourth the following season with more or less the same group of players. ‎From there, the Drogs’ progress continued.

Source: retroloi/YouTube

They won a first-ever FAI Cup in 2005 followed by back-to-back Setanta Cup victories in ’06 and ’07. But most incredibly of all, the latter year saw Drogheda triumph in the league for the first and only time in their history, finishing seven points ahead of runners-up St Pat’s and qualifying for the Champions League preliminary rounds in the process (they would ultimately be knocked out 4-3 on aggregate by Dynamo Kyiv in the second round of the competition).

It’s easy to do it when teams have success,” Doolin says. “We had no success history-wise. (It was) relegated, promoted, relegated. Unfortunately, there had been financial difficulties. A group of people wanted to do something with the club — they asked me (to help out). It was fantastic at the start.

“I can remember the first day back pre-season. I walked into the old bar in Drogheda. You had a cup of tea with the lads that were there. I signed a few players, John Lester, Alan Reilly and they came together. Barry Molloy was there at the time as well.

I ended up getting through to them. Something I see myself as very good at is improving players. The players that were there finished fourth and got to the semi-final of the cup.

“We had half a team of full-time players, then we went totally full-time. I introduced a lot of things that were probably new to the players. When I did sign players from full-time clubs, their main question to me was: ‘Is training going to be good?’ And I don’t think they had experienced anything like what they did (at Drogheda). And they’ll probably tell you that as well.”

Source: Terry Collins/YouTube

Yet this success story ended almost as quickly as it had begun — Doolin left the manager’s job at Drogheda only a year on from their league success. The club had struggled to replicate the success, finishing eighth the following campaign — a fall hastened by the deduction of 10 points after they went into administration.

The frustrating thing was I feel like Drogheda were only getting going,” Doolin explains. “They say ‘well, you didn’t retain the league’. But Drogheda had won nothing (before they won the league) at the time.

“The culmination was winning the championship at the time with four years of hard work and to think that we had a few Setanta Cups along the way as well. It was a huge effort and I do think it took its toll on all the players. It was fantastic. I had some really good players at the time. They weren’t always top players, they were players that were young.

Some people think that we were just signing older players — we didn’t really, look at what we did sign — a lot of players who were 21, 22. One or two older players (came in) as we went along.

“It really was fantastic to win four trophies up there — (we had) some memorable European nights as well.

It was disappointing, because we had all committed five years of our lives while I was there. It was well run on the pitch, it was well run off the pitch. The training facilities were excellent — that was the biggest thing I was looking for at the time, because of the facilities with UCD — okay it was a different way of football, they had scholarships, but the facilities were fantastic.

“So it was like going from Manchester United to somebody else that had no facilities, like Drogheda. That was probably one of the main reasons why I still feel the team were successful, because we knew where we were training.

“We trained well, I coached the team well. A lot of the players that were at full-time clubs realised when they came it was fantastic at Drogheda.

The following year, after we won the league, there was the great night in the Champions League.

“The start of the season came and (the ensuing problems were) probably a culmination of a few things. The (economic) crash didn’t help — it was at the start of that. I remember having a meeting with the people involved and one of them said ‘people don’t know what’s going to happen’. They said ‘nobody had ever seen anything like what’s going to happen’. Lo and behold, he was right and it was unfortunate.”

To this day, the Drogheda debacle remains Doolin’s most painful footballing memory. Having devoted so many years of his life towards turning the team into a force to be reckoned with in Irish football, for the dream to collapse so suddenly was a morale-shattering blow.

I had been a friend of the club and a coach of the club and when you’re a small club, no one really thinks you’re going to do anything. Defending Drogheda maybe came back to haunt me with people where we stood up for the club.

“It was unfortunate what happened. Maybe it would have been good to come back the following year after that when we didn’t win. We finished well down the league (in 2008), got to the semi-finals of the Setanta Cup and then the club went into administration.

I remember saying to the players: ‘You should all finish out the season, because the five years you were there, finance was never a problem (previously).’”

Paul Doolin Doolin had a brief, ill-fated spell as manager of Cork City in 2009. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Doolin endured a similar fate at Cork, albeit in what was a much more short-lived spell in charge. Less than a year into his two-year deal, the Dubliner resigned. The club had finished a respectable third place in the league, but were still relegated due to their financial problems off the field.

To go from Drogheda to the same type of thing (where there were financial issues), we finished third, qualified for Europe, which I thought was remarkable, considering the difficulties we had.

“Possibly if Joe Gamble and Colin Healy hadn’t left for English clubs, we maybe could have won the league.

It was a battle all the time for me. Two hours before the game, you were on the phone saying this fella wasn’t paid or that fella wasn’t paid.

“I could have stayed there and took the money, but it’s not something that (would have sat right). I didn’t want to. I know a lot of people that would, but I had a year’s contract (to run) and I just left.

But it’s great to see Cork doing well at the moment and winning the FAI Cup last year.”

9. Boys to men

Doolin’s next role was working alongside the FAI in the Ireland underage set-up, primarily as coach of the U19s side, spending six years in this position between 2010 and 2016. He admits to underestimating the scale of the job, explaining that overseeing football at that level is not as simple and straightforward as it’s often perceived to be

People think — and I would have had a perception too — ‘U19s, ah sure this will be okay, I have good experience.’ But I have to say, I got a rude awakening… There were a lot of issues, and in the end, I just decided to leave. It was a difficult job,” he explains.

Paco Alcazar with Jeff Hendrick Paco Alcazar of Spain with Jeff Hendrick of Ireland during the Uefa European U19 Championship semi-final in 2011. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The highlight of Doolin’s time in charge was guiding Ireland to the semi-finals of the 2011 European Championships — a team that included current senior internationals Jeff Hendrick and John Egan.

Some of the squad I had (for a game) in Bulgaria, their behaviour was poor. If you’re playing for the national team there has to be some level of discipline. No way would I accept people coming to the national team and behaving poorly, doing the wrong things, not training well. I set about changing it and I think that (instigated) the success that we had.

“That particular age group (with Hendrick and Egan), I still feel there’ll be a few more that could come through.

A lot of people say ‘there are no players coming through’ — ex-internationals talking about it. But they’re not really doing their due diligence.

“Some of the players I introduced to our national team are now playing in England and are now being called into our national team.

Players who weren’t really being picked, who weren’t really involved with the U19s or the underage teams — the most recent one being (Preston midfielder) Alan Browne, who was a fantastic player for us. I said to myself ‘this fella is going to go places’.

“Jeff Hendrick was a fantastic player and a great lad. His behaviour was excellent and it’s no coincidence to me that he turned out to be a great player.

John Egan, I thought he was a fantastic leader.

“There were a lot of players there who were being put up on pedestals. Other players I got to know were excellent.”

Paul Doolin stands for the national anthem Doolin spent six years as a coach in the Ireland underage set-up.

Doolin is even surprised that more of his Ireland proteges haven’t thrived since leaving the underage set-up.

I could go through squad after squad of players who, after they left me, they didn’t really seem to perform after that at international level. I don’t know why, but they didn’t.

“I don’t think anybody bothered to ask them, but if you asked them, they loved playing for the U19s.

A manager can do what he wants. The part of the process is if you don’t pick the players that I picked, and I don’t pick the players that the previous manager picked, you’ve got to better the results or match them at least, and the performances (of the previous manager’s team). The players the manager picks, they’ve got to perform well.

“And also, a manager has a shelf life. Six years I was there with the U19s. I think that six years was probably long enough — it was a great experience. I enjoyed the football side of it, but it was hard work.”


Paul Doolin celebrates Paul Doolin celebrates Drogheda scoring the first goal of the game during a 2006 Uefa Cup match. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

Having gone on a career break to focus on coaching, Doolin is now back working in his job with the civil service. He remains hopeful, however, of getting back into football in the near future.

I don’t know what the reason (for the lack of offers) is, because I’ve always been professional, proven, and have a very good track record with players.

“I’d like to be involved with the game. I’m disappointed, as I did apply for two jobs recently and I didn’t even get a ‘no thanks, kiss me arse’ back (in response).

I feel I’ve too much to offer (not to be involved in football). There are coaches at the moment who have relegated teams, been sacked out of jobs and they still pick up jobs.

“A lot of coaches at the moment, some of them haven’t stopped shitting yellow — if you have any babies, you’ll know what I mean.”

Yet whatever the future holds for Doolin, he can at least reflect with great satisfaction on a highly decorated career in the game that’s been as enjoyable as it has been success-filled.

A lot of players who travel away, they might have loads of money but they don’t have the memories I have.

“It was always history that I made — even as a coach.

“The lowest moment was obviously Drogheda — what happened there and what happened at Cork City. Apart from that, I couldn’t really say I’ve had too many lows. I feel I’ve had an unbelievable time.”

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