Friday 27 January 2023 Dublin: 5°C
INPHO Doyle believes his best game for Bohs was against BATE Borisov in 2003.
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'Dad got me a guitar to keep me out of pubs at Blackburn. Who knew it would put me in them 20 years later'
Ex-League of Ireland forward Robbie Doyle has moved into the music industry since retiring from football at 28.

FOOTBALL AND MUSIC aren’t an altogether unheard of combo.

Ireland internationals Shane Long and Andy Reid are both known to be handy with the guitar, even if Giovanni Trapattoni may not have appreciated the latter’s talents.

Dermot Kennedy has become a household name in recent times for his powerful ballads, having lined out for top Leinster Senior League side Crumlin United before opting to concentrate solely on songwriting.

Just this week, a video of Bohemians defender Paddy Kirk playing an old school medley on the piano went viral

In Robbie Doyle’s case, the former striker — whose career was made up of spells in the League of Ireland and England — discovered his passion for performing when he retired from the game at the age of 28. 

He has since gone on to tour with Brian McFadden and Ronan Keating, also playing alongside Gary Barlow on The Late Late Show. 

It was a gift from his father, after signing for Blackburn Rovers as a teenager, that initially introduced Robbie to the instrument. 

“My dad gave me a guitar because I always loved music,” Doyle tells The42. “I took it over to the digs because you always heard how lonely and depressing they could be.

“He bought it so I’d practice and it would keep me out of the pubs in England, but who knew it would actually put me in pubs 20 years later!”

Robbie Doyle 1 Instagram / robbied09 Doyle performing with his guitar. Instagram / robbied09 / robbied09

The Bray native had been playing with Ardmore Rovers U15s when he first got the call from Vinnie Butler to join Ireland’s underage set-up. In 1998 — the same year that Ireland did the unthinkable by winning European championships at U16 and U18 level — Brian Kerr took an U16 side to Iceland for the inaugural Nordic Cup. 

His team, which featured Cliff Byrne (Sunderland), Alan Cawley (Leeds United) and David van Zanten (Tolka Rovers), reached the final before seeing off England with a 3-2 victory. 

Doyle opened the scoring, Andy Reid added a second with an audacious lob from the halfway line and Byrne got Ireland’s third. Leon Knight bagged a brace for England, while Jermain Defoe was introduced as a substitute. 

“I’ve always said one of the biggest influences on my career was Brian Kerr,” Doyle explains. “He put his arm around me and believed in me.

The minute that tournament finished, the phone blew up. I remember arriving back to Dublin airport and all my family were there. It was bedlam. “

The months that followed saw Doyle bounce back and forth to England on numerous trials. He had his heart set on Newcastle United, who had offered a lengthy contract, but there were second thoughts when news broke that Kenny Dalglish had been sacked. 

“We heard that Ruud Gullit was coming in, and he would be getting rid of the youth team and starting again. I was thinking ‘there’s no security there, what am I going to do?’.”

Getting home exhausted after his latest flight, the youngster received a call to link up with Blackburn Rovers, who were holding a training camp and playing friendlies in Arklow. After his dad initially declined the offer, Doyle decided it was too good an opportunity to turn down and did enough to convince the Premier League club with his second-half appearance.

The very next day, a four-year deal was agreed on the golf course between the head of Rovers’ academy and Pat Devlin, a key figure in Doyle’s career who was representing him at the time.

Having Irish players close by often helps young footballers adjust to their new environments, and while Damien Duff was in Blackburn’s first team, they had youth players such as Fred Murray and Paul Forsyth, as well as Michael Lawless and Ciaran Ryan, who both grew up near Doyle.

However, the forward admits suffering from homesickness like so many other kids that make the move.   

“If anybody tells you it’s an easy ride, it’s not,” he says. “I’m from a very close family and people told me that it would get easier but for four years I was balling crying getting off the phone to my parents. I missed home an awful lot, but I just got on with it.”

robbie-doyle INPHO A young Doyle in the colours of his hometown club, Bray Wanderers. INPHO

On the pitch, his first year went well and he was scoring regularly but found it tough to break into the U18s the following season. Ben Burgess, a future Ireland U21 international, was signed and Doyle didn’t play as regularly as he had hoped. After a loan spell under Lou Macari at Huddersfield Town, Rovers wanted to send him on loan to New Zealand but he was keen on returning to Ireland.

“You realise the conveyor belt of talent that’s there and what you have to do to make it. When you look back in hindsight, you ask ‘did you give it your all?’. Maybe not. I thought I did at the time but could I have gone the extra yard? Yeah, definitely.

A lot of it is to do with timing and luck, but you also get what you put in and there were probably others that just wanted it that bit more than me.

“I was very fortunate that I had a strong family behind me. Back then, there was an element that you might get slagged because you haven’t made it.

“I have absolutely no regrets about going over there and I had a fantastic time. Jonathan Douglas, who I met at Blackburn, is still a close friend of mine today. My four years there probably made me the man I am.”

Doyle linked up with St Patrick’s Athletic and Bray Wanderers briefly upon his return, but got his first real break in the League of Ireland with UCD in 2002. 

robbie-doyle-digital INPHO Celebrating a goal for UCD in 2002. INPHO

The Students, more often than not, went into matches as the underdog, but they had a strong backbone and played with no fear. Doyle shone right from the off and scored on his debut at Dalymount Park, which was “packed full of characters, shouting and screaming”. He imagined what it would be like to run out to crowds like that every week. 

His performances prompted an Ireland U21 call-up from Don Givens, although Doyle was at first sceptical of the FAI voice message as his cousin Matt would often phone him up pretending to be Mick McCarthy — complete with thick Yorkshire accent.   

Two months after the 2002 World Cup, the U21s and the senior squad both travelled to Helsinki to face Finland in friendly matches. Wes Hoolahan and Liam Miller started in midfield, while Doyle replaced Graham Barrett to earn his first and only U21 cap in a 1-0 win for the visitors.

The following day, Arsenal striker Barrett was handed his senior international debut and scored as McCarthy’s side claimed a 3-0 victory over the Finns.  

Bohs claimed the Premier Division title under Stephen Kenny in 2003, and it was a no-brainer for Doyle to make the switch when they came calling. 

“Paul [Doolin] said ‘Look, I can’t stop you but Stephen Kenny wants you’,” he explains. “They had just won the league and my decision was made. My relationship with Stephen was amazing at the start. He was brilliant at what he did along with Liam O’Brien, who is a super coach.

“At the time, they had Glen Crowe, Paul Keegan and Andrejs Pereplotkins up front. I was always confident and wanted to play, but I knew going there that I’d have to work hard to get in. I was right and it took me three months.”

stephen-kenny INPHO Stephen Kenny was manager of Bohemians at the time. INPHO

Bohs faced BATE Borisov in the first round of the Champions League qualifiers in July, and narrowly lost out 1-0 in Belarus. Doyle started that night and retained his place alongside Crowe for the return leg.

A couple of hours before kick-off, however, it transpired that the 21-year-old had a problem. The players were told to bring their passports as identification to be checked by Uefa but Doyle had left his back in Bray.

He takes up the story: “Back then, you used to have to produce your passport to the referee to prove that it’s you. But haven’t I turned up without mine.

“I’ve been waiting months to break into the team and now I won’t be able to play. I make a phone call but my mum and dad are away. My brother Richie didn’t even drive, but he said ‘Fuck this, I’ll do it’. So he’s driving down from Bray with my cousin Anthony and they get stopped by the police.

“He explained the situation and they ended up giving him an escort the rest of the way. Just as the game is about to start, I see this passport being handed to me by the brother.

We won 3-1 and it was probably my best-ever game for Bohs, probably in my career. It was a lovely moment and one I’ll always cherish as two years later, Richie had passed away.” 

They went out to Rosenborg in the second round and ended up finishing runners-up to Shelbourne in the league, but Doyle felt he had done well in his debut season. 

At this point, Kenny felt he needed to strengthen up front and brought in Tony Grant from rival Shamrock Rovers, which effectively spelt the end of Doyle’s time at Bohs thanks to a public spat between the pair.

“Granty’s a great bloke, but it meant I was back down the pecking order,” he says. “I was thinking ‘What’s going on? I’ve earned my stripes so there’s no way I’m accepting this’. Me and Stephen ended up falling out. It was in the papers and all, but I was having none of it because I thought I deserved to play.”

Grant would infamously have a pig’s head thrown at him by Rovers fans during a Dublin derby at Dalymount that April. 

robbie-doyle-and-wes-hoolahan INPHO In action for St Pat's against Shelbourne star Wes Hoolahan. INPHO

By the summer, Doyle had left to join St Patrick’s Athletic, who found themselves in a relegation battle under Johnny McDonnell despite possessing the talents of Keith Fahey. And Doyle enjoyed a memorable return to his old club in October. They were again challenging for the league but by now Kenny’s successor, Gareth Farrelly, was in charge. 

Grant scored two identical headers to put the Gypsies in control, but defender Colm Foley gave the Saints a lifeline before they were awarded a free-kick deep into injury-time. 

Doyle accepts that he had barely touched the ball all game, but stepped up to curl the set-piece home with a little help from the leg of Colin Hawkins. The 2-2 draw was a severe blow to Bohs’ title hopes and they ended up finishing third behind Shelbourne and Cork City. 

Anthony Byrne / YouTube

It was in 2005 that Doyle’s whole outlook on life changed forever after the tragic loss of a sibling. Richie, who was five years older than him, had always looked out for his little brother and the pair were inseparable. 

Days after Robbie’s 23rd birthday, Richie went to play five-a-side with friends and collapsed during the match. Robbie rushed to the scene and Richie was taken to hospital, but the sales rep sadly passed away from Sudden Adult Death syndrome (SADs).

“I didn’t play that night as I was tired from training,” he recalls. “Richie just dropped dead at the age of 27, and that had a massive effect on my life.

“I ended up taking a few months out of the game. Because of the circumstances, I also had that fear factor even though I was only 23. Those thoughts still go through your head. How could this happen? Richie was the healthiest man alive and I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to play for a period.” 

Robbie Doyle Richie Instagram / robbied09 Robbie with his brother Richie. Instagram / robbied09 / robbied09

There was no pressure put on him to return to football. In fact, Doyle says he had a visit from McDonnell, Brian Kerr and the FAI chief executive Brendan O’Byrne, who told him to take his time and reiterated the importance of family.

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He finished up the season at Pat’s and then took up an offer from his old mentor, Devlin, to return to Bray Wanderers and be closer to his parents.  

“It was great going back and playing my football back home. Devo put the arm around my shoulder again and I just played. I think it’s what I needed at the time.

“I always regret that I never did as well for Bray as I should have, but hindsight is a great thing.”

A call out of the blue from former England, Man United, Liverpool and Inter Milan midfielder Paul Ince presented a second shot at playing across the water in 2006. 

Ince had taken over League Two club Macclesfield Town and needed a back-up striker. Doyle was told he wouldn’t play every week but jumped at the chance of a new experience. 

soccer-macclesfield-town-training-moss-rose-ground PA Paul Ince was in charge of Macclesfield Town. PA

“I had gone back to Bray but then I thought I needed to get away as everything was unloading on me about my brother. I was going through a weird period so I thought a break might be good.

It was an honour to play for Paul Ince as I’m a Man United fan. I loved my time over there, I think I partied more than I played!”

After one season, it was back to the League of Ireland with John Gill’s Dundalk, before Liam Buckley then brought him to newcomers Sporting Fingal. A squad brimming with talent won the FAI Cup in 2009, defeating Sligo Rovers 2-1 in the final at Tallaght Stadium, to give Doyle his first major silverware at senior level. 

He joined Bray for a third and final stint in 2010, but the end was near. 

“With everything going on in my personal life and what happened to Richie, I was thinking ‘do I really need this anymore?’. I was 28 at the time, which is ridiculous. I regret retiring that early but I always say you shouldn’t have regrets and that you have to live with your decisions.

“I probably just didn’t want to do it anymore and it was easy to blame other reasons like injuries. Deep down, it was a mental thing as I had given up.”

shaun-williams-and-robbie-doyle Cathal Noonan / INPHO Celebrating Sporting Fingal's FAI Cup win with Shaun Williams. Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

As one door closed prematurely, another opened. Doyle had continued to mess around with the guitar his father gave him at home, until one day he was called upon for a favour. A friend who owned the Ardmore pub in Bray was left stuck after a musician pulled out at the last minute, so he was asked to fill in. 

“I shat myself for three hours because it was a different buzz, but I stuck with it. The adrenaline that I missed when I retired came back tenfold when I played music.”

He began to gig locally, and became friends with a South African musician named Robbie De Sa, who in turn introduced him to Brian McFadden of Westlife fame. 

“I got to go on tour with Brian around England, played the O2 in London and all the big venues, and I also supported Ronan Keating. A massive standout for me was playing Katie Taylor’s Olympic homecoming in front of more than 20,000 on Bray beach in 2012.

“Then I got a phone call asking if I’d play guitar with Gary Barlow on The Late Late Show. So I’ve had some incredible experiences.

I found music a massive help in getting over Richie and I’ve used writing to let out my feelings and those things I couldn’t get off my chest for years.

“When the football dies, you don’t think anything will perk you back up but this certainly has and long may it continue.”

Robbie Doyle 2

He says he’s writing songs with musicians such as Darren Holden from The High Kings and there are plans to release an EP later this year. During lockdown, Robbie has been playing weekly gigs over on his Instagram and Facebook channels.

“We have different guests on from the world of music each week and people tune in from all over the globe,” he says. “It’s great to have that at a time like this. Anything to keep up people’s spirits.”

As the music industry is notoriously difficult to earn a steady income from, Robbie holds down a day job with Olive Media and also does regular charity work for a number of worthy causes such as the Shauna Kavanagh Foundation, Bray Cancer Support and Suicide or Survive.

These days, his main priorities are his new wife Nikki and their three-year-old daughter Nahla. Nikki’s father is the ex-Ireland rugby player, former Limerick footballer and journalist Tony Ward, so the topic of sport inevitably comes up at the dinner table when the in-laws call around.

Nahla Instagram / robbied09 Robbie's daughter Nahla as a baby with her grandfather Tony Ward (left) and the late Jimmy Magee. Instagram / robbied09 / robbied09

“I always get great stories from Tony and he gave me a lovely present,” Robbie reveals. “After his rugby career, he won the FAI Cup with Limerick in 1982. When Nahla was born, he handed me his medal so that and my FAI Cup medal sit beside a picture of her.

“She’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m married a good few months now and things are great. Hopefully she has her grandad’s and her dad’s sporting genes!”

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