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The Irishman who played under controversial circumstances at the weekend

Michael Doyle was one of the few Irish footballers competing in England on Saturday.

Michael Doyle plays for Notts County.
Michael Doyle plays for Notts County.
Image: EMPICS Sport

AT 38, MICHAEL Doyle has seen plenty of football, but he has never witnessed anything quite like the present predicament.

The veteran midfielder’s career has taken in stints at Celtic, Coventry, Sheffield United, Portsmouth and Leeds among others, while also winning one Ireland cap (in 2004) along the way.

He has been part of teams that have won leagues and suffered relegation, while he made his 800th senior appearance last May — a tally few players at any level are even close to matching.

Now playing with Notts County in the National League, last Saturday’s 4-0 win over Eastleigh, in which Doyle completed 90 minutes, will go down as one of the more controversial matches in the Dubliner’s career.

On the face of it, it was a routine victory for the promotion hopefuls at Meadow Lane. However, afterwards, Eastleigh boss Ben Strevens was clearly not happy, after the match went ahead with 4,942 in attendance, despite all Premier League and Football League matches getting postponed owing to the coronavirus outbreak.

The reason it went ahead is because whoever sits on the board of the National League just cared about the money,” Strevens told reporters afterwards. “Simple as that. They didn’t think about the well-being of the spectators, and it’s not only the supporters: we’ve got a kitman who is an old boy, and there’s stewards who are older. They’re the ones that are most at risk. There’s no way whatsoever these games should have been played.”

In response to the comments, the National League chief executive, Michael Tattersall, defended the decision. “It’s not really a time for having an argument, it’s a time for reflecting on what’s happening in our society,” he said. “The National League is keeping the continuation of the season under constant review.”

Today, it was confirmed that the National League would be postponed until 3 April at the earliest. Club captain Doyle and his team-mates had been due to travel to face Torquay tomorrow night, and while its postponement had yet to be confirmed when we spoke, he was doubtful as to whether it would go ahead. That decision comes after days of uncertainty — it wasn’t until Friday evening that Notts County knew for certain that the Saturday game would go ahead.

In contrast with Strevens’ scathing remarks, Doyle says himself and team-mates were not going to argue with the directive to play last Saturday.

“It is what it is and as players, you can only do what you’re told. Obviously, our league decided to go along with the government guidelines

“At the level we’re at, the crowds weren’t anywhere near as what you get higher up. They decided to go along on Saturday with the game and I think it went okay. That’s all you can do.

“You’ve just got to go about your business. It’s very serious what’s going on. But once you’re playing, your mind is elsewhere. You train all week, you want to play. We were fortunate enough to get the game on, but obviously health and safety is the most important thing.

“It’s obviously something new what’s going on. But as players, it’s out of your hands. You kind of do as your told and just go from there.”

notts-county-v-eastleigh-vanarama-national-league-meadow-lane Eastleigh's manager Ben Strevens was not impressed after National League matches went ahead at the weekend. Source: Mike Egerton

On Strevens’ controversial comments, Doyle adds: “He’s entitled to his opinion. There’s nothing we can do about it. What can you do? He’s decided to come out and say that. It is what it is.

“For us as players, we were happy enough to go along with the game in the sense of once we were told we were playing, we were just focused on playing and I’m sure his team were the same.”

Having suffered the anguish of relegation last season, Doyle and his Notts County team-mates are in good form and pushing for promotion back to the Football League at the first attempt. They currently sit third, three points behind Harrogate Town in second, while trailing leaders Barrow by seven points.

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Consequently, as with the likes of Liverpool and Leeds, they are desperate for the season to finish, irrespective of when that may be.

“Once everything is back to normal, however long that takes, people have gone and done pre-seasons, fans have travelled the length and breadth of the country to watch their team get promoted or win titles. To get to 10 games to go and just say yay or nay, we’re going to start from scratch again, I don’t think it’s ideal. 

“So much time and effort has gone in from a fans’ point of view, money spent, and obviously players as well, they come back in June and you’re working every day. For us, the focus is trying to get promoted. We feel we’re in a position now to do that and if it was to be at this late stage, no matter how long it takes, eventually, you would hope that everything gets back to normal and we would get back playing football long term, that they can finish the season and let things happen accordingly whether it’s teams getting relegated or promoted.

You see a lot of noise coming out with people wanting seasons to be null and void, you have to question the agendas of some people. The [struggling] Premier League teams wanting to scrap the season and they get to stay in the Premier League and what have you.”

He continues: “It’s easy to keep fit. You’ve obviously got stuff at home you could use. For us, there’s a plan in place. We’ll be given programmes to do at home.

“We’ll have a week away, with the intention of coming back the next week if the league is finished [until] April. We’ll have a week off and prepare to go and play into June.”

Another challenge for Notts County and other National League sides will be coping with the loss of match-day income for a sustained period, and Doyle acknowledges it won’t be an easy task.

“Not just National League,” he adds. “Probably Football League from League One down. Everybody is relying on match-day income from supporters. It goes a long way towards paying people’s wages. It’s going to have a massive effect.

“The wages in the Championship are through the roof as well. I’m sure a lot of them teams as well will feel the impact as well. It’s going to be tough for everybody.

“Hopefully, they can work something out where everybody is safe. And it’s not just football, it’s business in general. It’s everything. Everybody’s in this together. 

“There’s the man on the street working on a building site. Who’s going to look after him if he’s self-employed?

“It’s just not a nice situation. Everybody’s scared and I think football’s the least of people’s worries at the minute.

“Everybody’s worried about their families and surviving from a health point of view, how it effects people’s families with work and income, it’s tough.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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