With Champions League football secured and the interminable wait for a trophy finally over, Manchester City fans would have expected to spend the summer looking to the future, not reflecting on the past. But the death of former captain Mike Doyle, lost to liver failure at the age of only 64, has put the thoughts of glamorous European nights on hold. The sympathy provoked by his passing and the tributes paid on both sides of Manchester are testament to his standing in the history of the club he loved.
For the uninitiated, Doyle was a rock-solid defender throughout City’s great decade from the mid-1960s: the grit to go with Bell’s grace and Lee’s guile. He stands third on the all-time appearances list and skippered the side in the golden era’s last hurrah, the 1976 League Cup win. He was seen as the fan whose dreams came true, a lifelong blue famed for his vocal dislike of United.
Yet he could be pragmatic character, and for all his animosity towards the Reds – he used the word “hatred” liberally in his autobiography – the idea of crossing Manchester was not off limits. When Frank O’Farrell offered him an escape from worsening relations with Malcolm Allison, it was City’s directors, not the player, who blocked a switch to Old Trafford. “I had a family to feed and a career to get on with,” was the matter-of-fact appraisal in his book, Blue Blood.
He eventually left for Stoke in 1978, and would go on to represent Bolton and Rochdale before drifting away from football at the end of his playing career, soured on the idea of management by an unsuccessful application for the Oldham job. He became a sales rep for Slazenger, but his friendly, no-pressure approach came to flounder in the face of increasingly ruthless competition and the work dried up in the 1990s.
His physical condition also began to deteriorate due to long-standing injuries and doctor’s orders forced him to give up golf, his great post-football passion. Depression and boredom turned social drinking into something darker, causing rifts in his family, and a spell at the Sporting Chance clinic in 2007 could not win him his battle.
He continued to attend matches and the odd supporters’ function, but involvement with the club itself was limited. There was no ambassadorial role or honorary position, though he was at least one of their honoured guests at Wembley, watching with delight as Carlos Tevez finally removed from him the burden of being City’s last trophy-winning captain.
Seven weeks on, Doyle has lost his fight and Tevez looks set to leave the club. Despite his occasional outbursts, most City followers will wish the Argentinean well, but it is doubtful that he or any of the stars of 2011 will ever be held in the same regard as Mike Doyle, whatever they may go on to achieve. He will always have a unique place in the affection of the fans, for his commitment as a player, his leadership as a captain and because of the very human problems he faced in later life.
The 2010-11 season may have been City’s greatest for decades, but the deaths along the way of Malcolm Allison, Neil Young and now Doyle will keep it a bittersweet memory.
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