At the Huddersfield Town game, it was surprising to see young Conor Doyle lining up in the starting XI – although to be fair, I’ve been surprised to see him included in the 18 ahead of James Bailey and Ben Davies all season.
Out of the position on the right of midfield, Doyle did not play well; but the level of venom aimed at him by the fans during his hour on the pitch was, in my opinion, way over the top. You wonder how much of that spite – and the sardonic applause as he trudged off the pitch – filtered through to him.
Seconds before kick-off, a drunk made his way to the seat next to me, shouting as he did so, “Come on Derby, fuck off Doyle, you American cunt.” As I moved to a different seat to get away from him, he continued his tirade with variations on the above theme, interspersed with chants of ‘USA, USA’ and ‘Touchdown’.
After about 20 minutes, Doyle was on the end of a heavy tackle and as he lay prone, fans all around instantly sprang to their feet and made the time-honoured ‘substitution’ symbol, screaming, “Take him off”. Doyle ultimately missed Derby’s best chance – a chance, not a sitter – and his eventual substitution was met with unabashed delight by large sections of the travelling support.
I always thought that Derby fans liked to see youngsters coming through into the first team from the Academy – a process that, unavoidably, comes with a steep learning curve in a competitive division where almost every game is fiercely contested.
To give a few examples from last season, Mark O’Brien, a courageous centre back, played well at times when called upon, but also made bad errors which led directly to goals. Striker Callum Ball only scored three goals in 24 appearances and yet the fans sang songs about him. 16-year old Mason Bennett missed some big chances when he was given a run in the team, but, quite rightly, nobody had a go at him.
I recall one occasion a few seasons ago when, with Derby struggling dreadfully under Paul Jewell, Miles Addison passed a ball straight into touch and wheeled away with his head in his hands. A bloke stood up to berate him, but was quickly shouted down by those who wanted to encourage Miles instead. ‘Little’ Ben Pringle, a player Clough plucked from non-league, never proved able to bridge the gap between the reserves and the Championship, but I don’t recall him ever being jeered. People seemed to be ready to give him a chance when he played.
I can’t help but conclude that Doyle’s nationality is the cause of all this hostility. A forward with three goals in his last three appearances for the under-21s this season, Doyle has the misfortune to be from McKinney, Texas, not Mansfield and this seems to matter to some people.
When the Derby Telegraph reported on Doyle’s struggles at the John Smith’s Stadium, one reader commented, “The reason that Connor [sic] is at Derby, and not been loaned out is due to the pressur [sic] from the Americans GSE. This is not Nigel’s fault.” Another said, “I find it VERY strange that, (knowing what we do about our scouting network), we found a player in the Unites States university league… (wait, where are our owners from again?)” A third added, “Doyle is clearly an albatross around Clough’s neck that the board has engineered”.
It goes without saying that plenty of our fans still dislike and distrust GSE and without Tom Glick around to aim their resentment at, the only visible American target is a 20 year-old player. If Doyle was English, would his performance against Huddersfield – which, frankly, was far from being the worst we’ve ever seen from a Derby player – have generated such bile from supporters? I think not. It’s worth pointing out that Michael Jacobs, who is almost exactly the same age as Doyle and who everybody wanted to see come on in his place, did pretty much nothing in the game when he was brought on.
Usually, there is an understanding that an inexperienced youngster is going to make mistakes and a will to support him. This, it seems, is not a luxury that will be afforded to Doyle. The more spiteful elements of the support have already decided that they want to destroy him.
For what it’s worth, after a nervous start at Huddersfield, Doyle did try to get on the ball and link in with his teammates, playing a few neat one-touch passes. Unfortunately, on balance, he didn’t have a good game, looking uncomfortable and uncertain on the right flank. But it was only his sixth start for the first team and he wasn’t even playing in his best position.
After seeing him play very well in a pre-season friendly against Burton Albion, Tommo remains convinced that if Doyle got a chance to play ‘in the hole’ behind a number nine, we would see why Clough believes he has potential.
Granted, he hasn’t forced his way into the team like Jeff Hendrick or Will Hughes, but neither have any of the other youngsters I listed above. Even the brilliant Hughes is likely to ‘have a dip’, in Clough parlance, at some point, due to the relentless physical demands of a Championship campaign.
Most young players have to gain experience of first-team football before they really show what they are capable of. As Clough constantly points out, Doyle has done well in reserve and under-21 matches – now his challenge is to prove that he can make the jump into the senior reckoning. Maybe he can, maybe he can’t, but it would be nice if he was afforded the same support as the other members of the team when he does get a chance and not singled out for criticism.
I’m convinced that if Doyle was English, Scottish, Irish, Dutch, Danish, or from any other country on the planet apart from the United States (with the possible exception of Canada), he would get a fair crack of the whip from the supporters. It’s his misfortune to be an obvious scapegoat for some fans’ dissatisfaction with the ownership and I think that’s a shame.
It would be nice if such fans could take a step back and question whether barracking a kid who might turn out to be a decent footballer is really something they need to do.