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Derby County: American gamble went wrong but Nigel Clough is partially to blame

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Conor Doyle was considered to be Nigel Clough’s next big thing for the upcoming years after impressing a Derby County scout in 2009 while playing for US College team Creighton Bluejays. However, Doyle’s English soccer dream did not turn out as well as it could have.

Doyle is 32 years old and nearing the end of his playing days. In the USL League One, the third rung of the American football pyramid, the Texan is now a player for the South Georgia Tormenta. He has, though, experienced stints in the Major League Soccer with Colorado Rapids and D.C. United.

Nevertheless, he had always wanted to play in England, either in the Premier League or in the EFL. In August 2010, he signed a contract with Championship team Derby County following just a few college exhibition games.

Doyle remarked, “It’s been insane,” after signing with the Rams. Suddenly, I’m playing in my first Championship season, when I was getting ready for my first collegiate season.

“I’m not sure I expected to be doing this at the age of 18. Though I always hoped that this would happen, I never imagined that it would at such an early age.”

Starting off the Doyle Derby dream

Doyle played across the frontline as a target man for Nigel Clough’s Derby, making 14 appearances in his debut season in England. He appeared in two of the Rams’ opening five games of the 2010–11 season as a starter, but the 6-foot-2 man’s appearances began to dwindle as a result of a lack of goals.

He did not even make the matchday squad in a 0-0 draw away at Swansea City, and he did not start any of Derby’s following eight Championship games. And Clough would give the American just ten minutes of league play for the remainder of 2010 after such a bright beginning at Pride Park.

Conor Doyle vs West Ham

International football and a disappointing end to a first year in England

Second season syndrome

Doyle was expected to make a big impact in the 2011–12 season after a disappointing first year in England. However, he was unable to appear in the first nine league games and only saw the bench once during this period.

Despite having a strong start to the season, Derby finished third in the Championship after eight games, one point behind Southampton at the top of the standings after winning six and losing two.

Championship Table 2011/12 (After 8 games, BBC Sport) GP GD PTS
1. Southampton 8 10 19
2. Middlesbrough 8 8 18
3. Derby County 8 7 18
4. West Ham United 8 9 17
5. Brighton & Hove Albion 8 6 17
6. Hull City 8 -1 13
Doyle made his first appearance of the season in the last minute of a crushing 4-0 loss to Leicester City, coming off the bench. This was his part throughout a dismal season. Clough had not trusted Doyle, even after signing the young American just a season before. Playing the majority of his football for the U21 squad, he struggled to build momentum week after week, which ultimately led to his demise at Derby. The young blood pouring out of Derby’s specially designed training ground, Moor Farm, was partly to blame for a lack of game time. The manager decided that both Mason Bennett and Callum Ball were more interesting options, therefore he benched Doyle as an impact substitute.Mason Bennett Derby

The beginning of the end at Derby

Doyle, now twenty-one, was starting his third year in the East Midlands. He still only had one assist under his belt and had yet to score for the first team.

Doyle made his FA Cup debut in a 5-0 victory at home against Tranmere Rovers in the third round. There, as the Rams defeated the League One team, he came off the bench to help 16-year-old Bennett.

Doyle’s last year at the club ended there. That was as good as it got.In two Championship games, he played barely 65 minutes total; all but one of those minutes came in September 2012, when he made his last competitive appearance in England against Huddersfield Town.

Nigel Clough played his part in a disappointing spell

Doyle’s career would end abruptly due to a mix of bad form and Clough’s mistrust, following a very bright beginning. The 21-year-old found it difficult to grow in what could have been a new legacy in England without significant playing time.

Clough did not decide on a position for the young American, even though he was the target man for the Creighton Bluejays. Doyle saw action for the Rams in a number of positions on the field, including holding midfield during the 2011–12 preseason. After this attempt to achieve the intended outcome failed, he returned to his more senior role for the remainder of the campaign.

In October 2012, he also had to miss a month and a half of action due to an appendix rupture.At the time, Clough emphasized the harm it did to his growth, saying, “We were all horrified to learn how severe things had gotten and that Conor needed an operation. He was in a lot of pain.”

He is one of the young players on our roster who is developing well below the first team, so it’s a blow for him.

Despite receiving a one-year extension at the end of the 2012–13 season, Doyle was unable to make an impression with the U21s, and it was too late for him to return home on loan to D.C. United.

While luck had a role, Clough’s management—not supporting him frequently enough and placing him in a variety of positions—also contributed to his difficulties.

Conor Doyle Derby County league stats (TransferMarkt) Games Played Goals Assists Minutes Played
2010/11 14 0 1 449′
2011/12 6 0 0 112′
2012/13 2 0 0 65′

A return to the USA

The loan spell in the US Capital proved to be somewhat of a success for Doyle. He made 14 appearances for the side, scoring his first two senior goals in his first five matches in the MLS.

His maiden goal came in a 3-1 victory at home to Montreal Impact, before scoring once again against Impact two weeks later, this time on the road. He was also part of the side that won the US Open Cup, his first and only major trophy to date.

However, the Texan’s quick start came to a stop as he failed to score in two years after signing a contract to become a permanent United player at the end of his loan.

Doyle sustained a serious injury in 2014. The 22-year-old injured his right knee’s meniscus during practice, which forced early season termination due to ligament damage that required surgery to fix.

Doyle made a comeback for the 2015 campaign, participating in all but nine of the league’s regular season games. The former Ram scored twice in the league to help D.C. advance to the MLS Cup quarterfinals, where they ultimately lost 2-0 on aggregate to the New York Red Bulls.

Colorado Rapids and the forward-turned-midfielder reached an agreement in 2016 to send him to the Mountain States. But when his time in the MLS drew to an abrupt end, Doyle had to deal with yet another shortage of playing time.

After eight years, the once-optimistic young prospect is currently 32 years old and playing in the lower divisions of the American football pyramid as he nears the end of his career. He played for several teams, including the Jacksonville Armada, Chattanooga Red Wolves, Union Omaha, Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Puerto Rico FC, and South Georgia Tormenta before relocating to South Georgia in 2024.

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