Adrian Doherty was from Strabane in Northern Ireland and played for Manchester United’s youth team during the 1990’s, although his name isn’t one you will have heard mentioned too often. Despite once boasting talent equal to or surpassing that of Ryan Giggs’, a cruciate injury ended his career days before he was set to make his debut for the first team, and he tragically died a few years later after falling away from football.
Doherty’s character has been described as “bohemian, slightly eccentric in a football context” and often turned up at The Cliff in “a baggy old Aran sweater with a guitar over his shoulder”.
Oliver Kay, the Chief Football Correspondent for The Times, has written about Doherty’s story and has spoken exclusively to RoM about the reasons why.
Oliver Kay will be in Waterstones on Deansgate at 7pm tonight, Thursday May 19th, to discuss the book. Tickets can be found here. To enter the competition to win a copy of the book, sign up to the RoM newsletter.
Scott: How good you think Doherty could have been?
Oli: Unforutnately, apart from a few very brief clips on video, I never saw him play, so I can only go by what others have told me. Giggs says he was “incredible”, “definitely on a par” with him at 16/17. Gary Neville says he was “out of this world” and that all the Class of 92 were slightly in awe of his and Giggs’s talent.
Tony Park, who co-wrote Sons of United, the story of United at youth level, describes him as being like Kancheslskis, Giggs and Ronaldo all rolled into one. Sir Alex Ferguson says he was about to give him his first-team debut, at 17, when he suffered this terrible knee injury. Everyone I asked about him seemed to think he was one of the best 16 or 17-year-olds they had ever seen. They were certain that, but for the injury, he would have been a first-team player for United.
One thing I would add, though, is that I don’t think he would have had the same career Giggs had. Even if they were at a similar level talent-wise, a lot of people felt Adrian had a take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards football. I’m sure he cared more than his demeanour suggested, but, as several of his peers told me in the book, he wasn’t motivated by the usual things – fame, glory, fear of failure and particularly not money. He had no interest whatsoever in money or material things. He played for fun and he liked to enjoy it. He had so much else going on in his life. Music was his real love, certainly by the time he was 17. At that age, when he was on the verge of United’s first-team, he was going out at night with his guitar, playing in dingey bars in the city centre! Can you imagine what Ferguson have thought of that if he’d found him doing that or going busking?
Scott: When Butt, Scholes and the others talk about the “initiation trials”, they make it sound like a laugh, even if they probably didn’t enjoy it too much at the time. You say it was more like abuse for Doherty. Why do you think Doherty’s experience was different to the other young lads going through the same thing?
Oli: To be honest, I don’t think his experience was any different. I think it was the same for all of them – and some of it was harmless, some of it was inane, some of it was brutal and some of it was disgraceful. And it wasn’t just “initiation trials”, it was stuff that continued periodically through the year, often as punishments for not doing the apprentice tasks properly. It’s stuff that a lot of the players have mentioned in their autobiographies – not just United players but players from a lot of clubs in that era – and they’ve ended up saying that, as horrible as it was at the time, it toughened them up. But it didn’t “toughen up” everybody.
Some of the players I spoke to said it was hard to survive in that environment – particularly a lot of the lads who were away from home, living in digs – and one of them said that some of them “crumbled”. Now you could take the very old-school view and say “Well, how do you expect to cope with being a professional footballer if you can’t cope with some harmless fun like that?” Or you could take the view that the club ended up taking, after one player’s parents complained, and put a stop to the so-called “initiation” culture was making life a misery for some of the apprentices.
Unfortunately, a lot of players had come through it by then and not all of them were “tougher” for the experience. And I honestly don’t know whether Adrian was one who felt that; a few of his team-mates have suggested he got off quite lightly where that was concerned. But it was part of the apprenticeship at the time – and, between that, the homesickness, the long afternoons and evenings in digs, the menial jobs, Adrian didn’t really enjoy it. He wasn’t alone in that regard. I don’t think the apprenticeship was great fun. Maybe some of the players, who have made it, are able to look back more nostalgically, best days of our lives and all that kind of thing, but at the time a lot of them didn’t enjoy it. Adrian didn’t enjoy it.
Scott: With that in mind, do you really think he was cut out for professional football?
Oli: To be honest, no I don’t. On the pitch, he was — to quote Gary Neville — a “tough little sod”. Off it, he was blessed with a great number of qualities, but not the type you usually see in professional footballers. So no, I’m not saying he would have been another Ryan Giggs, playing for United for 20+ years. This is hypothetical, but I think he would have made a spectacular impact in the short to medium term – and then gone off to do something completely different. I think he would have dazzled United’s fans for a few years and then disappeared enigmatically to play music and read poems in bars in Galway, which is exactly what he ended up doing.
But for the injury, I’ve no doubt he would have played for United’s first team. But even by the time he got injured, at 17, he had turned down a five-year contract because he was no longer sure that professional football was for him. That probably tells you a lot about his personality and his broader interests, but it also tells you something, perhaps, about the difficulty profession football had back then – and still has, to a lesser degree – when it comes to handling players who don’t conform to a certain personality type. Adrian was so different to the rest of them. “Like Bob Dylan in a No 7 shirt,” according to one of his team-mates. Robbie Savage said he was “hippy-like”. I love to imagine this little teenager from Northern Ireland lighting up Old Trafford, becoming an overnight sensation, getting all the “new George Best” treatment, as he would have done, and then slipping out of the ground unnoticed in his Aran sweater, tracksuit bottoms and scuffed old boots or trainers, carrying his guitar, and going to some dingey old bar to play. Unfortunately, the injury denied him that chance. Would he have sacrificed music for football? If he had been given an ultimatum, I actually think he would have been more likely to sacrifice football for music. And that is one of so many things that I found absolutely fascinating about him.
Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is out now.