Michael Walker: On Adrian Doherty – the ‘next George Best’

Manchester United's forgotten Stranbane boy who was better than Ryan Giggs

Adrian Doherty of Manchester United in 1990 in Manchester, England. Photograph: Manchester United FC/Getty Images

Adrian Doherty of Manchester United in 1990 in Manchester, England. Photograph: Manchester United FC/Getty Images

 

It seemed like an idea to start this in the Ponderosa on the Glenshane Pass. We were there a few weeks ago, eating champ, my daft mate telling stories about Joe Dolan. It was a beautiful Friday night, carefree, heading west into Donegal and all those memories. Downings 1976.

And, in a way, it still is. There was something Adrian Doherty about it, something happy-go-lucky.

It’s just that the idea arrived while reading Oliver Kay’s tender portrait of Doherty:Forever Young, The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius.

Downings gets an early mention because Adrian went there with his pals to mark the end of their exams.

But by the end of Forever Young, when the story shifts from Doherty’s life to his premature death and the heart-breaking aftermath for the family, what returned was another memory, and this one is of travelling up past the Ponderosa, to see Adrian’s parents, Geraldine and Jimmy, in Strabane many years ago. That was less happy.

‘Next George Best’

Doherty was 16 in March 1990 when Alex Ferguson took him with the first team to Southampton. United were two points above relegation, this was no end of season meaningless fixture.

“Boy wonder standing by”, was the headline in the Manchester Evening News.

Doherty was described as “unknown” but not to those at Old Trafford. There they knew Doherty to be exceptional – “A slightly taller version of Jimmy Johnstone, ” as Paddy Crerand said.

A two-footed winger with a burst of pace even Ryan Giggs says was “electric”, plus, as all testify, unforeseen bravery for someone “five stone wet through”, Doherty’s chance depended on Danny Wallace passing a fitness test.

The MEN was readying itself for something new and sensational in a difficult period. Doherty’s debut would make him United’s youngest outfield player since Duncan Edwards.

But Wallace passed his fitness test, United won 2-0 and Ferguson relied on experience to lift United to 13th by season’s end.

Doherty was not too disappointed, he was on the brink and, besides, he got a win bonus.

With that he did not do what most 16-year-olds would do, he bought a typewriter and started writing a novel: The Adventures of Humphrey and Bodegard.

Those two details mark Adrian Doherty out. At 16 he was considered good enough to play for Manchester United’s first team, at 16 he wanted to be a writer.

But it was not to be. Less than a year later Doherty was playing for United’s A team at the Cliff training ground. It was against Carlisle United and in a 50-50 tackle, Adrian felt “something go” in his knee. Ten days later a 17-year-old called Giggs made his debut at Old Trafford. Doherty watched from the stands, injured.

That is the way it would stay. While Giggs set off on a glittering playing career, Doherty spent months and years trying to recover.

Fitness, full unencumbered fitness, never returned. The damage to his cruciate ligament was severe in an era when football medical departments, by today’s standards, were understaffed, under-resourced and quite possibly underqualified. As recently as 2000, Stuart Pearce tried to “run off” a broken leg.

Professional football was a macho environment, as Kay illustrates, and while Doherty was no wallflower, he was “different”. Here was a boy more interested in poetry than hair gel, who loved Bob Dylan, not Duran Duran. He was not one of the lads but they did not resent him for that; they called him “Doc”, saw him as special. Kay shows us why.

Doherty was offered a five-year contract by Ferguson, who was stunned when Adrian said he thought one year might do him.

They settled on three. But at the end of those three years, injured, Doherty left United with barely a farewell from either party. He drifted, got a job in a chocolate factory in Preston, moved back to Strabane and played a couple of matches for Derry City, who thought this was too good to be true. It was.

And all the while, Adrian sang, wrote, smiled, had a few pints, provoked curiosity. And love.

Professional football for Manchester United, so many Irish boys’ dream, was over. But Adrian coped, his world-view was broader than football. He was reading Rimbaud, not the Rothmans Football Yearbook.

Best player

Chris Casper

Having moved to Manchester in 1992, I was vaguely aware of Doherty, but only vaguely. I set off to find him and, via his father Jimmy, around 1996/’97, found Adrian in Galway where he was working as a porter, busking in pubs and telling no one who he was once.

Adrian came to the phone but it was short. In my simple tabloid mind was: “Fergie’s Forgotten First Fledgling.” Adrian did not want to know. It was a short call.

But he was still on my mind when sitting with Ferguson in his office at the Cliff in late 1999. At the end of the interview, I brought up Adrian and Ferguson was on his feet, moving to the window to talk animatedly about Doherty. He was hugely complimentary.

Then came the news that, having moved to The Hague for work in a furniture factory – a classic Adrian whim it seems – he had slipped and fallen into a canal on the way to work. He could not swim.

As Adrian lay in a coma, Jimmy and Geraldine flew in. A day before his 27th birthday, June 9th 2000, Adrian passed away.

Grief overwhelmed the family – Adrian has two brothers and a sister. It was a restless grief.

On August 20th 2000, covering Man United v Newcastle at Old Trafford, I opened the programme to see on page 14 two obituaries, one for Shay Brennan, the other for Adrian. Brennan was young at 61, but Adrian was 26.

Grief-stricken

Diana LawJimmy Doherty

I’d heard the same and rang the Amsterdam police. No wonder they were unable to help.

I spoke to Maurice Watkins, United director and lawyer and went back and forth to the club and Jimmy. Gary Neville became involved. The family felt they were dealing with corporate, legal United, not the team they had permitted Adrian to leave home for at 16. Things were raw.

As Ferguson, Giggs, Neville, Beckham, Scholes and others produced books, one name was consistently missing: Adrian Doherty. “Awkwardness” is the explanation Giggs gives here, a book with which he has co-operated. So has Neville, who compares Adrian to Messi.

Reading Adrian’s poetry and songs, he might prefer comparison with another man from Strabane – Flann O’Brien.

Forever Young – a title taken from Bob Dylan – is belated recognition, but it is recognition. Kay has written a sincere, elegant reflection on a young man touched by genius.

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