Stories of talent denied will always be seductive. There are a lot of them, though, and while they will always inspire sympathy, they tend to not to vary too much. A young athlete seems to have the world in his or her hands, fate intervenes, and everything shatters. What follows is often desperately sad: lives are ruined, relationships fray and darkness descends where there should have been light.
Adrian Doherty’s life was anything but formulaic. It wasn’t well known, either. Doherty burned brightly but ever so briefly as a Manchester United trainee in the late 1980s and very early 1990s, but suffered a career-changing injury before he could ever make a first-team appearance. There is almost no footage of him that survives and there are very few people who actually saw him play. Once he left the game, the existence he led was also entirely his own and occured well beyond the public eye.
To publish a book about his life, then, which The Times’ chief football writer Oliver Kay did in 2017, presented all sorts of potential difficulties. Tifo Football talked to Oli about how this story gripped him and the challenges he faced in trying to tell it.
So, an obvious place to the start: why this story – why Adrian Doherty?
The idea of it came about in 2011. I stumbled across the story of Adrian Doherty and just became completely engrossed by the subject – really obsessed by it – and I became desperate to write it. I remember thinking that I just have to write this book. It became a labour of love – not just for myself, but for the family, who have become very wary and who had always been reluctant to do a book about Adrian.
Adrian never played a first-team game for Manchester United, he existed before the age of YouTube and prior to the automatic chronicling provided by the internet, so as a journalist – as someone trying to create a detailed overview of his life – how difficult was that to overcome?
But there was really nothing. Actually, when we were creating the publicity campaign for Forever Young, the publisher noticed that Adrian didn’t actually have a Wikipedia page.
Really difficult. Today, even a first year professional at Manchester United would have his own compilation videos and a detailed story. But there was just no information at all about Adrian. All I could find – on the whole of the internet – were a few threads on Manchester United forums with people asking whether they remembered this brilliant player who got injured. A few did, but there were mainly just shrugs and then the conversations would move on to Ravel Morrison or other more contemporary players.
There was also a tribute page run by one of his youth coaches (Matt Bradley, last know to be working as a scout) at youth level in Derry, from when he was growing up in Northern Ireland. It featured two newspaper clippings: one from the Manchester Evening News which talked about this “boy wonder standing by” and a “northern Irish kid rated as the greatest prospect United have had since George Best” who was on the verge of a first-team debut at 16. That’s true, he was on the verge of the team: he went to Southampton that weekend as a fourteenth man, but Danny Wallace passed a fitness test and he didn’t play. He travelled with the first-team a few times and was on the cusp of the side at the same time as Ryan Giggs – at 16/17.
And the other other clipping on the site was dated ten years later and it reported his death in Holland.
So what on earth is this story – what happened between those two dates?
But there was really nothing. Actually, when we were creating the publicity campaign for Forever Young, the publisher noticed that Adrian didn’t have a Wikipedia page. I had no idea how to set one up, but I registered and tried to do a short biography, but I received a response from Wikipedia saying that he didn’t actually meet the criteria to have one because he’d never played a senior professional game for any team at any level. I almost found that quite offensive. I know there has to be an entry level criteria, but his is the most fascinating footballing story I could have imagined writing.
One of my favourite parts of the book is probably the beginning, when you dig into his childhood in Strabane. There are all sorts of interviews with his close friends and family, obviously with his parents Jimmy and Geraldine too, but also more distant friends from that time in his life. Because this story doesn’t have a happy ending, was that challenging too – in the sense that you’re not dealing with a full life, but one which was cut short and which probably remains a source of great pain.
It was a challenge, really. Doherty is a very common name in that part of the world, even just in Strabane, so tracking down the family was proving difficult. I noticed in the that Derry Journal article from 2000 that the parish priest was a Father Doherty, so I actually contacted him to see if he knew the family – my approach did actually came through the parish priest, so I think the family were reassured by that.
Enough to invite me over, anyway. They said that they didn’t want to do an interview – maybe in the future – but were happy for me to come and find out about Adrian and told me that there was lots I didn’t know.
Initially, I thought I’d be able to talk them over into maybe doing a positive piece in The Times.
I spent an entire day listening to stories about him, like how he would busk in Manchester city centre while his friends were at Old Trafford, and I think we parted that day as friends. They were very trusting with what they told them and they could see that I wasn’t just some horrible parasite. Even then though, it was immediately in my mind that this had to be a book – if and when I’d be allowed to write it. They warmed to me, I certainly warmed to them, and they started to think that a book about their son would be a good thing.
Then it was just a case of talking to as many people as I could. I think it was about one hundred interviews that I did with ex-teammates from Manchester United and Derry City, with schoolmates, with family friends and with people who knew him in his later life in Preston and Galway who – actually – had absolutely no idea that the guy doing acoustic sessions and poetry nights with them had been a footballer on the verge of Manchester United’s first-team.
Looking back on the book now, what strikes me most about Adrian is that, from the pictures included, he looks happiest after his football career has come to an end. It’s a real difficult question for you to answer, but do you think that given what an odd fit he was for football culture of the time, he would have drifted away from the game irregardless?
Yes. Yes, I really do.
A few people have asked how it is that I could claim that he was going to be the next Ryan Giggs, but I never said that, I just quoted many of his teammates – including Giggs himself – saying that the two were neck and neck for ability and potential at 16.
Giggs was a more one-dimensional character and was utterly obsessed with becoming a footballer. He was totally focused on that. Adrian certainly had periods in his life, including at Manchester United, when he was equally focused, but he was a completely different character – a multi-layered personality who was fascinated by poetry and music, theology and spirituality. He wouldn’t stay behind after training to work on his crossing, because that all came naturally to him. He’d go out and watch bands, or play himself at open-mic nights in city centre pubs.
I think had he not got injured when he did, in February 1991 – when United were experiencing a massive injury crisis and a heavy fixture pile-up – he would, along with Giggs, Darren Ferguson and Neil Whitworth, certainly have played for the first-team – Sir Alex Ferguson has said so himself – and had he done so, I think – like Giggs – he would have hit the ground running. He would have had no problem mentally, physically or technically at 17. That’s how good people think he was.
My feeling is that even if he’d been absolutely sensational and received all the adulation due to him, I think he would have walked away from football sooner rather than later. By 21, maybe by his mid-twenties. He just didn’t enjoy the footballing or dressing-room culture as much as he probably needed to and he had other interests. Ideally, he would have not got injured, he would have played for United’s first-team, and then he would have become this cult figure, living in Galway or wherever, writing music and poetry and telling that story. He would lived this bizarre, post-football existence as the guy who walked away from Manchester United.
I think that’s why I started the book where I did: with him walking away from Old Trafford on a match day to go and busk in Manchester. There’s obviously a metaphorical side to that, but he literally did it every Saturday and I think he would have literally continued to do even had he had the better luck that his talent merited.
Towards the end of the book and after he has left football for good, you deal with the period of time and the circumstances leading up to his passing. Did this become quite personal? You use a different tone to attack some of the hearsay surrounding his death. Was that borne out your closeness to his family and friends, or was it just irritation at the way he’s been treated?
He died in a canal in Holland. He was found and he did live in a coma for around four weeks in a hospital in The Hague, but he never recovered consciousness. When I heard those bare facts – that he’d been seen as the next George Best, that he’d got injured, and then that he’d died in a Dutch canal ten years later – I assumed that that surely meant that he drank himself into a stupor and fallen in, or that he threw himself in. Because it’s Holland, you also think it might be drugs.
It was very late in the project when I managed to get a full explanation of the case from the police and they just said no – that there had only been a very small amount of alcohol in his blood, certainly nothing that would cause someone to fall into a canal, and that there was no suggestion whatsoever of any drug taking.
I felt guilty at the assumption I’d made four years earlier. But I also felt quite angry that a number of people, when I was asking them about Adrian, said “oh, didn’t he drink himself to death in Amsterdam” or “wasn’t it an overdose?”
Those teammates I spoke to were brilliant. Whether it was Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Mark Bosnich or people you wouldn’t have heard of, they couldn’t have been more helpful. But a lot of them assumed that there must have been something amiss, that there had to be something more than just an innocent accident. I can understand why that rumour took hold, but a lot of people were repeating it as if it were fact. It wasn’t just former teammates, either. His sister talks very passionately about that and told me that she’d had people coming up to her in Strabane and repeating those rumours.
Really – to her face?
Yes, but not aggressively – just in a matter-of-fact way.
You get a lot of that in life anyway. People like to gossip and speculate, then the speculation becomes the gossip and becomes accepted as truth. So I had to be quite firm in rebutting I think and maybe there is a bit of frustration on the family’s behalf, but the explanation I was given by the detectives couldn’t have been clearer: there was nothing suspicious.
It would have been interesting to see what he did next – presumably whatever that was wouldn’t have been public, but he sounds like someone with a restless spirit and who, without football or otherwise, would have led a fascinating life.
There’s a funny bit at the end where I ask his brother Gareth what he thinks Adrian might be doing now had he lived. He said that nothing would have surprised him. One of his friends thinks that he might have gone back to college and continued the education which was cut off when he moved to Manchester United. Colin Telford, who was another trainee at United, said he could have imagined him as a roadie for a band, travelling the world, or that he’d be one of the guys sat in a pub, strumming along on his guitar with a dog at his feet. Enjoying himself and enjoying his life.
Forever Young was published by Quercus Books in May 2017.