Craig Salmon talks to Times football writer Oliver Kay who has written a book about young Manchester United starlet Adrian Doherty, who tragically died at the age of 26 in 2002
For somebody tipped at one time to become the next George Best, you would imagine the noisy, hectic factory floor of Beech’s Fine Chocolates was quite the come down for Adrian Doherty.
From donning the red shirt of the famous Manchester United to wearing the stained overalls of the Fletcher Street establishment, in Preston, the Northern Irishman’s fall from grace appeared spectacular.
A team-mate in the United youth teams of the legendary Ryan Giggs, Doherty’s talent as a teenager was such that even the Welsh wizard found himself in his shadow.
Just when it looked like the genius with a football at his feet was about to break into Alex Ferguson’s first-team at Old Trafford at the tender age of 16, disaster struck.
A major cruciate knee ligament injury sustained in a reserve team game against Carlisle United robbed him of his Red Devils debut.
Unlike these days with the advancement of modern medical science which makes recovery from these types of injuries an almost certainty, back in the early 1990s the condition was still considered to be hugely threatening – if not quite the death sentence – to any footballer’s career.
Unfortunately – although he attempted to make a comeback – Doherty never rediscovered the form which once saw him viewed as a ‘boy wonder’ among United’s coaching staff.
Indeed Giggs himself has described his contemporary’s footballing ability as something out of the film ‘The Matrix’.
“You know where everything clicks together, where it’s all happening quickly, but in the character’s head it’s happening in slow motion? It was like that with Doc,” said Giggs of his fellow winger, who was blessed with amazing pace. ‘The most amazing football skill’ is Ferguson’s judgement of his young protégé while ex-United and England stalwart Gary Neville remembers Doherty as ‘out of this world’.
The fact that the man himself cannot give his own assessment of his unique ability is the tragedy of the story.
Having moved to Preston after his release by United, Doherty – who originally hailed from a small Irish town called Stabane near Derry City – decided to head for a new life in The Hague, in Holland.
Tragically, his life was cut short at the age of 26 when he mysteriously slipped and fell in to a canal in 2002.
Despite spending several days in a coma, Doherty never regained consciousness and sadly passed away in hospital surrounded by his family.
The mystery surrounding his death and indeed his life – because here was no ordinary footballer both on and off the pitch – is the subject of a brilliantly written book by renowned football writer Oliver Kay. Forever Young is the completion of five years of research into Doherty’s forgotten years at United, while attempting to unravel his eccentric – yet extraordinary – personality and life.
Aside from his undisputed football talent, Doherty was a character of many complexities, who – unlike most other young players of his ilk – was just as happy with his guitar in hand or a poem to pen – as he was with a football at his feet.
To illustrate his eccentricity, Doherty would regularly give away his complimentary tickets for United’s first-team games at Old Trafford – instead he would head into the city centre, guitar in hand, busking on the streets.
As Giggs succinctly puts it in Forever Young.
“I had never seen anything like him before. You would look at him the first couple of time in the changing room and think, ‘Well, he can’t play...’ because Doc didn’t really look like a footballer if you know what I mean. He was unorthodox in the way he dressed and the way he acted. He wasn’t like the rest of us. He played the guitar, he loved his music and he was obsessed with Bob Dylan. As a sixteen-year-old, I didn’t have a clue who Bob Dylan was.”
Times correspondent Kay first hit upon the idea of writing a book about Doherty when he was commissioned to write a historical piece in 2011 about Giggs, who was approaching the 20th anniversary of his United debut against Everton.
“Giggs reaching the 20th anniversary of his debut is obviously quite a rarity in football,” said Kay.
“So I tracked down some of his old team-mates in the youth team from 20-plus years earlier,” Kay said. “It was not quite the Class of ’92 of Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers, although Giggs was obviously part of that group – they came just slightly after.
“So some of the players in the same youth team were people like Mark Bosnich and Darren Ferguson.
“As I spoke to some of Giggs’s old team-mates in the youth teams, one of them said to me, ‘Have you heard about Adrian Doherty?...have you heard about the Doc’.?
“I did have an incredibly vague recollection of the name but that was about it.
“I was told that he was an incredibly gifted and talented player and that he was as good as, if not better, than Giggs at 16 or 17-years-old, but had suffered a really bad injury at the worst possible time just when it looked like he was about to break into the first team.
“Then of course he died 10 years later.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is a story which needs to be told’.
“I found it to be an incredibly captivating story.
“Here was a player who was considered to be one of the best player of his age group for United – as good as Giggs.
“But he never made it and then died at a very young age.
“It got me wondering what had happened.
“From speaking to many other different people about him, I eventually decided to write a book.”
Kay’s investigative work on Doherty brought him to Preston where he tried to garner information on the player’s life after football.
Why the former United ace chose Central Lancashire in 1993 to start a new life is not totally clear.
There is no suggestion that he attempted any kind of footballing comeback with North End.
Instead the general consensus among his family and friends is that the free-spirited and spontaneous Doherty stuck a pin in a map and ended up in Preston.
The move allowed him to drift into anonymity and indulge in his love of music and poetry.
He searched for any kind of work and joined a local guitar group which met at the New Britannia pub, in Heatley Street, and would often attend open mic sessions at The Lamb, which was situated in Church Street.
“After leaving Manchester United, Doherty decided he wanted to move to Preston and get a job,” Kay said.
“He ended up working at Beech’s Fine Chocolate Factory and I went there to try to see if I could find out a bit more about him.
“I spoke to a woman called Marilyn who worked there at the same time as him.
“She recounts a funny story which is in the book.
“She told me that she and her fellow co-workers were one day discussing an Eastenders storyline involving a character called Aidan Brosnan.
“This character was actually a footballer from Ireland.
“The girls at the factory sort of said to Adrian Doherty that this character from Eastenders sounds a bit like you.
“They sort of innocently asked him if he played football at all to which he replied, ‘Not since I left Manchester United’.
“They just completely dismissed what he said at the time.
“They thought he was just joking because he had never mentioned it before.
“He didn’t look like a footballer, didn’t dress like a footballer.
“He just did not have that footballer strut or cockiness.”
It was only after the arrival of a worker called Robert Kellett, who was a Manchester United nut, a few months later that the workers at Beech’s realised that they were working alongside a former United wonderboy.
Having witnessed some of the world greatest players live in his role as a football journalist, including players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Kay feels sad that Doherty was never able to fulfil his undoubted potential.
The journalist has a theory surrounding the events of Doherty’s death.
He believes the Irishman slipped into the canal while daydreaming about his next song lyric or piece of poetry.
“I think it has to be the accepted version of what happened to him,” said Kay.
“There is a mystery about it and people have thought here is an ex-footballer, who didn’t make it...how did he end up in the canal?
“Was he on drugs? Was he stumbling around blind drunk? Did he just throw himself in there?
“I spoke to the police in Holland and they said that everything was entirely innocent and that it was just a tragic accident.”
Forever Young is out now in book stores and also online. Published by Quercus, it is priced at £20 for an hardback copy.