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The quiet Strabane schoolboy who had world at his magical feet

Adrian Doherty, from Strabane, was tipped as next George Best, but after his career was cruelly ended by injury, he died at just 26

By Ivan Little

They used to say Strabane footballer Adrian Doherty was destined to be the next George Best. And on reflection it appears that, for once, this was no idle boast and the experts at Old Trafford really did believe they'd unearthed a genuine contender rather than a pretender to the Cregagh man's crown.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Brendan Rodgers and Gary Neville were all on record as saying that Adrian was, and had something, a little bit special and a cutting from a Manchester newspaper confirms that the Old Trafford boss was ready to make him a star by pitching him into his first team at the tender age of 16.

A 70-second video posted on the internet recently of Adrian scoring two wonder goals for a Derry youth team a couple of years earlier would tend to support the claims that he was a genius in the making.

But the sad reality is that no-one will ever know if the tousle-haired teenager from the Bell Doo area of Strabane, in that fleeting clip from a packed Brandywell, would have fulfilled his extraordinary potential because he died in a freak accident in Europe 14 years ago.

The cruel fates of football had already conspired to dictate that Adrian Doherty would never get his big chance to enthral millions of fans of the beautiful game alongside his Old Trafford contemporaries in that feted team of 1992, including David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.

And when the documentary makers came to make a film about the class of 92, the footballer who some said might have been the greatest of them all didn't get a look-in.

In England, in the month that marks the anniversary of his signing for United, fans, friends and sports writers have been remembering the lost player the football world forgot - the nearly man who never quite made it.

First, a knee injury meant that Ferguson was unable to play Adrian in the famous red shirt and in an even more tragic twist, the boy who'd first caught the eye of scout Matt Bradley as a teenager, died an untimely death a world away from Tyrone in a tragic accident in Holland, where he'd gone to work after his footballing fantasies evaporated.

But those dreams were real enough for the shy, music-loving kid who was playing for Moorfields Boys Club in Derry in 1987 when Bradley spotted him in an under-14s game.

"He was the best young player that I have ever seen in Ireland in over 30 years of coaching and scouting," said Bradley, who tipped off Man United's Irish scout that he had unearthed a prodigious talent.

Adrian went over for a trial and after just 15 minutes, Sir Alex Ferguson had seen enough and he rang Jimmy Doherty, a useful footballer himself with Derry City, to tell him he wanted to sign his son, beating the likes of Arsenal and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest to the punch.

He went over to Old Trafford when he turned 16 and after starring for the youth team he was promoted to the reserves alongside the likes of Giggs, Neville and Paul Scholes.

He was one of the quickest wingers that many people at United had ever seen and one seasoned pro said: "He was that quick he could catch pigeons."

A young hopeful from Carnlough in Co Antrim called Brendan Rodgers had accompanied Adrian on those trips across the Irish Sea to Manchester.

Brendan, who is now manager of Premier League giants Liverpool, said: "They called him 'the Doc' and Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes the Nevilles, they will all tell you he was the best player they ever played with at that level."

Of course, the passage of time and the tragedy of death sometimes increase the likelihood of exaggerated and candied words about footballers. But Rodgers has no doubt that Adrian Doherty was an "incredible" player.

And the newspaper archives don't lie. A report in the Manchester Evening News from 1990 spells out Adrian Doherty's potential in black and white.

Highly respected journalist David Meek, who covered Man United's exploits for the paper, wrote an article revealing that Ferguson was "considering a sensational debut for 16-year-old unknown winger Adrian Doherty".

The story said that backroom staff were urging Ferguson to play him.

Meek wrote: "Behind the scenes at Old Trafford Doherty is tipped to make the kind of impact not seen since George Best was given his chance.

"His speed and skill have been a revelation in training and he has been a key player in United's successful run to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup."

Meek went on: "Doherty, a first year trainee, is immensely shy but plays with a courage to match his ability. He is a winger who can dribble at top speed and shoot with either foot."

In the end, Ferguson thought better of playing Adrian in that crucial game at Southampton but in the fiery Scot's mind, it was not a case of if he would make his first team breakthrough, but when.

Adrian was called into the senior squad for a trip to Queen's Park Rangers but didn't play and he was tipped to make his debut against Everton.

However, the youngster, who was rated by many as better than Ryan Giggs, was injured in a youth game at Carlisle United in February 1991 and to his horror he was diagnosed with a cruciate knee injury, the dread of all footballers.

But Adrian refused to countenance that the setback was the final whistle. Sadly, however, he injured the knee again in a comeback match and he was sidelined for just over a year.

His family apparently thought Man United could have done more to help Adrian and on his return in January 1993 he was only able to manage a couple of appearances for junior sides at Old Trafford and that was that - in the big league anyway.

Back home at Derry City, the then manager Roy Coyle had heard all about Adrian Doherty from people who'd seen him in his Moorfield days and in his appearances for Northern Ireland schoolboy and under-17 teams and who were still in awe of what he could do with the ball.

Coyle rang Sir Alex Ferguson and asked if he could sign him. He knew he was taking a risk, but it was one he believed was worth taking.

"He'd had a big operation on his knee and I asked if I could bring him over to see if I could get him match-fit. When I saw him first he looked like somebody who should have been at school," says Coyle.

"But when he donned his playing kit he was an absolute gem of a footballer. His greatest asset was pace but the cruciate ligament injury he sustained reduced it by half a yard."

Friends said football had lost its magic for Adrian and he played only a handful of games for Derry City.

His passions lay elsewhere. At Old Trafford, Adrian had told colleagues he was keener on music and poetry than football. And he used to bring a guitar to the players' Christmas parties.

Another player from that era, Robbie Savage, who's now a busy TV and radio pundit, recalled him strumming the guitar in their digs.

On YouTube there's a video of Adrian singing the Bob Dylan song All Along the Watchtower with a band called The Infidels at the Melmount Centre in June 1991.

On a Man United internet forum in the past few days, Reds fans and old friends from back home have been paying tribute to Adrian with men who grew up with him in Strabane, describing him as a level-headed youngster who was in a different league from anyone else on a football pitch.

One said: "It was such a shame that injury ruined him. I remember when he came back to Derry City, his heart wasn't in it any more. He gave up football soon after. He could well have been on Giggs' level, if not better. That is some thought."

Adrian Doherty died in hospital in The Hague on June 9, 2000, just a day before his 27th birthday. He'd been in a coma after falling into a canal a month earlier.

He hadn't been in Holland for long. He'd gone there to take up a job with a furniture company but on his way to work one morning he was seen tripping and falling into a canal.

The emergency services pulled him from the water but he never regained consciousness and he passed away with his family at his bedside.

In 2007, Manchester Utd published a tribute to Adrian in their programme. Ferguson said he was like "greased lightning" and a chronicler of the Old Trafford youth teams Tony Park said of him: "Imagine a bit of Andrei Kanchelskis and a bit of Christiano Ronaldo, then put it all together; Doherty had everything."

Ryan Giggs called him "formidable" and Brian McClair said he was fearless, strong and skilful. "But what I remember most was his personality and his intelligence. He loved to chat about music, books and poetry," he added.

The history of football of course is littered with young players whose careers were cut short by injury. But rarely have there been as many "what ifs" about any footballer like Adrian Doherty, a youngster who had the world at his talented feet and whose tragic story is about to told in a book about his life and death.

Footballers on film

More than 20 years on, it can be hard to match the fresh-faced youngsters whose footage adorns the screen in the documentary Class of '92 with the now-veteran club - and international - legends who have earned their place in the footballing hall of fame.

For those six young men - David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, the Neville brothers and Nicky Butt - it must all have seemed like a dream come true to be pulling on their boots in the changing rooms at Old Trafford, home to such greats as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and our own George Best.

The larking about as lads in the documentary (including, by all accounts, some rather unnerving initiation rituals), and the enduring friendship between the now-grown men, speaks of a bond forged in the fires of top-level club football, and the attendant glare of the media spotlight, but as Beckham himself insists, "there was not one piece of animosity between us, we all had each other's backs".

Perhaps the most enduring questions from Benjamin and Gabe Turner's documentary, though, are the ones behind those young men whose lives were to take a different path, who didn't quite make the grade, Adrian Doherty among them.

How does one reconcile what might have been, when life once held all the same possibilities as these modern footballing icons?

While the high spirits of Becks, Giggsy et al are the main thrust of this sporting tale, one cannot help but sense the ghosts of those also-rans lurking in the background.

The Class of 92 is available now on DVD

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