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Football's lost genius who died alone a long way from home

Like many footballing prodigies, the teenage Adrian Doherty was tipped to emulate George Best’s heroics at Manchester United. But by the age of 26, the winger from Strabane was invalided out of the game and tragically drowned in a Dutch canal. Ivan Little talks to the author of a new book on the mercurial tale

The shelves of bookshops are groaning under the weight of mighty tomes about the multi-millionaire superstars of English football, yet publishers readily admit that even the biggest names in the game find it tough to sell their ghost-written biographies.

But now one of the top football correspondents in England - Oliver Kay of The Times - has published a new book about an Ulster-born player, Adrian Doherty, who is known to virtually no one across the water. Or here.

But, even so, the most knowledgeable managers and players in Britain have been keen to talk to Kay to laud the skills of the Strabane youngster, who was once tipped to become one of the all-time greats at Manchester United, but who ended up dying an early and lonely death a long way from Co Tyrone, in Holland, where he fell into a canal. Oliver Kay's magnificently researched and superbly crafted book, Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football's Lost Genius, is part affectionate and uplifting profile, part heartbreaking tragedy wrought from a career that promised so much, but delivered so little - thanks primarily, but not only, to injury.

Yet it is also a searing exploration and ultimately an indictment of how Adrian was let down by arguably the planet's biggest football club, who wooed him away from his home and away from the clutches of Arsenal and Nottingham Forest, two clubs that had been competing for his signature after he exploded on to the junior football scene in Northern Ireland in 1987.

Adrian's family draw back in the book from airing their grievances about how he was treated after he sustained cruciate ligament damage in a junior match for United against Carlisle.

And Kay says: "They do not want a book about their beloved Adrian to end with a 'slanging match'. Yet those grievances persist and are deeply held."

Kay writes that, as well as the diagnosis of Adrian's injury and his after care, the Doherty family are also concerned about why little was seemingly done in the early days to protect Adrian and his fellow apprentices from "a culture of intimidation and humiliation" at United.

He says what he was told by several of Adrian's contemporaries and others had only heightened the impression of an Old Trafford dressing room culture that lurched between the inane and the sinister.

There were reports of initiation trials for the apprentices, ranging from being placed in tumble dryers, or having balls kicked in their faces, to forcing them to simulate sex on a treatment table and being lined up in front of a pornographic film and made to watch it "fearing a flurry of punches if they dared to get aroused".

Kay says that some people claimed the initiations made aspiring professional sportsmen stronger, but his quotes from a number of former United apprentices make it clear that the rituals had the opposite impact on them.

The book reveals that Adrian Doherty's father, Jimmy, who had played in the Irish League with Derry City, met Manchester United officials for several years after his son's death to express his alarm about Adrian's time at the club.

Kay says Mr Doherty was left feeling like he was dealing with "a big, faceless corporate machine", rather than the family club that the world knew, or thought it knew.

Kay writes: "Some of the meetings ended with handshakes, others with Jimmy infuriated by what he considered a dismissive, condescending attitude to his complaints."

In subsequent letters to the family, United said they acted fairly and appropriately in relation to Adrian and emphasised that a rigorous safeguarding policy was now in place, a response which bizarrely suggested that the things they insisted hadn't happened couldn't happen again.

In the records at Old Trafford, there is little of note about Adrian Doherty, though Sir Alex Ferguson once wrote in the club programme that the young would-be star was "like greased lightning" and he was poised to bring him into the first team in 1990 at the tender age of 16.

And although Adrian did travel with the first team on a number of occasions, he was never called into the squad - even as a substitute. There is, however, undoubtedly a suspicion among Adrian's family, who also took their worries about his spell at Old Trafford - without success - to the Professional Footballers Association, that there's been a deliberate process to airbrush him from the club's history.

Yet, if the fates hadn't conspired so cruelly against Adrian, it's likely that no one but no one would have been able to ignore him.

Oliver Kay says he was drawn to write the book five years ago after hearing about Adrian's story.

He told me: "I stumbled across it, really. A former United player told me about him and I realised it would make a fascinating book."

Initially, Adrian's family didn't want him to pursue the project. "I went to Strabane to meet them and they said they were just trying to get on with their lives and didn't want publicity. And it was a long time before they had a change of heart and said it might be nice to have a book about his life.

"I do feel it is a unique story and I don't want people to come away from reading the book thinking that it's all about the differences between Adrian's family and Manchester United. It's not."

Of course, the temptation to over-hype any footballing prodigy like Adrian is enormous. The game has long since lost count of the number of the "next George Bests" who've been bound for glory, but never got within a sniff of the big time.

Yet, Adrian Doherty was somehow just a little bit different from the other wannabes. It's a mission impossible to find any of his peers at Old Trafford - including the famous class of '92, the Butts, the Beckhams, the Nevilles and the Scholes - who were not in awe of his talent.

'Doc', as he was known, regularly outshone them all and his erstwhile team-mates in United's junior ranks, who went on to move into the big league, have set their egos aside to tell Kay that the all the brouhaha surrounding him - including quips that he was so fast he could catch pigeons - wasn't fantasy, or fanciful, football.

Ryan Giggs (left), says that Adrian, at 14 or 15, was probably the most talented player in Britain, insists the Strabane youngster was Sir Alex Ferguson's ideal player, adding: "Doc just didn't upset the manager. Being the type of player he was, a winger who was unpredictable and took risks, you would expect him to lose the ball from time to time, but honestly he would lose it very rarely. He was a freak. He was incredible."

In the book, Giggs says he wouldn't disagree with the assertion that, at times, he found himself in the shadow of Adrian Doherty. "It seemed like every time we went out on the pitch over a period of about six months, he was doing something special, whereas I, at that time, was a bit inconsistent. Doc always seemed to be able to handle any situation. He was off the cuff."

Oliver Kay conducted more than 100 interviews for the book and significantly, by talking to so many family members, friends and fellow players, he has drilled down into what made the youngster tick, off the field as well as on it.

Indeed, friends said he could take football, or leave it. He didn't mix easily with his Man United peers and, quite astonishingly, as they passed their free time playing snooker, or shopping, Adrian, who loved the music of Bob Dylan, would take his guitar downtown in Manchester and busk.

Kay says the youngster wanted to be the next Dylan - not the next Best.

Videos on YouTube show Adrian belting out a Dylan song All Along the Watchtower with a band back in Strabane. He was no great singer. But then neither is his American hero.

But another piece of archive material demonstrates that Doherty was something else on the football field.

The all-too-brief, 70-second clip shows him playing for a Derry City under-14 team at a packed Brandywell in a warm-up game before a friendly between the Candystripes senior team and Nottingham Forest.

Doherty is seen scoring two goals that take the breath away and it was no wonder that Forest wanted to snap him up.

However, local scout Matt Bradley, who was a United fanatic, was determined to ensure that Doherty didn't slip through the fingers of his beloved Old Trafford club. He had seen him playing for the Moorfield Boys Club team in Derry and one look was enough.

Bradley made it his business to let United's Irish scout know that the club would be crazy to miss out on a rare gem.

Bradley has his own website and on it he says that Adrian was "the best young player that I have ever seen in Ireland in over 30 years of coaching and scouting".

The obligatory trial followed and it took Sir Alex Ferguson just 15 minutes to realise that Adrian was the real deal. He rang his father Jimmy to tell him that he wanted to sign him.

But when he went to Old Trafford, in the days before mobile phones and social media, Adrian became homesick and returned home, where he started to relax into his old life, but he was persuaded to return to Manchester.

Adrian also played for Northern Ireland's schoolboy international team alongside former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers (below), who shared a room with the Strabane teenager from time to time.

Rodgers has described Adrian as a footballing genius, but of course no one will ever know if he could have gone to become as good as the insiders predicted he would.

The knee injury effectively ended his career and, though he played a couple of matches for Derry City, his heart wasn't it and after a spell in Preston working in a chocolate factory Adrian moved to Holland and a job with a furniture firm.

Relatives say his post-football era was happy, but it had a sad ending.

Adrian, who hated the water and was terrified of it, fell into a canal in The Hague and, though he was pulled out, he was in a coma for more than a month and died on June 9, 2000 - the day before his 27th birthday.

The rumours didn't take long to circulate, but Oliver Kay has obtained reports from Dutch police which nailed the lies.

The reports said Adrian wasn't drunk, he wasn't on drugs and his death was a tragic accident.

The Derry Journal reported four days after his death that a passer-by had spotted Adrian tripping and falling into the canal.

And Oliver Kay says he's happy that the innuendos about his death have been removed.

But would Adrian have reached the pinnacle of English football if he had stayed injury-free?

Kay says: "I think he would have made a spectacular impact for the short to medium-term, before enigmatically stopping playing to go off and do something else involving his music."

  • Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football's Lost Genius is published by Quercus, £20. Author Oliver Kay will be signing copies at Eason in the Foyleside Shopping Centre, Londonderry on Tuesday, May 24 (2pm)

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