Our Sporting Lives with Lee Doherty: Football was the be-all and end-all. Then I left Linfield for Glenavon and learned family is No.1
Irish League great Lee Doherty on glittering Windsor stay, re-assessing his priorities, and immense pride at representing NI
Lee Doherty is sitting in Heathrow Airport. The Irish League legend and former Northern Ireland international laughs when explaining how much he and his wife Sharon love their holidays.
The latest is a special trip. Destination Bali for a family reunion.
Along with youngest daughter Jenna and her boyfriend, Lee and Sharon are jetting off to the beautiful Indonesian island to meet up with their eldest girl Jodi and her partner who are currently enjoying a year in Australia.
Doherty is quite emotional thinking about his family being together again. It's what matters to him most, though the 55-year-old ex-Linfield and Glenavon captain admits football was once top of his priority list.
"Years ago football for me was the be-all and end-all. Before we had kids, when I would come home from a defeat I wouldn't want to talk to anybody and needed to get another training session in before I would get it out of my system," says Doherty with an honesty that is one of the hallmarks of his personality.
"When you have kids and other responsibilities they should take priority. I probably didn't learn that until I was 30 when I joined Glenavon from Linfield. Glenavon taught me that family was okay.
"People at the club bought my children Christmas presents and things like that. That would never have happened at Linfield. My family were very much embraced at Glenavon whereas before it was, 'You are Lee Doherty and you stand alone and your family isn't involved'. That's why Glenavon means so much to me. Now I know family is everything and we love spending time together."
As a promising teenager, Belfast boy Doherty was due to go on trial with Everton only for manager Howard Kendall to get the sack, putting the trip off. Legendary Everton and Linfield scout Jim Emery suggested Windsor Park rather than Goodison Park may be a better option.
Doherty recalls: "I wasn't that interested in Linfield because Manchester United were my team and at that stage I wanted to get to England so I could play for them one day but I went to watch the Blues train and couldn't believe how good players like Peter Dornan, Billy Murray and Stephen McKee were and I signed that night."
That decision would lead to spectacular success under managerial great Roy Coyle as Doherty won 20 trophies, including EIGHT league titles, in 14 years at the club, becoming one of the most respected captains in Linfield's history in the process. All this after a debut as a 17-year-old when he played on for 10 minutes after breaking his ankle!
On his time at Linfield, Doherty says: "You just expected to win. Roy Coyle would never have been a motivator of men but he knew and trusted his players.
"I remember speaking to him when I went to manage Bangor after my playing career. I asked him what made a good manager and his response was, 'Good players'! That's why Linfield won the league year in, year out.
"I played under Roy Walker and he was a manager who would have inspired you. Roy Coyle wasn't like that. He had a team that he believed in and the players were good enough to go out and win trophies.
"That Linfield team was like a well-oiled machine. There was also a fear of losing your place. If you didn't perform you could be out and may not have got back in for three months. There was an intensity at Linfield. That's what set us apart.
"Glentoran had a fantastic side with great players like Billy Caskey, Jim Cleary and others. They could beat Linfield but then would lose to lesser teams. Linfield never did that."
With every passing season at Linfield, tough-tackling midfielder Doherty's influence grew. So too his hard man reputation.
"I never saw myself as a hard man of football. I prefer to see myself as a footballer who was competitive. To me, Kirk Hunter, Packie McAllister and Billy Caskey were real tough guys," says Doherty, an architect by trade, whose dad Alex and brothers Dean and Clark also played in the Irish League.
"I'm not a tough person. I'm quite an emotional person as my girls would tell you. Yes, I had a desire to win a tackle, but purely to win the ball, not to hurt anyone."
Many felt Doherty would stay at Windsor forever. That changed in 1994 when Trevor Anderson was in charge.
"Leaving Linfield was tough but it was Trevor Anderson's choice," insists Doherty.
"I was the club captain and after a poor result around Christmas he asked in the changing room, 'What's going wrong?' and I stood up and said, 'What's going wrong is you are picking players that shouldn't be playing and you are only picking them because you paid big money for them'. I never started again for Linfield.
"The disappointing thing for me was that was right in the middle of my testimonial year and I got to the end of that and it was as if I was walking away from Linfield. I was called a bit of a Judas over that and it hurt me because I had given the club my life for a long period of time.
"I didn't want to leave but I was 30 at the time and I needed to be playing week in, week out and Glenavon gave me that opportunity."
In that era, those who left Linfield tended to play out time elsewhere without making a major impact. Not Lee Doherty. He inspired Glenavon to a host of trophy successes, though not the one he wanted.
"When I was in discussions with Glenavon, Adrian Teer (chairman) said they were investing a lot in me and I said, 'Sign me and we'll win the league'. That's the only time I felt I let someone down in football because it didn't happen," says Doherty.
"We finished second but with the players we had we should have won it. Dermot O'Neill, Stephen Caffrey, Tony Grant, Glenn Ferguson, Raymond McCoy, Mark Glendinning, Gary Smyth and Darren Murphy were in that team.
"On the flip side we were successful in terms of winning trophies and I really enjoyed my time at the club and played there until I was 37 when I retired."
Prior to that with a little more luck, golf-loving Doherty, who is great company, could have made a career in England.
"I went for a trial with QPR in 1988. Alan McDonald, who was at QPR, had set it up and Northern Ireland manager Billy Bingham had recommended me. Things went really well and Alan was saying they were going to sign me," he recalls.
"We played in a warm-up game for the Seoul Olympics and I ruptured my Achilles inside the first minute and a half and I was in plaster for the rest of the trip.
"I remember ringing my dad and it was probably the only time I cried over football. He asked me how the game had gone and I could barely speak.
"That was a massive disappointment for me. I was out for nearly a year and the little pace I had I lost it after that injury. To be honest I'm not sure my game was ever quick enough or dynamic enough and that's why I never played in England."
Doherty did play for Northern Ireland, however- twice in wins against Israel (1984) and Turkey (1987). He even scored on his debut.
"My biggest highlight in football was representing my country," he says, bursting with pride.
"It wasn't even scoring on my debut. It was standing there before the kick-off, singing the national anthem and thinking, 'I'm playing for Northern Ireland'. I'd probably been in 10 or 12 squads and then to make a start was a big deal to me and my family."
Doherty has a British Championship winners medal from 1984 and was close to making it to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico.
He says: "David Campbell from Nottingham Forest, who made the movie Shooting for Socrates, took my place on the plane to Mexico.
"I had been in six squads leading up to that and David came in at the last minute and I was put on standby. It was disappointing but he was a full-time player so I understood it.
"I still have the Home Nations medal as I was in the squad for the games. Against Scotland George Dunlop, Linfield's famous goalkeeper, stitched me up.
"I was on the bench with him and he said to me, 'Bingy wants you to warm up'. This was after Graeme Souness had injured one of our players. So, I'm running up and down the line and nervously thinking Souness was going to do me next. Bingy saw me and said, 'What are you doing son? Sit down' with a look on his face which told me he hadn't wanted me to warm up at all.
"All the boys had a good laugh about that. It was a great squad to be around. The spirit was amazing and the players like Pat Jennings, Jimmy Nicholl, Sammy McIlroy, Martin O'Neill, Mal Donaghy and Norman Whiteside were incredible."
Doherty left his last job in football in 2016 after five years as Ballymena United assistant manager to Glenn Ferguson. Before that he was in the hotseat at Bangor for two seasons. He remembers it as a 'bad experience' with players not being paid and him being sacked after his first campaign before being re-appointed within days.
"I had no intention of going back in after what happened at Bangor but then Glenn became Ballymena manager. He is a good friend of mine and asked me to join him and I really enjoyed it," says Doc.
"We won Ballymena's first trophy in many years and another one after that. When Glenn was told to go I felt he was hard done by because I thought he was moving the team forward. I understand that David Jeffrey was out of a job, Portadown were chasing him and Ballymena had to make a call and that's what they did and got David in."
Doherty says the best player he ever played against was Dutch hero Ruud Gullit, while in the Irish League it was Glentoran icon Billy Caskey and names Glenn Ferguson and Mark Glendinning as the best players he played with due to their consistency.
He adds: "I had a great career in football. There are so many I have to thank for that; my parents, my wife, my daughters, my friends, team-mates and people in the media. What I would say to footballers now is to enjoy it because it goes by in the blink of an eye."