Adrian Doherty: the lost star of Manchester United’s class of 92
A contemporary of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, Adrian Doherty had an extraordinary talent, as attested to by Sir Alex Ferguson and Brendan Rodgers, but it was tragically short-lived
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A team picture from the 1990 FA Youth Cup semi-final against Spurs. Adrian Doherty
was man-of-the-match in both legs. Back row (left to right): Mark Bosnich, Ryan Giggs
(Wilson), Darren Ferguson, Paul Sixsmith, Jason Lydiate, Sean McAuley. Front row:
Mark Gordon, Craig Lawton, Lee Costa, Alan Tonge, Adrian Doherty.
Photograph: Manchester United FC/Inside United
The chances are you might never have heard of Adrian Doherty, let alone remember him play football. Yet if you had seen him, it is also fair to say you might never have forgotten what it was like when he had a ball at his feet. Doherty is the player nobody mentions when they talk of that group at Manchester United who eventually became known as the class of 92. He was on the opposite wing to Ryan Giggs and for a while Alex Ferguson and his coaching staff wondered whether he was actually the better player. “One of the fastest wingers many people have ever seen,” according to Tony Park, co-author of Sons of United, a history of the club’s youth team. “The United scouts said he ‘could catch pigeons’ he was that quick.”
Park has been watching United at that level since the late-1970s and reckons in all that time he has seen only four absolute certainties to make it to the top: Norman Whiteside, Paul Scholes, Giggs (then Wilson) and Doherty. “One coach commented that of all the lads at the club at the time only Wilson, Scholes and Doherty were certs to make the grade. And while Wilson had a great left foot with pace, and Scholes could use both feet brilliantly but lacked pace, Doherty had it all.”
Brendan Rodgers can vouch for it, too. He and Doherty were friends from the same boys’ team in Northern Ireland and early in the Ferguson years at Old Trafford they used to travel together to represent United at schoolboy level. Rodgers could not be clearer. “Speak to Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, the Nevilles, they will all tell you he was the best player they ever played with at that level.”
Ferguson put Doherty in his squad for the first time when he was 16, in March 1990. “Behind the scenes Doherty is tipped to make the kind of impact not seen since George Best was given his chance,” David Meek wrote for the Manchester Evening News. “Alex Ferguson is being urged by his back-room staff to play the boy from Belfast.”
He was a few miles out – Doherty was actually from Strabane in County Tyrone – but you get the point. “His speed and skill have been a revelation in training,” Meek continued. “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.”
Except Doherty never played for Manchester United and his story, ultimately, is laced in tragedy. A few days before he was supposed to make his debut his knee gave way in an A-team fixture against Carlisle: his cruciate ligaments, the injury every footballer fears the most.
It took seven months to heal and in his comeback game the joint buckled again. This time he was out for more than a year. He returned again but after a handful of games it was clear he was not the same player. The cruciate was even more of a big deal back then than it is now. It destroyed, rather than delayed, careers. Adrian was one of the victims.
His father, Jimmy, has always thought United should have done more to care for his son during and after that long rehabilitation. The truth is the “Doc”, as the other players called him, was not the classic superstar-in-the-making. He was different: bohemian, slightly eccentric in a football context. He was not particularly interested in haircuts or cars or looking the part, often turning up at the Cliff, United’s old training ground, in a baggy old Aran sweater with a guitar over his shoulder. Robbie Savage, from the year below, remembers him “strumming in the next room”. Doherty took that guitar to the Christmas do where he played a song, possibly a Bob Dylan track, to his team-mates. He did not really follow football, preferring to write poems. “He was a fearless, strong and skilful footballer but what I remember most was his personality and his intelligence,” Brian McClair says. “He loved to chat about music, books and poetry.”
His former team-mates remember him becoming something of a lost soul. He drifted, even working for a spell in a chocolates factory in Preston. There were three appearances for Derry City, where Jimmy was once on the books. Then he gave up football for good. Rodgers remembers his friend wanting to break into the music industry and there is some grainy old footage on the internet of his band playing Strabane’s Melmount Centre and one of his favourite Dylan songs, All Along The Watchtower.
Adrian Doherty’s potential, so highly rated at Manchester United and
other clubs, was crushed by a knee injury. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Empics
It never worked out. April 2000 was the time United, now European champions, won their sixth championship in eight seasons and the superstars from the class of 92 paraded another trophy inside Old Trafford. It was also the month Doherty decided to move to Amsterdam to work for a furniture company. In his first week he slipped into the canal, on the way to catch an early-morning train. He was in a coma for a month, and died on 9 June. The next day would have been his 27th birthday.
Why tell this story now? It happens to be the anniversary on Wednesday of the day he signed for United, aged 14, with the rest of his life ahead of him. And it is a story that deserves to be told: the star we never saw.
Better than Giggs? We will never know whether he had the personality for all that brilliant potential to flower but he had everything else. Arsenal had tried to sign Doherty before United gazumped them (Pat Rice described him as “a blur”). So had Brian Clough for Nottingham Forest. Matt Bradley, who helped alert United after coaching Doherty at Moorfield Boys in Derry, regards him as “the best young player I have seen in Ireland in over 30 years of coaching and scouting”. Billy Bingham called Doherty into Ireland’s under-21s when he was 17 (Ferguson withdrew him on the basis he thought he was too young). Gary Neville remembers “an easy-going lad who got on with everybody, who never upset anyone, just a really good lad”. The club ran a tribute in Inside United magazine in 2007 and Giggs, five months younger than Doherty, described him as “formidable”. Park has seen them all. “Imagine a bit of Giggs, a bit of Andrei Kanchelskis and a bit of Cristiano Ronaldo, then put it all together; Doherty had everything.”
The Doherty story is certainly a reminder about how cruel this business can be and how quickly, with a bad landing, a late tackle or just the wrong turn of a knee, everything can change. Doherty is far from alone in that. The football world is littered with people the sport has left behind, quickly forgotten because injuries ended their careers before they had even really started. Plenty find their lives spiralling and, however bewildering Gordon Taylor might be, at least there are some good people working for the Professional Footballers’ Association who recognise more needs to be done these days for the footballers the game passes up.
Jimmy and Geraldine, their daughter, Ciara, and sons Gareth and Peter gathered for the funeral on 16 June 2000. “Tributes Flow for Tragic Soccer ‘Gem’” was the headline in the Derry Journal. There was nothing about it, however, in the English press, bar a few lines in the Sunday Mirror. Football had moved on, like the juggernaut it is. It was the day before England played Germany in Euro 2000, with Beckham, Scholes and both Nevilles in the team. The newspapers had plenty to fill their pages.
Yet the people who saw Doherty play will not forget the sense of awe when he had the ball. There is something of the fifth Beatle to Doherty’s story considering what happened next to Giggs, Beckham et al and it is good to learn that one day it will be told in full. A book is planned and there are certainly some distinguished football people to make contributions.
Ferguson will be one – the former United manager introduced Doherty in one set of programme notes as “greased lightning” – and Rodgers will be another. Liverpool’s manager tells one story about his time on Reading’s playing staff when Jim Leighton joined on loan and Rodgers got talking to him about life at Old Trafford. “I asked him if he had heard of such-and-such a youth player and he said no, and such-and-such a youth player and he said no.” That was the moment Rodgers mentioned he had been friends with a young lad from Strabane called Adrian. Leighton stopped. “The Doc?” he said. “The Doc is a legend.”