Forever Young: The Story of Football's Lost Genius
When discussing Manchester United’s ascendency in the nineties, it is easy to focus on the names of a few key players: Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Eric Cantona and Nicky Butt. However, at that time, it was another young man that looked ready to set the scene alight.
Adrian Doherty was an enormously talented graduate of the Manchester United Academy; at only 16 he had already been likened to club legend George Best. Manager Alex Fergusson and teammate Giggs reported being astonished by his level of skill.
Sadly, while his team’s star continued to rise, his own story was marred with injury and misfortune. Doherty never got the chance to play for the first-team; his was a tragic descent that ended in his untimely death at 26.
People keep asking for a quick summary of the book I have written. It isn’t easy, but here goes. It’s a story about a footballer. A footballer who had an extraordinary talent, which took him to the verge of the Manchester United team by the age of 16; a footballer who worshipped Bob Dylan, loved writing poetry and liked to spend his Saturday afternoons busking while his fellow apprentices were watching the first team at Old Trafford; a footballer whose tragic death, at the age of 26, was barely reported beyond the small community where he grew up in Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, though, it does not feel quite right to define Adrian Doherty as a footballer. After five years researching and writing his story, I am more inclined to described him as a poet, a musician, a dreamer. In the cynical, dog-eat-dog, image-conscious world of professional football, he often felt like an outsider with his Dylan obsession, his philosophy books, his second-hand clothes and his ever-present guitar. But speak to anyone who was at United in the late 1980s and early 1990s and they will tell you that for a time he looked certain to be the trailblazer for Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers to follow to stardom. Then injury struck at the worst possible time. Giggs’s career and life went in one direction. Doherty’s went in another.
The firm expectation around United had been that Doherty and Giggs would wing their way into the first team together sooner rather than later. Some felt that, at 16 and 17, until fate and serious injury intervened, Doherty was the better player of the two. “I wouldn’t disagree with that,” Giggs told me. “He was incredible.”
Throughout our conversation about his former team-mate, Giggs kept using that word “incredible”. Gary Neville preferred “out of this world”. Another former team-mate said he was “like Bob Dylan in a No 7 shirt”. Sir Alex Ferguson made fond reference to “the quiet boy with the most amazing football skill, but who seemed to be happiest with his books, poems and guitar.” Robbie Savage, as well as enthusing about an “unbelievable talent”, described Doherty as “almost hippy-like, a free spirit, completely opposite to the modern-day footballer.”
Doherty was not a typical footballer and his is not a typical football story. It is about a kid who, as he grew up in the Northern Irish border town of Strabane at the height of The Troubles, developed an extraordinary talent as a footballer. He was obsessed by a mission to become the best player in the world. But for reasons that are explored in detail in the book, he found upon moving to Manchester to begin his apprenticeship that the reality of professional football did not quite live up to the fantasy. He suffered with homesickness, disillusionment and, most brutally, serious injury. As his frustrations grew and his ambitions became ever more distant, he devoted himself to more intellectual pursuits – music, poetry, philosophy, theology and more.
In the course of researching and writing Forever Young, in an attempt to unravel the Adrian Doherty enigma, I conducted more than 100 interviews. As well as speaking to those who grew up with him in Strabane and those who played alongside him at United (and later, very briefly, at Derry City), I sought out those who met him once he sought a new start in Preston and then Galway. It was telling that very few who met him in later years – whether while he was working in a chocolate factory or a hotel or frequenting the open-mic nights that he loved – knew anything about his previous career as a United footballer of outstanding promise. He was never going to be one of those ex-footballers who spend their time telling people who they once were and lamenting what might have been.
The great sadness is that Doherty is not around to tell the story himself. He died in June 2000, the day before his 27th birthday, following a canal accident in Holland. His death was reported in Northern Ireland, but he was so far removed from football by that stage that, beyond a ten-paragraph item in the Sunday Mirror, there was nothing in the British mainland media. Football had moved on, without taking a second to wonder what had become of a young player who ten years earlier, like Giggs, had the world at his feet. Sport, like life, can be cruel like that. Forever Young is about the journey that took Adrian Doherty from obscurity to the brink of the big time – and back again – and, despite the tragic ending, his unique character meant there were plenty of laughs along the way.
Oliver Kay is Chief Football Correspondent for The Times. Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football's Lost Genius is available in hardback now.