Remembering Doc: A father's tribute to football's lost genius

Adrian Doherty
Adrian Doherty played alongside Ryan Giggs and other starlets in Manchester United's youth team

"We are very proud that Adrian's story has finally been widely told. I hope it will encourage young people to try and achieve their dreams."

Jimmy Doherty is talking about his son, Adrian, who could be the greatest footballer you have never seen.

Manchester United's famous class of '92 have been celebrated around the world. Giggs, Beckham, Scholes, Butt and the Neville brothers - the group of wonder kids who were the springboard for an unprecedented era of success at Old Trafford.

Yet when the story of the class of '92 was told, one of their extraordinarily gifted contemporaries never got a mention.

Adrian Doherty was the tousled-hair teenager from the small County Tyrone town of Strabane, who made such an impact when he joined Manchester United that he was described by the Manchester Evening News of being "capable of making the kind of impact not seen since George Best".

Yet Doherty ended up largely unknown when he died in Holland aged 26, and for years he remained something of a secret.

This changed in May with the publication of a book, Forever Young, written by Oliver Kay, which tells Adrian's life story.

Jimmy Doherty has been reflecting on his family's reaction to the book and to the spotlight being shone upon their son.

"We are very happy with the book. Obviously it can be hard to read about losing your son, but Oliver Kay did very well, and he portrayed Adrian accurately," Jimmy says.

"At times in the past people approached us about telling his story, but we weren't really interested, as we are a very private family. When Oliver initially approached us we were a little hesitant too, but his sincerity quickly came across very strongly and he told us he wanted to write the book in a way that our family would be happy with, and we really appreciated that."

The Doherty family have absolutely no desire to be in the limelight, but Jimmy says they have been touched by the positive reaction to the book:

"A lot of people have said to us that it's 'much more than a football book' and have been inspired by it. Not many people knew Adrian's story, and even some of those who were close to him said they hadn't realised all the things he achieved in his short life. His story being widely told now is a tribute to Adrian, who was very down-to-earth."

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Remembering lost star Adrian Doherty

Oliver Kay reflects on how he came to write the book:

"When I first stumbled across the story, I was stunned, because I thought I knew everything about that generation at Manchester United."

"What I found very strange was that even when United players were writing their autobiographies or talking about the great talents who didn't quite make it, they would talk about others, but very rarely did anyone mention Adrian. Some had wondered whether he was being airbrushed from history, which may have been in part due a long-running dispute about the standard of care Adrian received after his injury."

Doherty was a shy, music-loving kid playing for Moorfield Boys Club in Northern Ireland in 1987 when Moorfield coach and football scout Matt Bradley tipped off the Manchester United scout for Northern Ireland about the rare talent in their midst.

Recalling that time, Matt Bradley is unequivocal in his assessment of Doherty:

"He was the best young player I have ever seen in over 30 years of coaching and scouting. After 15 minutes of the trial match Alex Ferguson was convinced and telephoned Adrian's dad to ask if his son would sign for the club. As a United fan - I was delighted."

Jimmy Doherty puts his son's swift progress down to hard work:

"I always felt that Adrian was mainly self-taught. He wasn't coached by anyone in particular in the early days, he succeeded with practice and determination. I hope his story will show young people what you can achieve with hard work, and that you don't always need lots of high-tech equipment."

Adrian was soon making an indelible impression at Manchester United, playing in the youth team on the opposite wing from the man who would go on to make more appearances for Manchester United than anyone else - Ryan Giggs.

Adrian Doherty (front row, far right) lines up in a Manchester United youth team featuring Ryan Giggs.
Adrian Doherty (front row, far right) lines up in a Manchester United youth team featuring Ryan Giggs

Oliver Kay confirms that Doherty's contemporaries remain effusive in their praise of his ability:

"Ryan Giggs kept using the word 'incredible' to describe him. I told Giggs a few people had suggested Adrian was the better player of the two then, and he said he 'wouldn't disagree with that'."

Giggs recalls his impression of Doherty on the field.

"I would play on the left and Doc would play on the right. His speed off the mark was frightening. Doc could go past people at will and ride tackles like you wouldn't believe," said Giggs.

Adrian Doherty was by no means a stereotypical footballer, and his creativity extended well beyond the football field. He wrote songs and poems, and would play his guitar around Old Trafford and go busking in Manchester city centre. His team-mates saw Doherty as something of an eccentric and he was regarded by some as a bit of a lost soul.

Even when people were telling him he was going to be the next George Best, he was arguably more interested in being the next Bob Dylan.

Sir Alex Ferguson remembers him as 'the quiet boy with the most amazing football skill, but who seemed to be happiest with his books, poems and guitar'.

At the age of 17 Doherty was on the verge of making his first-team debut for United, when fate dealt him a cruel hand. He suffered a serious injury, rupturing his cruciate ligament, which forced him out of the game. He returned, but suffered another setback and never fully recovered, and Adrian never got the chance to showcase his talent at the Theatre of Dreams.

Instead he was eventually released from his contract and drifted out of the game.

It is one of life's imponderables, but just how good could he have been?

Everything Oliver Kay has been told leads him to believe Doherty would have made a huge impact, but that given his character he may not have stuck around for too long.

"He had the talent and would not have been fazed by it. But some people feel he was becoming disenchanted by life as a professional footballer even before the injury," explained Kay.

"His interests were broadening and he felt there was much more to life than football. I think that, if the injury hadn't happened, he would have made a huge impact in the United first team but that, whether after 20, 50 or 100 games, he would simply have walked away from football sooner or later. He was that kind of character - an enigma, and that's what I found so fascinating."

Adrian Doherty loved music, and was a massive Bob Dylan fan.
Adrian Doherty loved music, and was a massive Bob Dylan fan

While the good times rolled at Old Trafford throughout the 1990s, Adrian found employment in a variety of roles. In April 2000, he moved to The Hague for the summer, working for a furniture company on a short-term contract.

Then one morning, he slipped into the canal on his way to work. He was in a coma for a month and died on 9 June 2000, the day before his 27th birthday.

Following his death, in addition to the pain of losing a beloved son and brother, Adrian's family have had to contend with all kinds of innuendo regarding the circumstances of his untimely passing, with unfounded speculation that 'he must have been drunk or on drugs'.

But the official explanation of his death from the investigators and the judicial authorities in The Hague was much more straightforward, that it was 'a tragic accident'.

For those who followed Adrian's development from a young age, the 'what if' element of his story remains as poignant today, as football scout Matt Bradley reflects.

"I think Adrian would have gone on to join George Best as the finest player to come out of Ireland. I am still good friends with his dad, Jimmy, and it is just so sad that we never got to see what Adrian may have achieved in football or in music," he said.

So how should Adrian Doherty be remembered?

"With a smile and a sense of wonder," says Oliver Kay. "As one of his team-mates at United put it, 'he played guitar like Bob Dylan and he played football like Ryan Giggs'. That's quite an epitaph, isn't it?"