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The forgotten story of Manchester United player Adrian Doherty


Adrian Doherty, the forgotten fledgling. A player from Strabane, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland who was seen as the genuine heir apparent to the legendary George Best.

However Doherty’s story is a sad one. A tale of just how cruel football can be.

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Doherty played in the same youth team as Ryan Giggs at Manchester United and was considered on par if not better than the Welshman.

He was so gifted Sir Alex Ferguson included him in his squad at the age of 16 in March 1990.

“Imagine a bit of Andrei Kanchelskis and a bit of Cristiano Ronaldo, then put it all together; Doherty had everything.” That was the opinion of Tony Park, the co-author of Sons of United, who has followed the Manchester United Youth Academy since the 1970s.

Park rated Doherty as one of only four players who were absolute certainties to graduate from the youth set-up to the first team. The other three were Norman Whiteside, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes.

There’s always a danger of mythologizing unfulfilled talents but those who knew or were aware of him were convinced that Doherty was the real deal.

Brendan Rodgers was a friend of Doherty and the pair played for United at schoolboy level. The former Liverpool manager was certain that young man from Strabane was a football genius.

“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,” said Rodgers.

Doherty came to prominence in 1987 playing for Moorfield’s Boys Club in Derry in an under-14s match when he was spotted by football scout Matt Bradley.

“He was the best young player that I have ever seen in Ireland in over 30 years of coaching and scouting,” he said.

Bradley immediately got in touch with United’s Irish scout who arranged for a trial in Manchester. Sir Alex only needed 15 minutes to decide that Doherty had all the attributes to be a Manchester United player.

Ferguson snapped up the talented youngster beating Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and Arsenal in the process.

At the age of 16 he moved over to Manchester and the excitement that surrounded Doherty was barely contained.

David Meek who followed United for the Manchester Evening News wrote: “Behind the scenes Doherty is tipped to make the kind of impact not seen since George Best was given his chance. Alex Ferguson is being urged by his back-room staff to play the boy from Belfast. His speed and skill have been a revelation in training. Doherty, a first-year trainee, is immensely shy but plays with courage to match his ability. He is a winger who can dribble at top speed and can shoot with either foot”.

Meek’s observation that Doherty was ‘immensely shy’ captured an aspect of the youngster that set him apart from other upcoming hopefuls.

Doherty was known for arriving at United’s old training ground, the Cliff, with a guitar over his shoulder seemingly uninterested in fashion, fast cars and fancy haircuts.

Following football never seemed to pique Doherty’s interest with music (he was a big fan of Bob Dylan) and poetry being more to his taste.

Brian McClair recalled “He was a fearless, strong and skillful footballer but what I remember most was his personality and intelligence. He loved to chat about music, books and poetry.”

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Doherty’s story is how he almost vanished from football without a trace. Had Doherty been playing today his skills would have been highlighted through social media and the world would have known about his prodigious talent.

However back in the 1990’s he was a hidden superstar in the waiting. He was on the cusp of making his first team debut when he endured a devastating blow in a match against Carlisle United in February 1991. Doherty suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in the game. It was a setback he never could quite overcome.

It took several months to recover from his initial injury however in a cruel twist his knee gave up on him again in his comeback. He didn’t play much more for Manchester United after that with injury robbing him of the opportunity of footballing stardom.

His family were upset with how United handled Doherty feeling that they could have done more to help and support him.

Doherty, drifted away from the game working in a chocolate factory in Preston.

He joined Derry City (whom his father played for) and made a few appearances but the knee injury had taken away the frightening pace he had once possessed. The player who was once described by scouts at United as so quick “he could catch pigeons” was overtaken by a debilitating injury.

Moreover though his heart was not in football anymore.

In April of 2000, the year after his contemporaries like Giggs, the Nevilles and Scholes had won the treble, Doherty moved to the Netherlands to work at a furniture company. One morning on his way to work he tripped and fell into a canal. He was pulled out by the emergency services but slipped into a coma. He would never wake up.

On the 9th of June, 2000, a day short of his 27th birthday, Adrian Doherty died in a hospital at The Hague with his family at his bedside.

The Doc as he was nicknamed at Old Trafford was the fledgling time had forgotten. A footballer who wasn’t just about football or its trappings. He was “formidable” said Ryan Giggs, “a really good lad,” according to Gary Neville, “greased lightning,” in the opinion of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Perhaps most tellingly Doherty was a quiet soul who, in the words of Robbie Savage, would be “strumming in the next room.”

Who knows what the football world may have gained had Doherty not suffered that fateful injury. But there is a sense from those who knew him that the game had lost someone special.


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