Forever Young: An Appreciation of Adrian Doherty

With the Football World Cup just around the corner, it’s coincidental that Forever Young by Oliver Kay was a recommended read. It tells the story of the journey of an incredibly talented footballer born in the midst of the Troubles in Ireland during the early 70s.

Born 10 June 1973 in Strabane, Adrian Doherty’s football skills were evident at an early age in the playground as his teacher watched him manoeuvre through gaps that did not seem possible with a tennis ball at his feet. However, the naturally shy Adrian needed encouragement to turn out for the primary school team.

Adrian only caught the football bug when Northern Ireland beat the Spanish hosts in the 1982 World Cup. The first few days of the Cup had passed the Doherty boys by, but after witnessing two great goals during the Brazil and USSR tie, they became inspired by Brazil.

Outside football, no-one would ever guess he could play, but the quiet, unassuming, good natured boy’s football skills clearly spoke volumes as soon as he ventured onto a pitch. Although small in stature, he stood out, head and shoulders above any schoolboy, local, regional or national player. So, despite the political and religious barriers in Ireland at the time, Adrian Doherty could not be ignored.

As with any precocious talent Adrian played above his age group. Despite all the excitement that surrounded his potential Adrian remained the happy-go-lucky character he had always been and took things in his stride. 

You did not have to be a coach to notice Adrian – he was the kind of player who was eye-catching and would turn heads and draw gasps from those watching as he dribbled round a number of players. His skill - combined with speed and vision - left a remarkable impression on everyone who was lucky to watch him.

A teenager with the world at his feet, Adrian was destined for top flight football with offers from English clubs to choose from. After trials with Nottingham Forest and Arsenal he was offered contracts and was about to sign for Arsenal, but Matt Bradley (his manager at the Moorfield Boys’ Club, Derry) had his sights set on bigger things. Bradley felt Adrian’s talent warranted more and, as a Manchester United fan, intervened and contacted Alex Ferguson, urging him to take a look. At 13 years old he was the closest Bradley had seen in Ireland since George Best. Within a few days Manchester United sent their new Northern Ireland scout to watch Adrian play for Derry and District. Within ten minutes their scout expressed that they wanted to get Adrian over to Manchester. In a call to Adrian’s father he said they would get him over in the school holidays while instructing him not to sign for anyone else.

Sean Davis (coach for Derry and District U14) was flabbergasted by Doherty’s football skills but was concerned about whether his character would stand up to a one week trial across the water. He had seen many highly rated hopefuls venture over only to freeze once they arrived.

Once Alex Ferguson had seen Adrian at their trials he called the family directly expressing their desire to offer him a contract. He added that they assess young players technically and in different areas such as speed, bravery, strength, technique, vision etc. Adrian ticked every box, which he also said was very rare. Ferguson felt he would be perfect for Manchester United and that he had an excellent chance there.

Adrian had already demonstrated he was strong-minded – he had walked away from the Northern Ireland youth team and later turned down a call for the U17 national side. It was a brave move: Adrian knew what he wanted and before he left school he had already been signed by Man United and was totally committed to making it as a footballer.

As I read on I am sure you will be just as intrigued as I am to find out what happened to the genius player we never heard about, so stay tuned for the follow-up.