Here at Lillabullero we don’t usually splash a book’s cover all over the column but I love this photograph. Adrian Doherty could be a manchild out of mythology or folk balladry – he walked, nay played, with giants, but was happy singing and playing with the little people; there’s probably a William Butler Yeats poem could be applied to him. The photo on the book jacket is him outside the Manchester United training ground, a 16-year-old apprentice, a Catholic from Strabane in Northern Ireland, a contemporary of the Class of ’92 – Becks, Scholesy, Giggsy that lot.
He’d read Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – by the time he was 9. He deliberately flunked a chemistry exam at school – “Give an example of a solvent.” “An example of a solvent is Sherlock Holmes.” – determined not to be herded away from the humanities subjects he loved. Oliver Kay‘s Forever young: the story of Adrian Doherty, football’s lost genius (Quercus, 2016) is full of stories like that; he’s talked to family, school friends, team mates, Manchester United staff, musical chums and fellow seekers after the meaning of life to create a wonderful picture of the short life of a lovely young man, strangely and uniquely lived.
Like his dad, Adrian was a huge Bob Dylan fan. If they were available to embed, this piece would have kicked off with a YouTube of the fast version of Dylan’s beautiful Forever young, closing track on side one – yes, vinyl – of the hugely under-rated Planet Waves, his last recordings with The Band. And it would have closed with the handshake of the slow deadly serious version of the song that opens side two. Because this is a sad, sad tale.
A footballing genius, on the verge of a first team appearance, Adrian Doherty’s career ended with the sort of injury – ‘a proximal tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in the right knee’ – that only a few years later would probably not have been career-ending, that improved treatment techniques and surgical improvements might well have sorted out. But one of the saddest things is, when he died (pulled out of a canal, in a coma for a month), if they knew about it at all, the presumptions of those he had known at Man U. Early morning on his way to work in The Hague, officially accidental death, no suspicious circumstances, had transmuted, urban legend-like, into – of course – failed footballer, late night, drink and drugs, Amsterdam. Because obviously being released from a club is, like, the end of the world. In fact, his brother Gareth says, “What a lot of people don’t realise is that the years from twenty to twenty-six, after he left football, were the happiest of Adrian’s life.”
So many things to say. Invent a fictional Adrian Doherty and he would not be believed outside of the fantasy genre. Roy of the Rovers as written by Neil Gaiman, say, or a character out of a Herman Hesse novel. He was a seeker. If there’s not a better ballad or song in the tradition, then there’s Spencer the Rover – John Martyn did a lovely version of it – which nearly fits well enough:
- he was a young footballer without ego. Imagine that. “Courage, speed and skill“, said Alex Ferguson. As well as his skills, others note his bravery. 1990/91 season he’s training with the reserves, a year ahead of Ryan Giggs. One year into his two-year apprenticeship he gets offered a 5-year professional contract; Giggs had to wait the full two years. He tells Alex Ferguson (!) he’d prefer it to be just one year, if you don’t mind, because he’s not sure what he wants to be doing that far ahead. He – fortunately given the injury that came not long after – compromises on three.
- Life at Man U with the older guys (and doubtless at most other clubs): there was a dark side to it in those days. Traditionally the apprentices had to put up with initiation ceremonies and indignities involving marine-style bullying, forfeits, vicious banter and a forced exhibitionism . Paul Scholes tells Kay about it: ” ‘Oh I hated it, yeah,’ he said. ‘It got stopped around our year, actually, all the stuff you had to do. I think one of the players’ parents complained and that was it.’ How bad can unspeakable be? ‘I can’t tell you,’ he said. ‘You would be in trouble for it these days, some of the stuff that went on. Seriously.’ ” After a sticky time, and homesickness, Adrian survived.
- Life at Man U with the Class of ’92: “Doherty’s preference for an Aran jumper, tracksuit bottoms and battered trainers had always earned him strange looks“. An apprentice who lodged with him says, “To us footballers, Doc seemed different because he wasn’t bothered about fashion and he never had any cares in the world … [Beckham] read FHM. Doc had no interest in that. He would sit there reading books – big wow – and he would always wear the same clothes and trainers. Becks and John O’Kane would drive to training in their new cars even if they only lived round the corner. I used to walk and I would get there before they had turned on the engine. Doc would come in on a bike – an old bike … I’m not even sure it had gears.” In a letter to a friend in Strabane he lamented “nearly all the apprentices are U2 fans and none of them are hip so I can’t go to the same places as them on Saturday nights or anything.” He was never ostracised, was liked well enough, not least for his skill, but he never really bonded.
‘I remember one of the lads asking him what he thought of the Chelsea game a couple of weeks earlier. Adrian genuinely didn’t have a clue. He was more interested in talking about reading, playing the guitar. It wasn’t a conversation you would have with a footballer. It was books, films, philosophy, music. Everyone then sat down to listen to him play the guitar.’
Away from the pitch, Doherty remained a mystery. Everyone recognised and revered his talent, but no one could quite understand his character. [… said a housemate, years later]: ‘On the pitch, he wanted the ball, he wanted to express himself and he knew what he was about. He was brave too, as tough as old boots. Off the pitch he was completely different. The word that comes to mind is “enigma”. He would love this, but, to me, he was just like Bob Dylan. It was like having Bob Dylan in a No.7 shirt.’
- He bought a typewriter – “one of those old-fashioned ones“, says his landlady – with his first team win bonus (even though as a sub he wasn’t used) . He’d started a novel: The adventures of Humphrey and Bodegarde, the characters looking for the meaning of life, was writing poetry and – he’d already bought himself a guitar and taught himself to play from books – songs.
- So while his contemporaries at Man U were out shopping or clubbing, he was busking, or going to open-mic nights at places like the New Troubadour Club, where David Gray started out. Says the organiser: ‘It was a place for singer-songwriters. It was an acoustic venue, no electric. It was dingy, smoky, a perfect place for gigs. We would get maybe ten or fifteen artists a night.’ Unassuming, Adrian kept his lives apart; no-one on the music scene realised he was a footballer, never mind pne of the most exciting prospects in the city. He was to work on songs like An oblivious history (there’s an abridged version of the lyrics in the book’s appendix), which references less than respectfully Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the Brazilian footballer), John the Baptist, Macbeth, King Arthur, Arthur Rimbaud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Muhammad Ali and even Bob Dylan. Another, called Philosophying, is full of witty self-awareness, with a last line going, “But it aint an easy life philosophying“. And even his team-mates remember the song Gotta kill a chicken by Tuesday. He and his mate Leo Cussons spent a summer in New York – the Greenwich Village thing – playing wherever they could.
So how would Cussons describe the professional footballer whom he and the others on the Manchester music scene came to know as ‘McHillbilly’ as they played in a short-lived band called the Mad Hatters? ‘Brilliant,’ he says. I don’t know anything about football, so I can’t comment on that, but he was one of those extraordinarily talented individuals you come across very rarely in life.’
He takes the ending of his contract with equanimity and seemingly without resentment. One friend says, ‘I don’t remember Aidy ever being angry or frustrated about anything.’ Another says, ‘I honestly think he was OK with it. Not OK with getting injured, but he did quite quickly come to terms with the fact that he might not play professional football again […] it wasn’t the be-all and end-all for him any more […] it helped him that, with his music and his reading and writing, he didn’t have all his eggs in one basket.’ And so he moves, seemingly randomly, to Preston, working in a chocolate factory where he doesn’t volunteer his past. From the Theatre of Dreams to strawberry creams is Hall’s chapter head. He stays two and a half years. He keeps in touch with his old Strabane mates, some now at uni in England. He sees his old musical chum Leo in London and Holland:
‘On one visit, it would be all philosophical discussions. On the next Doherty would be dismissive of all that, gnosis included, and would be wanting to turn the clock back to those wild nights playing to the crowds in New York’s East Village in the summer of ’92.’
He’s briefly back in Strabane, then feels another move is due. It’s a toss-up between Dublin and Galway; the latter wins on a short-term travel practicality:
‘It’s the type of place where he would just blend in,’ Sean Fitzgerald, who met him in Galway, says. ‘He didn’t stand out. You’re surrounded by music and culture there, which was what he liked. You’re allowed to be a sort of vagabond, really, just writing poetry and music and having conversations about philosophy or whatever. He blended in, playing his music, writing his songs.’
Kathy Maloney, a young woman who knew him well, says:
He was never really interested in making a living. He didn’t want money at all. He would see how long he could live on IR£5 … Money just didn’t interest him at all. “He wasn’t motivated by a career in the same way most people see a career. He wasn’t interested in material gain or getting recognition. But whatever he did , he would take great pleasure from it and he liked to master it. The main mission in his life was to achieve enlightenment.”
From talking with friends, colleagues and relations, Kay paints the picture of a young man who throughout his short life could be happily self-contained, and yet was far from ever being a recluse. If he didn’t drink much he was still up for a craic, for fellowship. They say he could get along with anyone, not a bad word is reported (though coaches complain of a certain vagueness off the pitch – they would). He goes for long walks in Manchester, in the countryside around Galway. It was on one of these, just before the move to the Netherlands – time for a change again – that an old friend from Strabane, driving along a country road sees him and:
… picks him up by chance walking in the rain: ‘… he was still talking about his poems and his songwriting. He was never concerned about money and things like that. He was on great form. Whenever I think of Adrian, I think of his amazing smile. It was infectious. He was smiling that day.’
Forever young is a lovely book, a curious tale of our near times, written by a football reporter out of fascination and love. I’d say it’s worth reading even if you only have a minimal interest in the game. So much affection. Heartening, beautiful, and a good kind of sad.
Could it have been any different?
He might have joined Arsenal. They were interested, he talked to them, they were an established destination for young Irish footballers. The injury might not have happened. And he might have had someone to talk to about Bob Dylan.
Funny how some little things stick in your mind over time. Reading Forever young delivered this memory of my younger days. The mid-’70s, when I was living in London, the period that was my most active time as a ‘real’ football supporter. Well, I went to a few matches. But it was only Highbury I went to repeatedly – it was the easiest to get to, and I had a mate living close to the stadium. I became one of the missing millions when hooliganism became a problem. Nevertheless, an affection for Arsenal developed that has stayed with me, doubled in spades since the exquisite football – poetry in motion, though sadly not consistently – of the Arsene Wenger years.
Anyway, back to the ’70s. This was still the era of the Metropolitan Police Band at half-time, and the seasons I saw most games in were, as it happens, the two worst in Arsenal’s history, a long time before and since. But a young team was building, and it was obvious that Liam Brady was a special talent. And here’s the thing I remember: he was featured in a match programme and there was a photograph of him – the one you see now, due to the wonders of Google image search – sprawled on the floor with some of his LPs. Only – almost unprecedented – prominently including Dylan’s Blonde on blonde and Blood on the tracks (plus albums by Thin Lizzy and Horslips, another significant Irish band). Like I say, special.
That match programme was, I discover, the opening game of the season, August 21st, 1976, against newly promoted Bristol City. Yup. And the visitors won 0-1. It was Malcolm McDonald’s debut for Arsenal, Alan Ball was still playing, and a personal fave – probably the best English footballer never to get an England cap – Geordie Armstrong was on the wing … I could go on with all sorts of relevant football trivia. But the thought intrigues: Adrian Doherty was offered his apprenticeship at Old Trafford in 1987, while Brady didn’t hang up his boots until 1990. I like to think of the possibility of them swapping Dylan quotes, talking of situations, at the training ground, in another parallel universe.