When I heard about him – essentially an untold, forgotten or neglected story about a guy who was rated alongside Ryan Giggs in the Manchester United youth team and who had drifted out of football and had died, his death pretty much unreported outside of Northern Ireland – the journalist in me was desperate to find out more and to write something about Adrian in The Times. I travelled to Strabane to meet his family. They didn’t want to do anything media-wise at the time, but I sat for hours and listened to them talk about him – not just about his talent on the football pitch but about his upbringing in Strabane, during The Troubles, and his music and his life away from and after football. I came away from Strabane that day feeling utterly hooked by the story and wondering whether, if they didn’t want a newspaper article, the story might be better suited to a book. So I kept digging and digging, speaking to various friends and ex-team-mates of Adrian’s, with a view to writing something at some stage and eventually, after some patience and gentle persuasion on my part, his family came around to the idea. I approached David Luxton, who is a literary agent specialising in sports books. He immediately “got” the story and we put together a proposal to send to publishers. Quercus loved it too and from there it was full steam ahead.
2. Has writing a book always been a dream of yours?
It had been an ambition, but, until this came about, it was a distant one – not something I was planning to do any time soon. That only changed because this story captivated me so much.
3. As a football journalist, do you see book writing as freedom to explore topics in greater detail and at greater length?
From one perspective, yes, for reasons of space, but the fact is that newspaper journalism is my day job, one that I love but one that leaves very little time for out-of-hours work – or out-of-hours anything, in fact. This book quickly became a labour of love, but it required an enormous amount of work (researching much more than writing), so I’m not sure “freedom” is the first word that would come to mind … .
4. And as a journalist, was it difficult to write a much longer story? What was the hardest part?
The length wasn’t the difficulty at all; I could easily have written another hundred pages if that had been required. No, by far the hardest part – but also the most enjoyable – was the research. Finding out about his upbringing in Strabane was easy enough, but there was very little archive material about his football career and even his family and friends didn’t know a great deal about his post-football life in Preston and Galway, so it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have much to go on at all, just his CV and a few names from his old address book, so it was a case of tracking people down and speaking to them about someone who had been in their life – in most cases fleetingly – in the mid/late 90s. A few of them told me they didn’t know too much about him (and were shocked when I told them he had been an exceptionally gifted footballer at Manchester United), but they all had stories and anecdotes that all added to the picture. One person led me to another and then to another and then eventually the jigsaw came together.
5. The book is full of insight from top football people including Ryan Giggs, Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Neville and Brendan Rodgers. Was it difficult to round up such an A-list cast or was everyone very willing to discuss Adrian Doherty and his tragic tale?
It turned out to be easier than I had imagined. If I can put this delicately, Adrian Doherty has been a sensitive issue inside Old Trafford, for reasons which are outlined in the book. I felt it wouldn’t be in my interests to seek out Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc until I had done most of my other research. I wasn’t entirely sure, given the sensitive nature of the subject, whether those who were still at the heart of the United “family” would want to contribute to a book of this nature. But to my delight and considerable relief, they all did. The insight offered by Giggs and Neville was fantastic. Both of them gave a very technical breakdown of what he was like as a player. Giggs spoke brilliantly about how Doherty was “different”, the busking, the Bob Dylan obsession. Neville spoke about watching Doherty for the first time in a Youth Cup game at Old Trafford and how Doherty and Giggs (Ryan Wilson, as he was then) were the two that he, Beckham, Scholes etc were in awe of. I had heard it from others, less high-profile players, but it was great to have those sentiments validated by Ferguson, Giggs, Neville etc as well. “Incredible”, according to Giggs. “Out of this world”, according to Neville. That is not to say he was certain to make it at United, because there were those doubts about whether he really “wanted it” in the same way as others did, but, to me, that complex personality only made him a more interesting subject.
6. As you did your detailed research, what surprised you most about the story of Adrian Doherty?
It was something I was told at an early stage, but the other side of his life – the music, the poetry, the busking, the voracious appetite for reading anything and everything to expand his mind – and the personality was what truly captivated me. People said they could not work out what, if anything, motivated him as a footballer. It certainly wasn’t money or fame and perhaps not even winning trophies. He was just totally different to the typical footballer. I had been told at an early stage about his writing, but it was when I began to read it all – the poems, the songs, the unfinished Adventures of Humphrey and Bodegard – that I just thought “Wow.” Some of his writing is featured in the book. Some of it is silly, intentionally so, but a lot of is very clever.
7. At times, the book almost feels like a detective story, as it goes in search of answers. Is that how it felt to you as you investigated?
Certainly in terms of researching his post-football life, for the reasons I outlined earlier, and in terms of separating the truth from some of the myths that attach themselves to an individual such as Adrian Doherty. And above all, that applied to finding out the circumstances of his death. I was probably as guilty as anyone of putting two and together in my mind when I was first told he had died after falling into a canal in Amsterdam. You know, “Amsterdam, nudge, nudge, wink, wink”. But for one thing it wasn’t in Amsterdam – it was The Hague – and far more importantly I was able to find out that all the evidence, such as the police report, rules out drink, drugs, suicide or anything of that nature. That was a quest in itself. The Dutch authorities don’t make it easy.
8. One of the things that struck me most about the book was the optimistic tone throughout. What could have been a sad story of unfulfilled potential is instead a heart-warming story of a player that didn’t fit the classic mold and was strong enough to deal with it. Is that fair to say? If so, was that always your intention or something that emerged organically as you wrote?
I would say it emerged organically as I found out more and more about Adrian’s character and his unusual perspective on life. I had imagined the years in Preston and Galway, after he retired from football, would have been full of woe or bitterness at what might have been. Instead, what came out of my research was a picture of a guy who was happy doing his own thing, particularly when he was in Galway, writing his songs and his poems and performing at open-mic nights, living almost a bohemian life without even mentioning to most people that he had been a footballer. I would say I probably had a pre-conceived idea of what Adrian’s post-football life might have been like, but the reality, I found out, was different – and so the story, happily, reflects that. To that end, so does the book’s title, Forever Young, which was the Dylan track that his cousin sang at his funeral. If the tone is at times rather cheerier or light-hearted than might have been expected, given the nature of the story, it’s probably just a reflection of Adrian’s character.
9. And finally, would you write another book? Are there any ideas in the pipeline?
I definitely would, because I loved doing it, but it would have to be the right project – something that really captivated me, like Adrian’s story did – at the right time. It’s not ideas I’m short of. It’s time … .
Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is out now, published by Quercus, in hardback or on Kindle https://www.amazon.co.uk/Forever-Young-Adrian-Doherty-Footballs/dp/1848669941/ref=zg_bs_268089_7
The book has a dedicated Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ForeverYoungTheStoryofAdrianDoherty and Twitter account @ForeverYoungAD