Oliver Kay Interview

2016 is turning out to be a very fine year for football books but undoubtedly one of the best came out back in May. Oliver Kay’s Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius is a brilliantly original look at a brilliantly original footballing talent. I won’t give too much away because you really should read it, but Oliver was kind enough to answer my lengthy questions on the man, the myth and the book. Enjoy.

Forever Young

1. You talk in the book’s acknowledgements about the time in 2011 that you heard the name ‘Adrian Doherty’. Was it difficult to take the next research steps and when did you realise that there was a fascinating book to be written?

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.

Oliver Kay

Doherty 2

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

Q&A – Matt Gardiner, Manchester Football Writing Festival

The UK literary festival ‘scene’ is booming, with over 350 planned for 2016. They range from village halls to entire towns (Hay-on Wye), and from remote rural settings to big city centres, but do they span the literary genres? The Edinburgh International Book Festival will welcome over 800 ‘writers and thinkers’ next month. Of those, roughly 1% will discuss our favourite pastime, sport: two will discuss athletics, four will discuss cycling, and two will discuss football (former Celtic goalkeeper Packie Bonner and Anthony Cartwright, author of novel ‘Iron Towns’).

No wonder Waterstones Deansgate made the inspired decision to team up with The Football Museum to create a literary festival dedicated solely to the beautiful game. Now in its third year, the Manchester Football Writing Festival continues to go from strength to strength. We caught up with founder Matt Gardiner to look back on the last few years and look forward to the delights of this year’s festival.


1. Where did the idea for the festival come from? 

Back in 2013/14 Waterstones Deansgate had some great football events with Guillem Balague, Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson which had all proved incredibly popular.  That, alongside the launch that year of the London Sports Writing Festival, triggered an idea.  While the London festival covered many different sports I felt a Football festival in one of the world’s true footballing cities seemed to be the way forward and would be something I would personally love to attend.

2. Was it easy to get everyone on board – Waterstones, Football Museum, writers?

Waterstones was pretty easy as it was my idea and I work for them! The Football Museum also very quickly realised the potential of reaching a different audience and we kick started from there.  It has amazed me how enthusiastic writers have been to take part in the festival.  For the first year as soon as I had buy in from the Football Weekly team and The Blizzard I knew we had at least 2 events which would draw a crowd. Both have been back every year since which shows, I hope, how much they have enjoyed coming.

3. What has been your favourite ever event so far?

Difficult choice that! I loved the Sid Lowe & Graham Hunter event in the incredible surroundings of St Ann’s Church in Manchester in year 1 although I spent much of the night worrying about the language (Just the one F-word in the end). Our Manchester nights are always lively and almost impossible to draw to a close. The Mike Calvin event last year with Shaun Derry and Mel Johnson was absolutely fascinating too.
4. What’s different about this year’s festival/how has the festival changed since that first year?

We have a new partner this year in Hotel Football which is fantastic.  Otherwise it is still very much the same beast as year 1.  Predominantly Twitter driven and hopefully still offering people the chance to meet and talk to their favourite writers and broadcasters.

5. What event are you most looking forward to this year?

I’m very excited to read Jonathan Wilson’s “Angels With Dirty Faces”, so I’m looking forward to that event tremendously.  Our final event this year with Women in Football promises to be incredibly insightful with some very experienced writers/broadcasters sharing their experiences of the world of football journalism.

6. What’s the best football book you’ve read this year so far?

I think that is between Rory Smith’s “Mister” and Oliver Kay’s “Forever Young” both of which are fabulously researched and equally readable.  Expect both to be on prize shortlists this year and next.

Find more details about events here


Gareth R Roberts interview

Football Fiction with Gareth R Roberts, Danny Rhodes + Martin Greig

Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

This weekend, I was in Manchester for their inaugural Football Writing Festival, a fantastic labour of love organised by Waterstones Deansgate in association with The National Football Museum. 9 days long (4th-12thSeptember), it comprises 10 amazing events featuring the leading lights and luminaries of football journalism including Jonathan Wilson, Matt Dickinson, Sid Lowe and Graham Hunter. After a fascinating insight into the world of sports biography and newspaper writing with Paddy Barclay, Mike Calvin and Ian Ridley on Friday night, I spent Saturday afternoon absorbed in the less-celebrated world of sports fiction. Gareth R Roberts (author of What Ever Happened To Billy Parks?) Danny Rhodes (author of Fan) and Martin Greig (co-author of The Road To Lisbon) shared the stage to talk football and its literary links to childhood, community and nostalgia.

After the event, I caught up with the charming Gareth R Roberts for the low-down on Billy Parks.

Q. Thanks so much for your time, Gareth. Let’s start with the inspiration for this book.

Without being too pseud-sounding, I wanted to write something that grappled with the notion of decay and the human condition as you get older and start to reflect on life. That was one aspect and another was the desire to bring some of my heroes back to life. Growing up in the 1970s, a lot of the football was in my head – what I imagined the lives were like, the characters were like. I’d see them in the old comics and Shoot magazine and in Panini books and they’d come to life in my own mind. So I suppose a big part of What Ever Happened To Billy Parks? is a loving reconstruction of how I thought things were when I was a kid. Whether I got that right, I don’t know!

Q. In terms of the character Billy Parks, there are certainly parallels with famous footballers like George Best and Gazza. Were they in your head as you wrote?

Yes, I suppose so, but there was never a single inspiration in my head. I haven’t based this story on any of those players, but I did read a lot of their biographies as research. It was more people I know myself, who I played rugby and football with, who now hark back to that time and they’re desperate to relive their glory days and it won’t ever happen.

Q. Placing a fictional character into a real world, did you have a lot of historical research to do?

Not really – it was always a labour of love. I don’t know what it is about football but you go through an age, from about 7 to 14, when you just accumulate facts about football. Bizarrely, I can name all of the footballers who played in all of the FA Cup finals between 1969 and 1981, and yet if you asked me about last year I couldn’t tell you. So the research was dead easy, and of course the internet helps. Mostly it was just recalling what I remembered and making sure I’d got it right.

Q. As a Liverpool fan, why choose to make Billy Parks a West Ham and Tottenham legend?

It was partly because I lived in the East End of London for six or seven years and actually know that area better than Liverpool. And also, it just fitted. In my mind, the voice of Billy Parks was Cockney, I don’t know why but it just was. Then I wanted him to play for a football team that I’m fond of, so it was West Ham. Everyone likes West Ham, especially the team from the 60s and 70s that played great football and spent the rest of the time, apparently, out on the piss!

Q. What are your thoughts on football fiction and do you think attitudes are changing?

The literary world is very strange, very closed, and I think there’s a small cabal of people who are all in each other’s pockets and are influenced by what is fashionable at the time. And football literature has never been particularly fashionable, mainly I think because most of the people in that literary elite are not football fans and they don’t get it. They don’t get that it’s a lot more than a quaint expression of working class values; that it’s a source of great passion for a lot of people.

Q. And finally, who would make your five-person Council of Football Immortals if you had to pick players, rather than managers?

That’s a great question! Bobby Moore, obviously, Stanley Matthews…do they have to be English? No? Ok, I’d have John Charles, the big Welsh centre forward…and then I’d have Garrincha because he’d be interesting, and finally Billy Bremner.

Whatever Happened To Billy Parks? is available here