Manchester United’s Class of ’92 are well renowned for the success they had picking up numerous titles as Fergie’s Fledglings helped Alex Ferguson establish a dominant force in world football. The fact that so many talented players – the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville – all came through the academy system at The Cliff training ground in such a short space of time is remarkable. However, the standout player amongst all of them in their teenage years never did make it into football’s mainstream. In Forever Young, Oliver Kay explores the story of Adrian Doherty, whom he terms ‘football’s lost genius’.
However, there is so much more to Doherty than his precocious talent with a football. A shy boy, Doherty did not conform to football’s hyper-masculine stereotype of the time. His main passion seemed to be music and poetry, and a teammate described his presence as “like having Bob Dylan in a number 7 shirt.” When academy players were given tickets to first team games at Old Trafford, Doherty would look to sell his and go into town to busk instead. Having left the world of football, Doherty’s love for the arts would surely have helped him on his way as he followed something of a nomadic lifestyle. Friends describe him as being ‘always happy’ in the years following his release, despite the fact he spent a lot of time just about being able to scrape enough money together to live. Doherty carried no bitterness towards Manchester United or his former teammates, and never even mentioned his brief football career to many of his new friends.
So why didn’t Doherty, a player whom Ryan Giggs himself conceded was far ahead of his own talents at the time, make it as a world-class professional? Injury is the obvious answer. A cruciate ligament injury suffered in February 1991 was initially misdiagnosed as Doherty was not sent for a scan. Being forced to return too early as a result, Doherty only aggravated his injury further and never managed to get back to his best at this point. While this was going on, Giggs overtook Doherty in the rankings and went on to have the exemplary career he did.
Look deeper, though, and there are perhaps other reasons Doherty never reached his full potential. The environment at The Cliff at the time, described by Kay, was extremely toxic, with youth team players forced into humiliating initiations and bullying commonplace. This was no fit for the unconventional Doherty, and he even tried to quit at one point before the club let him stay with a distant relative instead of in digs to keep him away from the worst of it. The relatively conformist nature of coaching was at odds with Doherty’s creative style, and it is possible that some of Doherty’s enjoyment of football was coached out of him at Manchester United. The actions of Doherty at the time are clearly those of someone not entirely in love with football. When offered a five-year deal by Manchester United, he turned it down, much to the shock of the club’s hierarchy, preferring a three-year deal as he wasn’t sure what he would be doing beyond this time. Doherty even went to New York in the summer of 1992 in the hope of securing a record deal whilst still under contract at United.
Doherty’s experiences provide a series of lessons that should still be heeded today. The academy system cannot treat young boys as robots and expect to get results, let alone keep the kids they are responsible for happy. The idiosyncrasies of each individual that comes into their system must be taken into account. Toxic machismo and bullying are certainly less common now than in the 1990s but still represent a danger to both talent coming through and the people behind that talent, and clubs must keep a watchful eye to ensure everything remains above board. Outside interests, such as the music and poetry Doherty adored, should be encouraged and not suppressed so that young footballers develop as individuals as well and have something to fall back on should they fail to make the grade as a professional. Manchester United don’t come out of Forever Young very well, the mistakes they made in treating Doherty’s injury and caring for him after his release coming to the fore. A lot of time has passed since the early 1990s, of course, and it is important these mistakes aren’t repeated as football modernises to recognise the importance of welfare and wellbeing.
Sadly, Forever Young does not have a happy ending. In May 2000, Doherty slipped and fell into a canal in The Hague on his way to work. Unable to swim, he slipped into a coma from which he would never awake. He passed away a day short of his 27th birthday, surrounded by his family in hospital. For years, his story went untold until Kay happened upon it by chance whilst interviewing former Manchester United academy players for a completely different project. In writing Forever Young, Kay has ensured the story of Doherty’s unique talent and love for the arts will not be forgotten. He has also told a tale that should act as an important warning for football’s academy system and the duty of care it holds over so many young boys and girls, each with their own story to tell.
About Johnnie Lowery
Johnnie is a football writer. His first book, Six Added Minutes, was written while he was at university and published in November 2019. With strong reviews from the likes of Jeremy Vine and Jacqui Oatley, it is selling well online. His second book, Match Fit, explores mental health in football. It looks to raise mental health awareness and is inspired by Lowery’s own struggles as a teenager, when he did not understand why he was feeling down.