There’s no shortage of Manchester United fans in this country and, throughout the club’s history, numerous Irish players and coaching staff have plied their trade with the Red Devils. 

By Jonathan Foley

Of all their many successes on the field – and also off it as a marketing brand – one aspect is always held in particularly high regard; the club’s youth academy. 

It’s produced household names such as Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville and, more recently, Marcus Rashford. And yet a more local figure to us remains the most intriguing figure of them all. 

Adrian Doherty from Strabane never played for United’s first team, but his story – as can be read in ‘Forever Young’ by Oliver Kay – is a most compelling and thought-provoking one. 

Without giving too much of the book’s content away, Doherty was not your typical footballer. A highly-talented one, yes, but not one many know a lot about. 

As a child growing up during the Troubles, Doherty rose to prominence in the Derry & District League and his ability to take players on and ride tackles had many scouts – from the likes of Nottingham Forest and Arsenal – liking him to a new age George Best. 

His father, Jimmy, once of Derry City and Finn Harps took a chance and contacted none other than Manchester United to request a trial for his son. United dispatched a scout to Derry.

The trial game itself also featured future Liverpool, Celtic and Leicester manager, Antrim native, Brendan Rodgers. 

It was a successful one and Adrian was soon lining out for United’s ‘A-team’ playing alongside the youthful aforementioned Giggs and Neville. 

Doherty’s natural technical ability was said to be so mesmerizing that Giggs himself has compared him to future club icons such as Andrei Kanchelskis and even Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Big praise to say the least. 

So why is there so little known about him?

On an apprentice wage of £29.50 in 1989, Doherty’s perspective of life seemed to conflict with his new surroundings in Manchester, but certainly not through ill-discipline of any kind.

He was simply a lot more free-spirited than regimental training schedules and club curfews allowed him to be. As much as he loved the game, he was more so a fan of writing stories, poetry and creating music deep down. 

Still only 16 years of age at the time, he was known to regularly give away his complimentary tickets to go and watch the first-team play at Old Trafford. Not out of any sort of defiance; he simply preferred the idea of busking in the city center on Saturdays. 

Due to bouts of homesickness, United agreed to take him out of digs so that he could live with a family in Manchester, who were originally from Strabane, to help him settle a bit better. 

He rapidly progressed to United’s Reserve team and even got to train in sessions with none other than Mark Hughes and Bryan Robson on occasion at their famous training ground known as The Cliff. 

And yet the most remarkable bit was still to come. 

Sir Alex Ferguson offered Doherty a tantalizing five-year contract with United. Emphatically, Doherty said he’d be as happy with only a one, maybe a two, year deal. 

Three years was agreed upon because as Adrian told his father afterwards: “I couldn’t be sure if I still want to be playing football in five years time.” Simple as that. 

In 1991, however, a series of worsening knee and ligament injuries – which Doherty himself believed happened when going for a 50-50 ball – caused this. Weeks, then months of rehabilitation were required. 

With playing football being out of the question, Doherty excelled as a musician at open-mic nights in the city. He even formed a band called ‘The Mad Hatters’ and spent the following summer playing in bars in New York City.

His knee never really improved and when United didn’t renew his contract in 1992, contention rose between the Doherty family and the club over their handling of the injury. 

Bearing no grudges, Doherty left United and took up run-of-the-mill jobs in Derry, Galway and later, back in England, when he joined a chocolate factory in Preston. 

The 1990s are perhaps the most revered in Manchester United’s history as Ferguson’s star-studded teams notched a series of league titles, cups and European honours in abundance. 

Football became fashionable as television broadcasters generated a new wave of celebrity culture to which the game was at the forefront. But what of the young lad from County Tyrone? 

It’s said that while he kept an eye on United’s results, he remained more in love with art, reading and meditation. A true free spirit, it would seem, and he was then off to the Netherlands.

Sadly, life wasn’t to last much longer for Adrian. While working in Holland, his body was tragically recovered in a comatic state from a canal in The Hague, during the year 2000. 

Police reports could verify that there’d been no drugs in his system nor any indication of violence of any kind. Despite what deeply hurtful rumbling gossip, closer to home, may have suggested.

After a month in the coma, and with his family by his side, Adrian Doherty passed away one day before his 27th birthday. 

Oliver Kay’s book will still tell you a lot more about this unique young man. And it’s likely that we’ll all agree that Doherty was a free thinker, highly artistic as well as being a most precocious footballing talent.

One of a kind.