John Doherty

Busby Babe invalided out of football


John Peter Doherty, footballer: born Manchester 12 March 1935; played for Manchester United 1950-57; Leicester City 1957-58; married (two sons, one daughter); died Heald Green, Cheshire 13 November 2007.

Was John Doherty a victim of cruel footballing fate, or was he one of the luckiest men alive? Both views carry credible currency when evaluating the frustratingly truncated career of the former Busby Babe, an extravagantly talented member of the precocious Manchester United generation which fired the imagination of the sporting world in the 1950s.

As Matt Busby launched his exhilarating youth-based revolution at Old Trafford, Doherty grew up alongside the likes of Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet, and there was no shortage of shrewd contemporary judges who deemed the locally born inside-forward to be blessed with potential that was not out of place even in that exalted company.

He was exquisitely skilful with both feet, he packed an explosive shot to rival that of the prodigy Charlton, he passed like a dream, he worked ceaselessly and, crucially, he possessed the acute soccer brain to make the most of his other attributes. However, he was cursed by chronic knee problems, and this is where the lot which befell John Doherty can be seen in contrasting lights.

On one hand, his injuries caused him to be invalided out of the game when still in his early twenties, which came as a devastating blow to one of the most gifted young players in the land. On the other, had he remained fit it is virtually certain that he would not have left the club to join Leicester City; and equally likely, therefore, that he would have been a passenger on the aeroplane which crashed at Munich in February 1958, killing eight of his erstwhile United team-mates and maiming two more so that they never played again.

Doherty had enlisted at Old Trafford in 1950, having shone for Manchester and Lancashire Schoolboys, and he made rapid progress, first working as an office boy cum apprentice footballer, then signing professional forms on his 17th birthday in March 1952, and making his senior début only nine months later. Though Busby's unprecedentedly extensive squad was bursting with enough high-quality players for two teams at that time, the rookie retained his place for a handful of games and also excelled as United reached the semi-finals of the inaugural FA Youth Cup.

But then Doherty suffered his first major injury in the second leg against Bradford on the day before he was due to begin his National Service, which had to be deferred. United recruited the Irishman Liam Whelan, who would die at Munich, as a replacement in time for the final triumph against Wolverhampton Wanderers, while Doherty began a slow rehabilitation before entering the RAF, from which he was eventually discharged as unfit for duty.

Now his dreams of a professional career appeared to be in tatters, but he surprised the club medics by making a recovery of sorts and was reintroduced to First Division action, tentatively at first, in the autumn of 1955. By now Manchester United were a thrilling side and they finished the season as runaway champions, with Doherty playing more than a third of the games in the face of white-hot competition for the inside-right berth, and qualifying for a title medal on merit.

But then, with his long-term prospects seemingly revitalised, he fell prey to further knee complications and was supplanted once more by the richly gifted Whelan.

There followed further harrowing, but only partially successful, efforts to regain fitness, as well as a difference of opinion with the manager over team selection, the two factors culminating in a £6,500 transfer to newly promoted Leicester City in October 1957. Doherty got off to a bright start at Filbert Street, where he linked effectively with another former Red Devil, Johnny Morris, but within two months he was sidelined once more, and was in hospital for his umpteenth knee operation when he learned of the Munich tragedy.

Already devastated by the loss of many close friends, soon Doherty received another crushing blow when informed that he would never play again at Football League level. He reacted with resilience, accepting the player-management of Southern League Rugby Town, then in the autumn of 1958 received an offer which might have transformed his working life.

Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby's inspirational lieutenant at Old Trafford, was courted by Arsenal to become their new boss and told Doherty that, if he accepted, he wanted his former United charge, whom he respected for his impeccable judgement of players, to become his own number two at Highbury.

In the end, however, Murphy's loyalty to Busby moved him to reject the overtures from north London and Doherty remained in non-League circles, later serving Altrincham, Bangor City and Hyde United.

Thereafter the intelligent, acerbically witty Mancunian accrued wide experience in the world of finance during the 1960s and 1970s, served Burnley as chief scout for part of the 1980s, then went on to succeed in insurance and sports promotion. In addition he was a founder member and long-serving chairman of the Association of Former Manchester United Players, which raised large sums for charity, and he was the moving force behind the club's belated testimonial match for victims of the Munich calamity staged in 1998.

Ironically, Doherty had grown up as a Manchester City supporter, yet he came to love United more passionately than anything except his family, and he earned renown as an outspoken sage in all matters relating to the club, showcasing his pithy, articulate and unsentimental views in The Insider's Guide to Manchester United (2005).

To return to the question in the first sentence of this obituary: John Doherty was not bitter about his ruined career, often describing himself as one of the luckiest men to walk the earth. As he put it to me as we finished work on the above-mentioned volume: "I grew up making my living by playing a game, then I went on to a gloriously happy family life, while lots of my mates were dead before their time. What's to complain about?"

Ivan Ponting

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