James Lawton: Doherty at peace after a life defined by disaster, loyalty and astonishing resilience
Saturday 17 November 2007
A thwarted but still warm and generous football life will be celebrated at the funeral of John Doherty in his beloved Manchester on Tuesday – in the same church that received the body of Sir Matt Busby – and if anyone ambushed by a name which never made it to the pantheon of great players doubts this, he need only consider how many of those saying their goodbyes did exactly that.
It is also true that when the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, Pat Crerand and Nobby Stiles bid farewell they will also offer a prayer of thanks for the kind of good luck that fate withheld from the boy who played his first game for Manchester United at the age of 17 – two years earlier than did the golden youth Charlton – and was awarded a championship medal for his membership of the emerging Busby Babes in 1956.
It means, surely, that many of today's leading players, and not just those who have earned notoriety by lighting cigars with £50 notes and nominating their spiritual home as the nearest Lamborghini showroom, are entitled to make similar murmurings.
Doherty's life is a symbol of many things, and not least loyalty to family and team-mates and friends, and a rejection of that bitterness which is so corrosive down the years, but more than anything it reflects the chasm which separates players of other generations from the one which is currently inheriting so much of the world.
Doherty's career was ruined almost before it began. Charlton still shudders at the memory of his more senior team-mate showing the evidence of a primitive knee operation to some team-mates in the Old Trafford dressing room. "For me football had always stretched ahead without a cloud," Charlton reports, "and then I was confronted with reality. Here was this brilliant young player, so good he was able to keep Billy Whelan, who the Brazilians had admired so much, out of the team, facing the probability that his career was over."
As the years passed, as keyhole surgery became routine, players like Alan Shearer and Paul Gascoigne were able to survive knee injuries which in Doherty's day would have left their careers stone dead.
His crisis started after he had starred in a game for the United youth team so luminously served by the impending giant Duncan Edwards. "The following night I went to the cinema with a team-mate and at the end of the show I found I couldn't get out of my seat. My knee had ballooned." While the rest of the audience stood for the National Anthem – one of the quaint customs of the day – Doherty was rooted to his seat, and the horrible fear that he was finished.
Only astonishing resilience prevented this, but what was left to him was a shell of what might have been. Eventually, he was signed by Leicester City, damaged goods but still possessing a haunting talent that had persuaded the star-maker, United assistant manager Jimmy Murphy, to keep him back for extra, personally supervised training – a privilege granted only to the putative greatness represented by youngsters like Edwards and Charlton. The final acts of Doherty's football life were played out in places like Rugby, Altrincham, Bangor, North Wales and Hyde, but they were never – and here is the true glory of John Doherty's life – accompanied by self-pity or a jaundiced view of the football caravan that left him behind.
The key evidence is in a book published just two years ago. It was entitled The Insider's Guide to Manchester United and produced with the help of Ivan Ponting, who pointed out on the obituary pages of The Independent this week that never far from his friend's reflections was the fact that but for his mutilated knee he would almost certainly have been on the plane which crashed in Munich.
The Insider's Guide to Manchester United is a hymn to the history of the club he loved, but it is no flowery song; at times it is as hard and unsentimental, if more indisputably fair, than a Stiles tackle.
Ashley Cole wrote a book that revealed how he came near to driving his car off the road when told that Arsenal could scrape up a mere £55,000 a week for his wages; Doherty wrote an assessment of all those he had seen wear the shirt which had been his proudest possession. Few battle reports have been as acute.
Now, here is the ultimate testament to the nature of John Doherty. He immersed himself in his work as a founder member of the Association of Former Manchester United Players. No one worked harder for the testimonial match which eventually produced some financial compensation for the survivors and the relatives of those who died in the Munich tragedy. Here, surely, was a man at peace with his past, a man who knew how to thank God for those gifts which, however brief, he knew would have coloured gloriously the lives of so many men.
It means that RIP is a redundant message to the football soul of John Doherty. When he is buried at Southern Cemetery, the resting place of Sir Matt Busby, everyone should know that the game he adored has rarely acquired such a contented ghost.
Raise a dry Martini to Woolers, hellraiser and sporting scribe supreme
Few writers of mere journalism ever produced a more timeless legacy than Ian Wooldridge, and if there was any doubt about this it is surely dispelled by the publication of some of the best his columns, Searching for Heroes (Hodder & Stoughton, £20).
Still, there was another message that could not be avoided at the launch of the book in the splendour of the Daily Mail's atrium off Kensington High Street. It was that however many of his columns you read now, they do not, cannot compensate for the absence of his presence.
He once attended a rather different kind of book launch, for the memoirs of the controversial football coach Malcolm Allison, in a Fleet Street cellar 30-odd years ago. His account of the proceedings performed a small miracle ... it managed to puncture the folly of the times, and the foibles of the mesmerising but often confusing Allison, and still provide a hefty lift to sales.
Apart from Allison's, "Woolers" happily recorded the contribution of a model named Flanaghan who, he reported, had a large hole in her frock and had just published a book of her own, a novel that relied heavily on various forms of sexual intercourse. He also recorded the first question of the afternoon, from somebody he took to be a young literary editor. "'Ere, Mal, how much are you going to bid for Rodney Marsh?"
Revisiting the occasion through the eyes and the fiendish skill of Wooldridge is to see again a ridiculous, wacky but unforgettable time. He also ran with the bulls, went down the Cresta Run faster than Errol Flynn, sparred with Idi Amin, recorded the great husky race through Alaska, risked throwing up with his beloved Red Devils, befriended the cream of almost every sport, saw the engaging side of Vinnie Jones and took you with him every step of the way. Still, for all that, this week you would have traded even a Shakespearean passage for the chance to have one more dry Martini with the old hellraiser.
Newell's courage deserves credit
Mike Newell had few allies when he went down in the flames he lit with his outrageous attack on a woman match official. Yet if that mistake deserved all the criticism it received, Newell wears a more acceptable face this morning. It is not one of a sexist crank but an authentic whistle-blower.
His former club, Luton Town, have been charged with various offences against the laws of football, all to do with illegal payments to agents. They relate to alleged small-time misdeeds, but when Newell told the world there was rottenness in football he was plainly speaking of what he knew. He was ridiculed for his pains but how many in football have shown his courage in refusing to turn a blind eye?
The Stevens Report on corruption in football was deemed by many to be an inconclusive failure, but it did not brush away the fact the game had a problem that ultimately could ruin it. It was a major step forward and Newell, the man who broke omerta, deserves credit.
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