Vox in the Box: Oliver Kay

Oliver Kay is the chief football correspondent for The Times. He’s also the author of ‘Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius’, about the Manchester United winger rated as highly as Ryan Giggs but whose career was ended by a knee injury before it got started…

Oliver, how did you get started in the football writing game?
My route was, what in those days was considered the most standard route. I did a journalism post-grad course at Cardiff, and all the while I was doing loads of work experience, first at the Crewe and Nantwich Chronicle. I always wanted to write about football – rather than being a ‘proper’ journalist, knocking on doors and doing serious news – and I was told that was the way to do it: course, work experience, local paper, national paper.

It wasn’t easy by any means, but that was the accepted pathway in those days, when local and national newspapers were still expanding. Now, for people doing journalism courses, it’s much more difficult. I got a job as a sports reporter on the Nottingham Evening Post, then went to Wardles sports agency in Manchester, then went to the Times, initially in the north-west, then to where I am now.

You write a column on Saturdays: how do you approach that? Do you worry with the ‘big’ issues that there’s so much comment around these days everything will already have been said?
Sometimes, if a big issue has erupted on a Monday or Tuesday, you’ll want a ‘second’ say on it by the weekend. If you’re talking about the same issue that everyone has, you have to say something different, it’s not just ‘I have my column on a Saturday so I have to have my say on it.’ You look at someone like Martin Samuel who does two columns a week, and they are always extremely good – it’s not easy at all to maintain that level of quality.

The column is somewhere to write about whatever I want to write about – it doesn’t have to be the story of the week, and probably ideally isn’t. The ones that have gone down well have generally been about slightly more obscure subjects. I think the Times are happiest when I say something completely out of left field, that hasn’t been done before.

Last season I did an interview with Joss Labadie, the guy at Dagenham who had been done for biting, twice. I did one with a guy who was a gay coach for a non-league team. I did the story behind Michael Emenalo. I did a piece about Charlton which, at the time, their fans probably thought hadn’t been covered in the mainstream press. It’s a good opportunity to do stuff that’s a bit ‘off’. A recurring theme of my columns is bad owners, clubs in peril, greed, commercially-driven threats to what football should be about etc. Generally speaking, those issues concern and occupy me a lot more than whether Harry Kane is or isn’t on the top of his game at any particular time.

With the Times, a paper that has a subscriber model on their website, presumably they’re less concerned about web traffic than others might be?
Well you can see that some papers are much more driven by hits, so sometimes the quality of what’s on the website doesn’t match the quality of what’s in the paper. At the Times they’re not particularly interested in hits, but what they want is subscriptions, and for people to subscribe they need to rate the quality of the product.

So for the Times it’s more about stuff people might not get anywhere else, which is very hard to do. It’s a different dynamic. You can look at all the papers, and there’s not one single model that works: there are about eight or nine that are completely different, and it all stems from newspapers being a bit prehistoric and not realising the potential of and threat from the internet in the late 1990s. The Times went to a subscription model in 2010, which I think everyone should have done from the start.

You wrote a piece recently about 1966, and you would think there would be no new way of telling that story, but you did it by speaking to the England players’ wives and those close to them. Was that how you planned to approach it from the start or did that idea develop as you looked into it?
That was the first thing that came to mind. I knew Nobby Styles, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters have Alzheimer’s, and others have seen their health deteriorate. Only three of that starting line-up still have their medals, and only two have knighthoods. I think for the way that English football and England as a nation trots out 1966 as some kind of validation for its claims to footballing greatness, is at odds with how those players who, as Alan Ball’s son said to me, were put out to pasture.

The game turned its back on Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greaves is very ill and his family are struggling to find the money to pay for his treatment. I went to see Wilson’s family and his wife and, while it was lovely to meet him, he wasn’t able to contribute greatly because he doesn’t remember the final apart from little bits that will flash into his head.

It was lovely meeting these people, but it was fairly bittersweet given where they are now. You see players wheeled out to shake hands with people, but you don’t get that insight as to what these people are like now. I thought that was the best way to write about 1966, and it was one of the most satisfying and stimulating pieces to research and write.

These guys are national heroes and it seems like, although the achievement is clung to with utter desperation, the guys that did it, with the exception of the ‘A list’ ones like Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst, Gordon Banks…it just seems they were ordinary men whose extraordinary achievements were seized by the nation, but their individual contributions and lives weren’t.

Your book about Adrian Doherty, ‘Forever Young’: how did you come across the story?
I was doing a piece about Ryan Giggs, coming up to the 20th anniversary of his debut in 2011, and I decided I would talk to old teammates from his youth team days about the build-up to his debut. One of them said ‘Do you know about Adrian Doherty?’ The name rang a bell – because I have the sort of mind that remembers reserve team players from that era but maybe not first-teamers from here and now – but I had no idea he was so good.

I was told he was incredible, as good as Giggs, but he got injured, drifted out of football then died in Holland at 26. I thought ‘Why don’t I know that? I want to know more.’ I looked it up online and there was basically nothing: there’s quite a lot now from the publicity from the book, but in 2011 there were basically two articles. One was a memorial from a former coach which had two newspaper clippings: one from 1990 which said he was on the verge of his first-team debut at 16, rated as highly as any kid they’d had since George Best, the next from the Derry Journal ten years later saying he’d died.

When did you realise it was a book rather than a newspaper feature?
I started doing some digging, went over to see his family and they didn’t want any publicity at all really. But I sat with them for hours and hours, and they were chatting about Adrian – not just his football talent and that he died young, but about his upbringing in Strabane during the Troubles, about his remarkable personality and his outlook on life. On the verge of his debut at United he was going out busking, wearing second-hand clothes, and just being completely different to your typical footballer. It struck me that he was an extraordinary guy and I wouldn’t know how to tell that story in a single newspaper article.

Did it take you a while to persuade the family to do the book?
Yeah. I spoke to them on and off, as I was making all these enquiries, speaking to other people about him because I was captivated by him. It was probably late 2013 by the time they said ‘Let’s go for it, let’s do a book.’

Adrian Doherty book

It seems like his personality type was perhaps the best to deal with the blow of having such a serious injury so young.
Yes. There were people he knew in Galway (where he lived after his career ended), and knew him well, but didn’t even know he used to be a footballer. It wasn’t something he was necessarily flippant or casual about, but he wanted the past leaving in the past. He didn’t talk about it unless someone asked him specifically, which you’re not really inclined to do when you’re dealing with a mild-mannered poet type in Galway.

He didn’t talk about it, and his friends and family learned it was a waste of time talking to him about it. But as one of them said, it’s not like he clammed up about it – he just wasn’t a ‘blow your own trumpet’ kind of guy. He was not your typical footballer personality. I’m always intrigued by those ‘lost talent’ stories anyway, and this combined with it being Manchester United in that era, plus that people wanted him to be the next George Best whereas he wanted to be the next Bob Dylan. But it’s not a typical ‘lost talent’ footballer story.

Were you concerned, writing about a player you’d never seen play, that people would romanticise about how good he was?
Not really, because it was pretty obvious that wasn’t the case. It’s clear [that he was good] from things Alex Ferguson said at the time, and that he was travelling with the first team aged 16 or 17. Giggs was six months younger but he wasn’t getting that sort of treatment. Paul Scholes and David Beckham didn’t get that sort of treatment at the equivalent age. He was very clearly an extreme talent. I spoke to Gary Neville, and I thought he might not be as effusive, a) because he’s a perfectionist about what a footballer should be, the mindset and so on, and b) because he’s one of those who did make it and might see qualities in himself and Giggs and Nicky Butt and others, that perhaps Adrian didn’t have. But he was.

If there had been an inclination to romanticise Adrian Doherty then Manchester United would have done it, either before or after the book, and they haven’t done. People talked about three things: one was his incredible ability, the second was his bravery and courage in the way he’d demand the ball, risk being kicked, and the third was nobody was really sure if he ‘wanted it’ in the same way others did.

I think everybody says all three things, and that’s all in the book. It’s not like I say he was guaranteed to do what Ryan Giggs did, because I don’t think for a minute he’d have the same career. I think he would’ve had the impact Giggs did at 17, but would’ve done his own thing. He wasn’t one who regarded himself as a career footballer, in the way that most would in that position.

You can buy Forever Young here, and for more information follow the Twitter account here. You can follow Oliver here.

Vox in the Box: Oliver Kay
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