Oliver Kay is one of Britain’s preeminent football journalists. As chief football correspondent for The Times of London, Oliver finds himself at the undepletable coalface that is Premier League narrative. He is also the author of a remarkable new book, “Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty,” now available on AmazonHERE. In this edition of Three Questions, we ask Oliver about said book, Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge this weekend and how journalists in the UK evaluate Bob Bradley’s first game.
MiB: It is a Premier League drenched in narrative. Pep, Mourinho, Klopp, Conte … and that’s just the managers. How have you experienced covering a season with so many storylines? And with so many options, how do you decide what you’re covering on a weekly basis?
OK: There are two parts to it. One is the build-up to the game. The other is the aftermath. The build-up will often focus on certain issues or context, which might be about the managers or a certain player or some particular tactical intrigue or something more historical. Then the match will take place and we will usually end up talking about something else entirely. You are certainly right to say that there’s a strong “narrative” surrounding the various managers, but what I have enjoyed this season, so far at least, a lot more of the analysis has been based on what those managers are trying to achieve football-wise than on their personalities (or our limited perception of their personalities). If it’s Mourinho v Guardiola, or Mourinho v Wenger, it’s not just “these guys loathe each other”. It’s also about two totally different philosophies.
MiB: This weekend. Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. A game rich in previous. But one that could be wanting when it comes to the actual football. Does Mourinho take a pragmatic approach and try to shut this match down from the jump? Or will the temptation of beating his former club lure him to the shores of entertaining football?
OK: You can always expect a pragmatic, cautious approach from Mourinho. And let’s be clear about this, pragmatism has served him bloody well over the years. If I was judging the various managers on the quality of football their teams have served up so far this season, I don’t think Mourinho would be anywhere near the top; for the money they have spent, I haven’t been impressed by United so far. But, faced with a difficult ten-day period – Liverpool away, Fenerbahce at home, Chelsea away, Manchester City at home in the EFL Cup – he opted for a safety-first approach at Anfield on Monday night and it went pretty much to plan. (I’m sure he would have happily accepted a 0-0 draw beforehand.) I’m sure he would be happy to take a similar approach at Chelsea. On Wednesday night we saw his great rival Pep Guardiola take Manchester City to Camp Nou and try to take on Barcelona at their own game. That is the difference between them. I love Guardiola’s approach, but there are times when it looks naïve. You would never accuse Mourinho of naivety – other things, yes, but not naivety. He will always manage to his strengths – and the interesting part of his challenge at United is that it’s not yet a squad that seems particularly well suited to his approach. At Chelsea he was always very good at winning the big head-to-head matches against rival teams. He could do with a win on Sunday – they have only won four Premier League games out of eight so far, and only one of the past five. But would he settle for another draw if he was offered it now? Yes, I expect deep down he would. Antonio Conte might feel similar about Sunday, so I’m not expecting a free-flowing game.
MiB: Here in America we are all wanting to view Bob Bradley’s Swansea debut, a 3-2 loss at Arsenal, as one of grit and refusal to capitulate to superior talent. Understanding that we might be slightly biased. How is Bob’s start being viewed in the UK?
OK: There have been plenty of suggestions that he only got the chance to manage in the Premier League because an American owner picked him. I understand this talk has caused some upset in the States. But it is true, isn’t it? It’s fairly obvious and fairly natural that certain owners, without a great experience or in-depth knowledge of the game outside of America, look to what they know. Bob Bradley is one of those coaches whose work over many years has rightly put him on the radar of European clubs, but if you’re wondering which Premier League clubs have thought about hiring him prior to Swansea, you’re looking at Aston Villa under Randy Lerner (another American) and very few others. That’s just the way it works. Roman Abramovich was probably the only owner who would have considered appointing his mate Avram Grant in succession to Jose Mourinho in 2007; Roland Duchatelet, at Charlton, is the only one who would have appointed a succession of unimpressive Belgian coaches; a great example is when Gary Neville got the Valencia job, appointed by one of his business partners. If people are saying there was a jobs-for-the-boys aspect to Bradley’s appointment, it’s nothing new. Where is that perception of an appointment, the manager in question needs to make a strong start. To come back to that earlier word “narrative”, Bradley needs to get a few good results on the board to ensure that the narrative surrounding him – in the dressing-room and on the terraces, not just in the media – is a positive one. It’s far too early to make an assessment of Bradley’s suitability at Swansea. There was some encouragement in defeat at Arsenal, but it’s fixtures like this next one, at home to Watford, that will shape his and Swansea’s prospects.
MiB: Your book, “Forever Young: The Story of Adrian Doherty, Football’s Lost Genius” is a fantastic read – the true story of a young Northern Irish football prospect who was on the verge of stardom at Manchester United. He was hailed as a teenage prodigy on a par with Ryan Giggs, but a knee injury cut his career short and by the age of 26 he was dead. In a Premier League that is ever more star-soaked, what made you want to devote your craft to this particular story?
OK: In short, I wrote this story because I was utterly captivated by it. From the first moment I stumbled upon the bare facts that you just mentioned, I found myself thinking: ‘How on earth has this story not been written before? Why do people not know this? Is there something sinister behind it? What is the real story?’ And having started off with those basic facts, which seemed captivating enough – the teenage prodigy who doesn’t make it, due to injury, and dies at the age of 26 – I embarked on this five-year journey to find out everything I could about him. And what I found out was that Adrian Doherty was this amazing, extraordinary, incredible individual who, despite having such incredible football talent, was the complete opposite of what you would expect a Manchester United footballer to be. People told him he was going to be the next George Best. He was more interested in being the next Bob Dylan. He wore second-hand clothes, spent his free afternoons writing songs and poetry and on Saturday afternoons, when his team-mates were at Old Trafford watching United’s first team, he would take his guitar into town and go busking. Even while he was still a footballer at United, he spent a summer in East Village, playing his music in bars and trying to get signed up for a record deal. One of his team-mates Sean McAuley, who now coaches at Portland Timbers in MLS, described him as someone who “played football like Ryan Giggs and played guitar like Bob Dylan.” He was an amazing character with an extraordinary story and I’m still astonished, really, that it hadn’t been written until now.