Friday 20 September 2019

The making of Matt Doherty - how the Dubliner became a key part of the Wolves revolution


Matt finish: After a difficult start to his Wolves career, Matt Doherty has flourished in helping them back to the Premier League. Photo: Getty Images
Matt finish: After a difficult start to his Wolves career, Matt Doherty has flourished in helping them back to the Premier League. Photo: Getty Images

David Sneyd

Stephen Ward has nothing but good things to say about his former tenant, Matt Doherty. "There were never any problems. He always paid his rent on time, I knew what door to knock on if he didn't, and he got his security deposit back when he left. What more can you ask for?"

It's not far off a decade since Doherty, an €80,000 signing from Bohemians (with a ten per cent sell on fee), joined Wolverhampton Wanderers after impressing in a pre-season friendly marking the highly-rated winger Matt Jarvis.

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Jackett: ‘Doherty rose to every single challenge. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Jackett: ‘Doherty rose to every single challenge. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

"His performance left an impression on people," Ward recalls. "So when he did come over we knew he was a good player."

But he didn't know much else about his fellow Dubliner - and full back - who was treading the exact same path from Dalymount Park to Molineux. Ward made the leap a couple of seasons previously and established himself as a regular for club and country.

The pair chatted about their respective schoolboy careers, Doherty spoke about his love of Tiger Woods and Dennis Bergkamp, and how every Christmas Eve he would rummage under the tree and pick away at the present he hoped would be an Arsenal jersey with the Dutchman's name and number printed on the back.

That support for the Gunners endures even now, so much so that he still gets the hump when he checks their results and sees they have lost. His mood hardly helped by the inevitable gloating FaceTime call or visit from close friend, and current Wolves captain, Conor Coady.

Doherty, or 'Doc' as most teammates call him, was shy in those early days. "I would never have him down as arrogant or cocky," Kevin Foley, another of the Ireland internationals, along with Kevin Doyle and Stephen Hunt, who introduced Doherty to their golf school, adds.

"He was 100 per cent focused on what he wanted to do. When he first came into the building I was thinking 'who is this guy? What's he about?' I couldn't figure him out at all."

Barriers were broken down when Doherty's car was off the road and Foley offered his services as chauffeur to training. "He was determined. He didn't speak about being homesick and had a focus, which was impressive."

That focus sharpened when he made the decision to live away from Wolverhampton, and it was a conversation with Ward which led to finding new digs in Birmingham.

"You can get caught in a bubble living in Wolverhampton, a young lad playing for the club, it's an easy place to get distracted but Doc wanted to get the head down and concentrate on his football and now it's paying off for him," Ward adds.

Living in Birmingham was also handy for Doherty to make semi-regular trips to nearby Edgbaston, where he continues to get his fix of cricket having grown up playing it on the road outside his family home in Swords. "He told us all about that but it wasn't something the Irish boys were really into," Ward admits.

Wolves has proven to be the perfect fit, even if it took time to get the measure of the place with loan spells at Bury and in Scotland with Hibernian. Doherty is now the 10th longest-serving player at a Premier League club, only a couple of days away from celebrating nine years in the English midlands, and tonight he prepares to make his 255th appearance against Manchester United.

A new contract, signed during last season's breakthrough in the top flight, ties him to the club until 2023, meaning the 27-year-old is set to enjoy his peak years just as Wolves attempt to break the glass ceiling of the top six under manager Nuno Espírito Santo, and backed by the Chinese conglomerate Fosun International.

Doherty is an integral part of their masterplan but there was a time, only a few years ago, when some of the more senior players in the club felt compelled to have a word in his ear about what was required.

The determination to forge a career may have been there but the know-how was lacking. "We said to him: 'get yourself fit, get yourself right, you have all the ability in the world so don't waste it'," former teammates Sylvan Ebanks-Blake recalls.

"He was one of those where you thought it could go either way with him. The penny was either going to drop and he could go to the top or it's not and he will just go around the leagues a bit. He was one of those players.

"When he was younger, he would join in to training when we needed extra bodies. His ability shone more than his personality.

"We could tell he had ability and technically he was very good. He was comfortable on the ball, composed and he rarely gave ball away.

"There's a fine line between composure and looking nonchalant," Ebanks-Blake continues. "He was on the line. You would look at him and think: 'is he really pushing himself?' I would say he was similar to Antony Martial. It's clear the ability is there but is he really pushing himself and doing all he can. Was he doing all the right things?"

Doherty revealed as much about his eating habits, admitting that his weight ballooned to upwards of 92kg because of his sweet tooth and fondness for fizzy drinks along with microwavable meals.

He dallied with going vegan before settling on becoming a pescatarian and limiting his cans of coke to a post-match treat.

And like all his teammates, Doherty also now wears blue light goggles before training every morning in a bid to alter his body clock and perform at optimum levels.

"Doc is brutally honest to a fault," Ebanks-Blake continues, a point former Ireland manager Martin O'Neill will attest to having felt it necessary to call the player directly after he criticised his methods following his departure from the job.

"He tells it like it is. That helps, because when you're brutally honest with yourself then you can rectify the issues that he needed to. It helps you improve. Other players can be delusional about themselves, but Doc knew what he needed to do.

"Although, sometimes you would speak to him and you were not quite sure if he was absorbing information or not."

Former manager Kenny Jackett knew that he was. He took the reins at Molineux at a low point in the club's storied history.

Successive relegations saw them drop from the Premier League to League One ahead of the 2013/14 season. Ward, along with several other experienced players, were bombed from the first-team squad with Doherty, then 21, entrusted to help reenergise the club.

"Things needed to change when I got the job," Jackett, now in charge of Portsmouth, explains. "I needed to get some players get out and bring others in.

"Matt was one of those. We needed a new relationship between the players on the pitch and the crowd because it had broken down."

Doherty had to battle with new signing Sam Ricketts for a regular spot at right back - he won the club's player of the year award at the end of Jackett's final term in charge in 2016 as left wing back - but it was a battle he was ready for.

"He responded to the opportunity, he had it in him to get where he is now because of his belief and ability. He put the work in. I'm so pleased and proud for him because he rose to every single challenge that was put in front of him."

Jackett was jettisoned by new owners Fosun but no sourness remains. He even stays in contact with Doherty's father, Tom, via text, and when his son made his senior Ireland debut a message of congratulations was sent.

"It was a big moment for the whole family, I thought it was only right to acknowledge it," Jackett adds.

It is a sign of Wolves' rise and Manchester United's stagnation that a similar message would not be required should they earn all three points tonight.

"Wolves are on the march as a club and I genuinely feel Doc could be playing for one of the standard top six clubs," Ebanks-Blake adds. "I never knew which way it would go for him but now it looks like there's only way things will go for him."

The next challenge for Doherty is to build on that momentum.

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