Doherty rel­ish­ing the end of long road back to the top flight

Ir­ish de­fender has played a huge role in Wolves’ pro­mo­tion back to the Premier League

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Em­met Malone

Matt Doherty freely ad­mits that his big break was some­thing of a fluke but the Dubliner would ar­gue that he has not had too much handed to him on a plate in the sea­sons since.

Wolves were a Premier League out­fit when he ar­rived for a trial after hav­ing im­pressed in a pre­sea­son friendly against them for Bo­hemi­ans eight years ago. He is un­der­stand­ably ex­cited by the fact that they will soon re­turn to the top flight.

Still a teenager, he made his Premier League de­but at An­field in Septem­ber 2011 when he came on for the sec­ond half but it was to be his sole league ap­pear­ance in that rel­e­ga­tion sea­son and he was soon sent out on loan.

Now he is one of the few who has sur­vived what has been a bumpy ride at times since and, as the club pre­pares to cel­e­brate winning the Cham­pi­onship ti­tle to­day, he is rel­ish­ing be­ing cen­tre stage now that the good times are re­ally about to re­turn.

“It’s just a re­ally great time in our lives at the mo­ment,” says the 26-year-old after a morn­ing’s train­ing made un­ex­pect­edly dif­fi­cult last week by the sud­den out­break of warm weather.

“I want to take ev­ery­thing in . . . the pa­rade, lift­ing the tro­phy, get­ting to take my daugh­ter [Nya-Rose] around the pitch [after to­day’s game against Sheffield Wed­nes­day] . . . I re­ally want to en­joy all that but at the same time I have been think­ing of some of the fix­tures that we’ll get to play and I can­not wait for next sea­son.”

One of the more mun­dane rea­sons is the some­what less clut­tered fix­ture list with Doherty sug­gest­ing that, even in your mid-20s, the twice weekly grind of the Cham­pi­onship can be quite a phys­i­cal chal­lenge.

“One a game a week is go­ing to be nice,” he says, clearly savour­ing the prospect.

So too will be play­ing at places like Old Traf­ford and the Emi­rates, the lat­ter the home of the club he sup­ported as a kid play­ing for Home Farm and then Belvedere.

“I was there when we played Arse­nal last time but only in the stand, I was 19th man un­for­tu­nately; I’ve been in the place but yet to get my feet on the ac­tual grass.”

Be­ing sim­i­larly over­looked now seems ut­terly un­think­able to­wards the end of a sea­son in which he has played 43 of 44 league games and been one of the stand -out play­ers in what has been com­fort­ably the Cham­pi­onship’s best team. The club’s Chi­nese own­ers are, he says, hugely am­bi­tious and so there is al­ways a risk.

Doherty cer­tainly knows how bru­tal th­ese things can be, hav­ing been around to wit­ness two real clearouts.

Get­ting toxic

The first in­volved the big­ger names signed on Premier League wages, the last of whom didn’t leave un­til the club found it­self in League One. The sec­ond, more re­cently, has been to al­low cur­rent man­ager Nuno Espir­ito Santo, to as­sem­ble the squad re­quired to se­cure pro­mo­tion.

“There’s not as many egos now as there were back then,” he says. “There were a lot of play­ers back then on huge, huge money and it all got a bit toxic. You could tell by the way that things un­folded that it was a get­ting toxic; now it’s com­pletely dif­fer­ent . . . every­one is friendly to­wards each other, ev­ery­body gets on, the play­ers are younger and feel that they can still im­prove to­gether.

“You al­ways think about it,” he says when asked whether he ever feared for his own place at the club, “but I wouldn’t say there was a fear. You think about it but at the end of the day I’m con­fi­dent about my abil­ity so you’re think­ing: ‘I’m stay­ing here; they ain’t get­ting rid of me be­cause I’m good enough’.

“My thought process is that when they see me play: ‘We’ll have to keep him.’ That’s how I think. But you have to think like that. If you start to think neg­a­tively it will show in your per­for­mances, your at­ti­tude, your body lan­guage and yeah, I’ve man­aged to sur­vive it all and it’s all worth­while now.”

Crit­i­cally, he says, his cur­rent deal came at a time when it was clear the re­sources were there to re­place him if that was what they wanted to do.

“They ob­vi­ously knew that they will be able to in­vest so to sign a new four-year deal ob­vi­ously means that I’m part of their long-term plans. That’s re­ally ex­cit­ing for me.”

The squad looks cos­mopoli­tan by Cham­pi­onship stan­dards al­though his own jour­ney to promi­nence within it has been res­o­lutely old school. He played in the friendly where he was spot­ted be­cause Bo­hemi­ans, as he re­mem­bers it, had to play a cup re­play the day be­fore “and so the kids played the friendly”.

“I played for about 50 min­utes and my dad said I didn’t even do all that well so it was a bit of a sur­prise that I even got asked to come away on trial. But when I did we had a game against Chel­tenham away and I did al­right; just al­right . . .I wasn’t a world beater or any­thing . . . but they must have seen some­thing and de­cided to take a chance. I’m just grate­ful for that now.”

He went to Hiber­nian [where Pat Fen­lon was the man­ager] then Bury on loan and, while nei­ther went en­tirely smoothly, both spells away played im­por­tant parts in the mak­ing of him as a per­son and a player, he reck­ons.

“You have to get out there,” he says. “There’s no point in play­ing un­der­age football un­til you are 23. You’ve got to be able to play in games, cope in men’s football and that al­most cer­tainly means that you have to go to the lower leagues.

Spe­cial tal­ents

“You can be 19 or 20 and play­ing re­serve team football, be able to say ‘I played at,’ say, ‘Manch­ester United,’ even though you have no ac­tual first team ap­pear­ances. But there are 19- and 20-year-olds at League Two level with 100 ap­pear­ances un­der their belts. I know which one I’d rather be.

“Ex­cept for a few very spe­cial tal­ents, al­most every­one has had a loan spell in a lower league at some point. You’ve got to do it, it’s how you grow up.

“I was at Hibs,” he con­tin­ues, “and I didn’t en­joy it that much but I had to live on my own, fend for my­self and I learned how to do that. Then, when I went to Bury, I just loved my loan spell there. I had Kevin Black­well as man­ager and he had a huge in­flu­ence on me as a player. I learned a lot from him.

“But it was dif­fi­cult; we were in a rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle and they were hard times. Peo­ple think that for foot­ballers it’s all great but when you’re play­ing on a Tues­day night at Bury on a boggy pitch in front of 1,800 peo­ple and you are bot­tom of the league, it’s tough but you get through it and you re­ally learn from it.”

Handed a chance

A few weeks after re­turn­ing to Mo­lineux he was handed a chance in the first team by then man­ager Dean Saun­ders.

“That’s the other thing; I got the chance to play and I took it. A lot of peo­ple get the chance but don’t do that. You might only get that one chance and so you’ve got to grab it.”

He has done that and after hav­ing seen so many come and go, is de­lighted now to play un­der a man­ager who wants to use him as a wing back with loads of li­cense to get for­ward and at­tack.

“That’s mu­sic to my ears,” says Doherty, who ad­mits to hav­ing felt a lit­tle like he was “filling in” when played on the left or, on oc­ca­sion, in mid­field, al­though you sense he’d hap­pily do ei­ther to add to the first se­nior cap he earned in Turkey in March.

Adding to that is just one of his and the club’s am­bi­tion, he in­sists, know al­most no bounds as they look to launch them­selves back on the Premier League. If there is a re­gret at all, it seems an un­likely one to an out­sider. It is that ma­jor ri­vals West Brom are not, bar­ring a mir­a­cle, go­ing to be still up there next sea­son.

“I reckon a lot of the fans would have wanted to be play­ing against them. I know I wanted to; that’s a huge derby game and I want to be in­volved in it but it looks like they’re go­ing down and we’re ob­vi­ously up.

“But it’s good. You al­ways think it’s go­ing to hap­pen ear­lier but I guess you don’t go un­til you’re ready; maybe it wasn’t meant to hap­pen un­til now when I’m ready, that’s how I’m go­ing to look at it.

“I’m 26 now, I’m not get­ting any younger, time goes so quick. How many years do you have? Eight? You’ve got to make the most of it, en­joy it while you can. You never know what’s around the cor­ner.”

At the end of the day I’m con­fi­dent about my abil­ity so you’re think­ing: ‘I’m stay­ing here; they ain’t get­ting rid of me be­cause I’m good enough’

PHO­TO­GRAPH: LAU­RENCE GRIF­FITHS/GETTY IM­AGES

Matt Doherty cel­e­brates scor­ing for Wolves.The club will cel­e­brate winning the Cham­pi­onship ti­tle to­day.

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