In Praise Of The Ginger Pelé

It’s said that there are no characters in the modern game of football and that if a player has gained notoriety, it’s generally for all the wrong reasons. Without mentioning any names, those with dubious disciplinary records and ones with a propensity for falling over at the slightest touch from an opponent are among the ones that we remember.

Cult heroes are rare but fans of Luton Town, Spurs and Norwich City in particular will remember with fondness the exploits of Gary Doherty, the Republic of Ireland international who harnessed his modest talents to acquire the ironic but certainly affectionate nickname of the Ginger Pele.

Doherty started his career as a teenager at Luton Town, playing almost exclusively as a defender whose raw talent ultimately caught the attention of his international manager. Born in Carndonagh, the player was called up to make his debut against Greece in 2000 at a time when the Republic of Ireland were still seen as a sound option to make it through to major tournaments, even though the Jack Charlton glory years were now just a distant memory.

By that stage Doherty had caught the attention of former Luton boss David Pleat who was, by then, Director of Football at Spurs. Tottenham took Doherty to White Hart Lane in March 2000 with the intention he would be deployed chiefly as a central defender, but it was from this point that the player’s career took an unexpected turn.

With injuries affecting a strike force already diminished by the slump in form of record signing Sergei Rebrov, Doherty was pushed into the centre forward role. A goal in the 2001 FA Cup semi final against Arsenal is well-remembered, but the double strike against Sunderland, as Tottenham came back from 2-0 down, was the undoubted highlight.

While not an especially accomplished player in either position, Doherty was the sort of committed player that fans loved and it was from here that the fond, if ironic, ‘Ginger Pelé’ nickname really took hold. The Irish international eventually settled back in defence but never really recovered his best form following a serious leg break and, with opportunities limited at the Lane, Doherty moved on to Norwich City at the start of the 2004-05 season.

Relegation followed his first season at Norwich but the player established himself as a regular in the second tier. By now Gary Doherty was firmly back in his more familiar role in the heart of defence and although 2005/06 was not a vintage season for the Canaries, the centre back was named Player of the Year by supporters – another measure of just how popular a player Doherty was.

His travels took him to Charlton Athletic in 2010 on a free transfer where he was a regular during his first season, but a drop down to League One football was essentially the beginning of the end for a player whose peak years had been spent in the Premier League. As he drifted out of contention, Doherty moved again, to Wycombe Wanderers where he spent two full seasons before injury brought his career to an end ahead of the 2014-15 campaign.

By standards his wasn’t a remarkable career, but Gary Doherty made many friends wherever he played. There were some stand-out moments during his playing days but his legacy as a cult hero demonstrates that, even in the modern game, there will always be affection for players who bring great personality to the game.

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