GAA

The quiet man: Ethan Doherty doing seriously under-rated talking on the field

He has every right to be exhausted, or at least to look it. Right now, he is anything but. Of the 13 goals that Derry have scored in this year’s league, Doherty has had a direct hand in eight of them. For five of them, the Glen man played the final pass.

Ethan Doherty being pursued by Niall Kearns Picture  Seamus Loughran.
Doc's orders: Ethan Doherty has had a direct hand in 5-19 of Derry's scores this year, and played the second-to-last pass on another 3-8. Picture by Seamus Loughran

AS Larry McCarthy opened the envelope on the RDS stage to reveal last season’s Young Footballer of the Year, the award’s winner was back home in Maghera.

Derry’s four Allstars on the night was their best haul since the All-Ireland winning campaign of 1993.

On top of that, Eoin McEvoy and Ethan Doherty were nominated for best young player, while Brendan Rogers was on the Footballer of the Year shortlist.

It was the second successive year Doherty had been nominated, having missed out to Galway’s Jack Glynn twelve months previous.

That night in late 2022, while Conor Glass was down to collect his award, Ethan Doherty walked through the gates of Watty Graham Park with his kitbag over the shoulder, ready for training ahead of their maiden All-Ireland club final.

Having climbed back to the peak and won the Andy Merrigan Cup this time, Glen held their dinner dance in the Tullyglass House Hotel three weeks ago. The senior football team were the natural guests of honour.

As the music played and the crowd rose in acclaim, Connor Carville led them in uniform through the middle of the hall floor to the stage.

None of the three Doherty brothers were there. Jack had gone abroad after a final for which he was cruelly injured, while Alex and Ethan just steered clear.

Nobody in Glen batted an eyelid.

They just actively shun any form of limelight.

Since the Young Footballer of the Year award’s inception in 1997, Doherty was the first winner not to collect it in person.

Unlike when Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather up to collect his Oscar for Best Actor twenty-five years earlier, it wasn’t any protest or slight on the awards.

It’s not an arrogance thing or a chip on the shoulder thing for Ethan Doherty. Nothing like that at all.

Those that know would tell you that he could simply think of nothing worse than the idea of having to walk up through a crowd of hundreds in the RDS or the Tullyglass, stand on a stage and potentially have to deal with a few softball questions on the microphone.

Anyone that knows him regards him as pleasant, mannerly, easily coached. And very quiet.

The attention just makes him uncomfortable.

Yet he will go out on Sunday afternoon in front of however many thousand there are inside Croke Park, the rest watching on television, and it won’t take a fizz out of him.

With so much made of the weight of Conor Glass’s schedule over the last two years, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that Ethan Doherty has shared the same calendar of events.

Whereas Glass didn’t make his introduction in last year’s club championship until midway through Glen’s third game, came off the bench in both of their first two and started the third, and every game thereafter.

He went to Tralee six days after the All-Ireland club final too.

In Derry’s first meaningful attack that night in Kerry, Doherty paraded down the left wing and fed Glass to kick the opening score of their year.

Doherty came on at half-time in the league tie with Dublin a few weeks ago when Glass and others had a complete night off.

He has every right to be exhausted, or at least to look it.

Right now, he is anything but.

Of the 13 goals that Derry have scored in this year’s league, Doherty has had a direct hand in eight of them.

For five of them, the Glen man played the final pass.

All manner of different assists too, from holding his trademark position out on the wing before cutting in and feeding Conor McCluskey against Monaghan and Eoin McEvoy against Galway to the deftly-weighted handpass in behind for Lachlan Murray’s goal against Roscommon.

On another three goals, Doherty has played the second-to-last pass.

In total, he has directly assisted 5-11 this year.

He has played the second-to-last pass on another 3-8.

And scored 0-8 himself.

Doherty’s threat lies in the ability to transfer his bodyweight with such light-touch steering of the hips.

He can go from left to right to left again without ever seemingly having to cut hard in the turf.

When he first came on the scene under Rory Gallagher, he was getting on the end of the goal chances and finishing them himself.

But over time he has settled into the role of provider, so in tune with the work of Padraig McGrogan and the movement of those ahead of him, always looking to thread men in on goal where at all possible.

Injuries to Chrissy McKaigue and Eoin McEvoy last year meant that Doherty played the first half of the Division Two final at wing-back rather than wing-forward, which was a key factor in Derry’s struggle to break the lines with all the possession they had in that first half.

The game broke away from them after half-time, by which stage Doherty had moved back into his favoured role but had no ball with which to influence.

There are Ciaran Kilkenny-esque elements to his game in terms of the positions he takes up, but mostly he would come to remind you of a peak Sean Leo McGoldrick.

It’s ten years since Derry’s last Division One final, when the Coleraine man was at the peak of his under-rated powers.

He missed the tanking from Dublin after picking up a knee injury playing a club game four days after the semi-final win over Mayo.

His assist for Kevin Johnston’s goal that afternoon was magical. He seemed to have nowhere to go until he threw Keith Higgins over the body and cut past Colm Boyle.

For a split-second he was about to kick the point when he realised the middle was open, so straightened up, drew the goalkeeper and unselfishly squared for Johnston to palm home at the far post.

The similarities extend to how rarely they both give the ball away.

Doherty has been turned over eight times this season, three of which were in the second half cruise when he speculated to accumulate against Roscommon last week. He also scored three points and laid on another 1-2 in that same period.

Kerry paid him the ultimate compliment in last year’s semi-final by sending Graham O’Sullivan to tag him tight.

That O’Sullivan wasn’t in the RDS himself last autumn was the major oversight of last year’s selections. He had a strong case for a place on the Allstar team but was not even nominated.

Dublin will afford Glen’s finest the same respect on Sunday. It has all the makings of a job for John Small.

Whatever talking Ethan Doherty has to do, he’ll do on the field.

Ethan Doherty’s 2024 league campaign
Scored: 0-8
Direct assist (final pass): 5-11
Indirect assist (second-last pass): 3-8