Paul Dougherty gave up a lot in leaving England to come to the U.S.: his mum and three brothers, a starting midfield spot with the fabled Wolverhampton soccer club and the chance to get his beloved fish-and-chips served in a newspaper. In return, he was jeered by opposing fans who noted his lilliputian stature—all 5'2" of him—and dubbed him Smurf. He also was resented by his new teammates, some of whom sarcastically referred to him as the illegitimate son of coach Ron Newman, who also is British.
But Dougherty's transatlantic crossing has given him an opportunity to shine for the San Diego Sockers, who on March 19 clinched the Major Indoor Soccer League's Western Division title and are favored to win their sixth league championship in seven years. With 33 goals and 22 assists at week's end, Dougherty, 21, was San Diego's second-leading scorer.
"There's a lot I want to achieve before I go back home." says Dougherty. "Most of all, I'd like to win a championship." He has already won legions of fans, who delight at the back flip he performs each time he scores a goal. Younger fans, in particular, seem to relish having a player they can look down to.
The indoor game and its smaller dimensions are well suited to the diminutive Dougherty. On the field he looks like a water bug, darting in and out of the action. Dougherty, who the Sockers claim is the shortest athlete in American men's professional team sports, likes a physical game and proudly notes that he is third on the team in penalty minutes. "Dougherty's very difficult to mark," says Los Angeles Lazers coach Keith Tozer. "He gets to places other players don't. San Diego is where it is because of Paul Dougherty."
Well, at least in part. San Diego also happens to have the best defense and goalkeeping in the MISL. Further, Socker midfielder Branko Segota leads the league with 54 goals. Yet San Diego is 6-2 in games Segota has missed this season. Dougherty, who contributed five goals and two assists in those eight games, has added to the club's offensive depth. Thanks to his quick, size-4½ feet, he possesses an uncanny ability to score with first-touch shots.
Dougherty is comfortable with his height, which he inherited from his 4'10" mother, Jean. After being introduced at a recent charity luncheon, he was asked to stand up. He remained seated and jokingly said, "They never know when I'm standing anyway."
"Of course, [his height] can be a disadvantage," Newman says. "We always have to put him on the lower floors in the hotel, because anything over six floors and he can't reach the button on the elevator. And he can't find any shoes that fit him. I had to give him the pair off my rearview mirror. But on the field, I don't think it's a disadvantage. The indoor game is played more on the ground."
Dougherty grew up in Leamington Spa, a small town in the English Midlands. He broke into the Wolverhampton lineup when he was 17. But the club repeatedly bounced from the first division to the fourth, so Dougherty decided to try the indoor game, which he had read about but never seen. He paid his own way to California for a try out.
After six weeks with the Sockers' reserve team, Dougherty signed a 1½-year contract in February 1987. In 19 games in the '86-87 season he scored two goals. Hardly a propitious debut. Some of the Sockers resented that Dougherty had received his opportunity so quickly and charged that Newman was favoring a fellow Englishman.
But much of the tension abated when both the team and Dougherty hit stride a dozen games into this season. After a 9-6 win over the Wichita Wings on Dec. 29, the Sockers returned to the Wichita Marriott and had an impromptu party. Then, depending on who tells the story, either Dougherty was stripped, bound with tape and thrown in an elevator headed for the lobby (the media version) or the party simply ran too late and too loud (the team version). Either way, Dougherty has been accepted by his teammates, and the party on the field continues.