Paul McGrath is a flawed legend but a true hero to millions

Date published: Friday 5th June 2020 1:34 - Matthew Stead


Who’s this then?
Paul McGrath is – almost unbelievably – a 60-year-old Irishman who played for St Patrick’s Athletic, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Derby County and Sheffield United. He was undoubtedly one of the best central defenders to grace a football field in the modern era. That he achieved this whilst struggling against seemingly permanent injury and the ravages of an especially vicious alcohol addiction makes his story all the more remarkable.

He was originally a midfielder and even when he went into the backline, that sensibility and instinct didn’t leave him. His ability to calmly and effectively distribute the ball became one of his many hallmarks.

His career started at League of Ireland club St Patrick’s Athletic in 1981 but a year later Manchester United’s scouts sniffed him out on behalf of manager Ron Atkinson. While at Old Trafford he won the FA Cup but began to clash heads with Alex Ferguson, who replaced Big Ron in 1986. In part this was for his enthusiastic embrace of the club’s notorious drinking culture, but he also began to suffer knee injuries, and after asking for a well-deserved pay rise, Ferguson took umbrage with him and sold him to Graham Taylor and Aston Villa for £400,000.

Six legends who missed out on their club’s greatest success

His seven years at Villa Park would write him into the club’s legend, being the defensive rock that their two league runners-up medals were founded on in 1989/90 and the inaugural 1992/93 Premier League season, by which time he was again playing under Atkinson. He won the PFA Player of the Year in 1992-93.

His international debut came in 1985. At the heart of the glory years of Irish international football, he’d go on to play 83 times across 12 years. His performance against Italy in the 1994 World Cup in Giants Stadium has gone down in the annals of the tournament’s history as one of the finest defensive performances ever – and to think, man, he wasn’t even fully fit at the time.

Because he was a late starter, being 23 when he arrived at United, he was 38 when he finally retired after a season each at Derby County and Sheffield United. That he played so long was a minor miracle. Indeed, later in life when he began to reveal the story of his life away from the pitch, it felt more like something drawn from Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey. To say he’d lived an often hard, difficult life would be to understate matters substantially, having been a black kid growing up in an orphanage.

They still sing his name at Villa Park to this day, so deep has his legend gone, even though it is 24 years since he left the club. That is a true football hero.


Why the love?
This is a love that stretches from the English Midlands to Ireland. He isn’t just admired as a fantastic footballer – though he is almost worshipped for that as, man, he seems to have become in some way transcendent. He’s risen above the crowd, perhaps precisely because of who he is, because of his struggles, his self-awareness of those problems and the ongoing battle between the man who wants to go gently through life and the man that needs to howl and rage at the moon. It is a universal story. We all try to mediate our devils with our angels.

A touchingly soft-spoken, shy character off the pitch (if he wasn’t on the drink, at least), once he crossed the white line he was proper old-school hard, by which I don’t mean violent, I mean impossible to intimidate, resolute and impervious for 90 minutes at least, to pain. Perhaps his tough upbringing in an orphanage invested that steel into his personality. Maybe it is why he was unflappable, never seemed to panic, didn’t show any fear and could be relied on to be the coolest head even in the heat of battle.

It’s easy to love goalscorers or flair players. It’s easy to love goalkeepers who literally stop the ball going in, but defenders are rarely held in such massive regard, especially those who are not famous for throwing themselves at the ball with life-threatening gusto.

Paul’s skills were based on tremendous reading of the game, supreme positioning and the ability to perfectly time a tackle. He was very much in the Paolo Maldini school of classy defending.

While his knees troubled him for most of his career, he always had a decent burst of pace, moving smoothly across the turf, albeit with an unusual, slightly hunched or crouched running style. He was capable of tracking the play and hunting the ball down with a ruthless efficiency.

Portrait of an icon: Paul McGrath

He was never the kind of last-ditch, heroic style of defender; in many ways his was a more cerebral version. It might look more dramatic to try and head the ball away as you plummet to the ground like a felled tree, ala John Terry, but McGrath had little need of such grandstanding, having been in the right position to clear the ball in the first place to make such histrionics irrelevant.

Watch any clip of him and you’ll notice he focuses intently on the ball, whether on the deck or in the air. The headers he wins against much bigger, taller strikers is incredible. Strength, timing and a refusal to be pushed around were all huge assets.

It makes something of a mockery of the modern-day obsession with micro-managing diet down to the last teaspoon of ketchup to, it is said, squeeze the last drop of fitness into the player (because soccer is more about athletics in 2020), that Paul often played whilst still drunk from the night before and was still the best player, not just on the pitch, but in the whole league. But then, Paul was an extraordinary man.


What the people love
Still held in high regard despite it being 22 years since he last pulled on his boots, he has to be of the favourite players of his era. He has a special aura about him. That game against Italy in 1994 has clearly been burned into many souls, both Irish and otherwise. People recall it in such vivid detail and how his performance was not just admirable but genuinely uplifting. So many made reference to it I had to edit quite a few out for fear of repetition. But it’s no wonder many got in touch with their memories of the great man.

“Paul McGrath is beloved in Ireland. They did a Late Late Show special on him a few years back and very few people get that. I grew up with Charlton’s Boys in Green as my heroes. It’s actually hard to put into words how he makes people across the generations feel, maybe that we couldn’t be prouder to have him as a son of Eireann” – Michael Glennon, RTE.

‘The greatest footballer to play for Ireland, imagine how good he could have been with two decent knees.’

‘Virgil van Dijk reminds me of him. That’s how good he was.’

‘There’s an anecdote in his book about how a cutting edge physio at Villa whose name escapes me right now, upon watching him play on a Saturday having barely trained all week exclaims: “That’s impossible”.’

‘National treasure. A man of many faults – a couple of domestic incidents 20ish years ago which were pretty inexcusable – but never shied from his demons, seems to be beating them these days. Vulnerable with a genuine heart. Tough, tough childhood left scars. Carried off the Ireland team coach pissed more than once before matches – and breezed through the 90 minutes. Truly brilliant on his day, up with the best centre backs anywhere. Winning POTY for Villa 4 years after Utd binned him thinking his knees were finished was remarkable.’

‘Sharing a pitch with Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Mauro Tassotti against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, he was the outstanding defender on display. The outstanding player in fact. A landmark performance.’

‘I remember one game where he was caught deep in defence with two attackers bearing down on him. Instead of panicking, he stayed with the attacker without the ball, giving the other no option to pass and slowly moved over to dispossess him. He controlled both of them.’

‘One of the finest CBs I have ever seen. One of my childhood idols even though I’m a Spurs fan. Wonderful player.’

‘My granddad NEVER forgave Fergie for selling him and still calls him out on it to this day.’

‘Probably the most loved Irish sportsman around. Brilliant on the pitch. Timing, reading of the game, bravery, strength and skill. All on dodgy knees. Could play anywhere. Humble, gentle and vulnerable off the pitch. His autobiography is one of the best sports books written.’

‘Legend. At 34 years of age, with knees so dodgy he couldn’t train, he went out into the searing heat against Italy at US94, & produced probably the greatest performance by an Irish player. He dominated Baggio, possibly the great player in the world at the time.’

‘Possibly the best football biography I’ve ever read. Very honest account of a damaged upbringing.’

‘There is a reason Villa fans still call him God. Amazing defender despite his off field issues and no knees.’

‘What a player, remember his speech when he won PFA Player of the Year he seemed shocked he had won. Genuinely humble man who probably never realised how good he was, had an almost supernatural gift of being in the right place at the right time.’

‘Football saved his life.’

‘A fantastic player even though he had dodgy knees, barely trained and had other issues.’

‘Truth is, if you watched the movie of Paul McGrath’s life, you’d say it was too far fetched. I knew he was a phenomenal player, but the more I learned about his life the more I realise it’s a miracle he played at any level of professionalism, let alone one of the best CBs around. I honestly think if I had McGrath beside me, I could probably have survived as a professional CB too. He was THAT good.’

‘For me he was one of the best defenders I’ve ever seen and an automatic selection in my All Time World XI. He just seemed to know where to go and what he had to do with the minimum of effort.’

‘Paul McGrath was an old fashioned centre half. A hard man. Alex Ferguson shipped him out because of his dodgy knees but he resurrected his career with Aston Villa. His training regime back then would not survive in today’s environment.’

‘Incredible ability to read the game. As a kid I remember watching us (Villa) get counter attacked and panicked as it seemed their whole team were coming at us. I don’t how to describe this but he just ‘appeared’. Like in a horror film. Stole the ball and went on his way. Legend.’

‘Could have been the best midfielder in the world as well.’

‘Easily in that top tier of defenders, could’ve played for any team in the world at his peak (club or country) and would have fitted in. Read the game, strong, quick, versatile and was good on the ball. Class.’

‘1994 World Cup for Ireland against Italy: pure class. Prior to the tournament he helped Aston Villa win the League Cup against Man United. Back heeling crosses away & making the occasion look like a Sunday league game. He was 35.’

‘If not for injuries he would be seen as one of the great centre backs of the last 50 years. The Irish Maldini.’

‘Somehow reminds me of that special, great, older player when I played Sunday League. We’ve all played with or, if unlucky, against them. Never trained, spoke little and yet still rocked up and was head and shoulders above everyone.’

‘At an Ireland home qualifier for Euro 2016, we were doing the “Ooh ahh, Paul McGrath,” chant. A kid in front of us asked his dad who McGrath was and his dad told him. The kid then asked if he was better than George Best. The dad answered: Oh far better.’

‘That last ditch toe punt back to Bonner ahead of Signori. Christ on a bike, what a man. He wasn’t even fully fit.’


Three great moments
Interestingly, because he was never a grandstanding defender, many of his clips show him simply taking possession calmly and passing it into midfield, or heading it well clear. This of course was a product of his superb reading of the game.

Giants Stadium? Last man? Signori? No problem:

The Divine Ponytail made to look less holy:

A typically towering header:

And if you want to watch a documentary about the great man, this will do the job nicely.


What now?
He isn’t a natural media personality or pundit. He admits to being quiet, shy and not enjoying the limelight yet, perhaps ironically, he is a very engaging talker. With a beautiful soft Irish accent, the fact he’s not a massive ego or show-off actually only makes him more endearing. This often rather moving chat with Tommy Tiernan illustrates this well.

His struggles with alcohol have been well-documented and he says it’s an ongoing battle and that he does still close the curtains at home on his own and drink. However, it doesn’t appear to be as destructive as it once was and he says he is genuinely remorseful for the pain and hurt his drinking has caused to both his wives and six kids. We can only pray that he continues to find some peace from the noisiest demons.

I’ll leave you with the words of Roy Keane, not a man prone to dispense kind words easily:

“Big Paul, an angel of a man, was an outstanding footballing centre-half. For him, the word big is appropriate.”

Sláinte mhaith, big man

John Nicholson


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