‘And what can we say about Paul McGrath? In his long career he has never been more brilliant. He took the ball with every part of his foot: instep, side, heel and at times even sole. He looked as casual as if playing with his two small boys in the back garden. He was doing things that surely had Jack Charlton demented because our Jack likes things plain and simple. Our Paul is a law unto himself. You cannot regulate genius. We were seeing the gospel according to Paul’.
– Con Houlihan on Ireland v Italy in Italia ’90
Paul McGrath was brilliant in that 1990 World Cup quarter-final against tournament hosts, Italy. Ireland lost 1-0, ending a first and memorable participation in the World Cup finals.
Four years later, McGrath lined out against the Italians again, this time in the 1994 World Cup, in the USA. He was now 34 years of age, his body battered by injury. McGrath produced arguably the most celebrated performance of his career, as Ireland defeated the Italians 1-0, courtesy of that strange, looping Ray Houghton shot.
The great gentle giant of Irish football famously barred Italy from the Irish goal on that memorable day, like a quiet, utterly unreasonable bouncer refusing to let a cocky regular through the nightclub door on one of the biggest nights of the year.
McGrath’s epic performance in the Giants Stadium in New York can be ranked as one of the most acclaimed of his career – it was certainly a wonderful confluence of footballing prowess and occasion – but we cannot assume that it was his best day in a football jersey.
Two weeks ago I wrote about all the sensational George Best performances that were never recorded on film. We end up enthusing about the great Best goals we saw, while unaware of many others that no medium ever preserved.
I appreciate that much more of McGrath’s career was filmed than Best’s, but I’d still make the point that there were numerous stunning displays by the former that never came to widespread attention.
Ask fans of Derby County or Sheffield United. Or ask the fans of Aston Villa, where McGrath is hero-worshipped to this day. We all know about McGrath’s time at Manchester United, and his great displays for Ireland – in fairness, his Villa years were well documented too – but the sheer class of the man is underlined by the noble beauty of his playing swansong.
It was the late-1990s, and McGrath was then with Sheffield United. By now, he was a 37-year-old veteran plagued by injury and battling alcoholism. Every Monday for a few months, I bought one or more of the English tabloids. Much of their coverage of soccer was hyped, silly, gushing…a print version of Sky Sports at its worst (or best?) – but there was what was then a novelty: the tabloids’ football correspondents had around that time begun to rate the performance (out of ten) of every player in every game.
The reason I can vividly remember checking those Monday morning tabloids is down to one astonishing pattern: game after game (almost without exception) Paul McGrath was Sheffield United’s best player, usually attaining an 8 or 9 out of 10, frequently being chosen as man of the match.
He was a supremely gifted footballer, and – for all Paul’s demons – it is to his great credit that he bravely and brilliantly squeezed everything possible from his body and career as the clock ticked ominously. He squeezed, and he delivered. Best only played at the highest level up to the age of 27; the great Paul McGrath was still producing those man of the match performances at club level as a 37-year-old!
World football marvelled at his brilliance in the Giants Stadium in 1994. But it really was ‘ever thus’. Paul didn’t have to face players as good as the mercurial Roberto Baggio every run of the mill weekend back in the UK, but week on week he calmly dispensed with superstar or elbow-leading journeyman, or the guys in between. McGrath generally mastered them all, whether at Old Trafford, Villa Park or on a wet night in Sheffield.
The Giants Stadium was special because of where and when it was – and certainly the stakes were higher than on most Saturdays – but it really was business as usual for football’s shy, gentle giant.
Charlie Walker: ‘I went across for that game. It was the first time I was ever taken into the VIP lounge at Old Trafford. Who comes across to me after the match? Only the famous Matt Busby. And in his Scottish accent he says ‘That’s one hell of a lad you’ve sent us there’’
– From ‘Paul McGrath: Back from the Brink’ (2007)
Shy, gentle, troubled, brilliant. There are, no doubt, many different sides to Paul McGrath. At times, he has been a deeply sad, tortured man. He has admitted that he let people down – loved ones, people in football too. As the blurb of his biography, the superb work of Irish Independent journalist Vincent Hogan, put it: “…behind the implied glamour of life in the employ of great English clubs like Manchester United and Aston Villa, McGrath wrestled with a range of destructive emotions that made his success in the game little short of miraculous”.
Demons certainly shadowed Paul, who had a very tough upbringing – and this writer won’t be delving much into those personal torments, least of all passing any judgements…rather I’d prefer to honour an exceptional footballer and a much-loved man.
A great career
He started out with St. Patrick’s Athletic, moving to Manchester United in 1982. After seven years and some success there, he was sold by Alex Ferguson, apparently largely because of McGrath’s excessive drinking. At Aston Villa, the late Graham Taylor (manager) was a caring and compassionate father-like figure for McGrath.
Over several seasons at Villa, McGrath was consistently brilliant. Not only was he the club’s player of the year season after season, he was also the PFA Player of the Year in 1992-93.
While starring a club level, McGrath also became a magnificent warrior in the heart of the Irish defence, where manager Jack Charlton – like Taylor – showed commendable man management skills.
McGrath, for a long time unbeknownst to the wider public, had slipped into a chronic dependence on alcohol. It led to him missing training and matches, and testing the patience of loved ones and his football colleagues. But he was and is an immensely likeable person. That, coupled with his extraordinary ability to play to a high standard – despite his hard lifestyle and developing knee problems – meant that managers did everything to get him on to the field, and teammates happily turned the proverbial blind eye to the way in which McGrath was indulged.
It really is amazing how brilliantly McGrath could play when you take into account his drinking, his injuries and the mental strain he was frequently under. I hope it is not patronising to suggest that happiness for him, during those years, was most likely only to be found on the football pitch.
Let’s get back to the football: another memory I have of the 1990 World Cup tournament is of reading of the journalists’ Team of the competition. Jack Charlton was playing Paul McGrath in midfield, which of course was not his normal position (he was a central defender). Ireland bowed out at the quarter-final stage. Yet McGrath was selected on the Team of the Tournament…as a midfielder. That tells you how great a player he was.
When he left Villa in 1997, McGrath joined Derby, playing superbly for 24 games, before the club reluctantly decided to move the now injury-ravaged veteran on. Perhaps the end was nigh.
Sheffield United, playing in the First Division (now The Championship) came calling, and McGrath lined out 12 times for the Blades, playing until he was almost 38 years of age, before finally hanging up his boots at the end of the 1997/98 season. Even warriors wilt!
At every club where he played, the fans still talk of the quiet, shy Irishman with the deceptively laid-back style, who simply demolished – and demoralised – opponents with his extraordinary positional sense, his wonderful timing, and his great tackling and heading. McGrath had speed in his day, but he didn’t really have to outpace opponents; he was just in the right place before they were. McGrath read the game effortlessly; at times the ball seemed to be drawn to him. Watching him dominate games from the back was a joy. To this day, he is remembered with reverence at those clubs he graced.
‘He’s the best defender I’ve ever played with. Without doubt. Absolutely world class. I mean he was probably only playing at seventy-five to eighty per cent of his ability. So taking that into consideration, he was absolutely awesome’
– Gordon Cowans, English international and Villa teammate
Here in Ireland, we’ll remember Paul for his long and relatively successful club career in England, but even that was surpassed by his magnificent service in an Irish shirt.
He won 83 caps for the Republic of Ireland. On a bad day, he was very good; most days, he was sensational, sometimes out of this world.
He oozed class, in defence or midfield, and he played his heart out every time he took to the field for Ireland. McGrath became a folk hero, a national treasure. I will refer you to the ‘Ooh Aah Paul McGrath’ chant, itself now part of football folklore, indeed of Irish culture.
It is no exaggeration to say that Paul McGrath was worshipped by Irish fans – in his playing days, and still. I hope this modest man, historically so prone to self-doubt, realises just how loved he is. I hope he’s doing well.
He will always be loved by Irish people, always be a national hero. Ooh Aah Paul McGrath indeed!