On Football - No. 8: Paul McGrath
On 11 June, in the first game of the Italy 1990 World Cup Finals for either country, England played the Republic of Ireland in Cagliari. The game was terrible, like an English Second division match. The players all knew one another too well, their systems and styles cancelled each other out, and both teams were petrified of losing in what looked like being a very tight group. England took the lead with a Gary Lineker goal - the usual tap-in - before Kevin Sheedy equalised with a drive from the edge of the box. Both teams looked like they were content with a draw. The Italian press hated the match and described it as the worst they had seen so far at the finals, with the standard of football shamefully unimaginitive and primitive (Ireland would go on to play a worse game against Egypt a few days later). Both teams would qualify for the last 16, but neither played well in that group stage. Indeed, only two players really stood out at all from either team :Paul Gascoine for England and Paul McGrath for Ireland.
Paul McGrath is a legend in Ireland. As Footballers go, only Roy Keane really compares in terms of public affection. The Irish crowd chant of "Ooh-Ah Paul McGrath" (which Man Utd fans converted to Ooh-Ah Cantona) was best used when Nelson Mandela visited Dublin in the 1990s, only to be greeted with chants of "Ooh-Ah Paul McGrath's Da". The Irish chat show "The Late Late Show", the worlds longest running chat show, devoted one of its weekly programmes entirely to a review of McGrath's career, with appearances by most of the major figures in Irish football history. He has featured on an Irish stamp. I feel like even all these facts don't adequately convey just how worshipped he is. Given the meagre accomplishments in his club career, especially in comparison to other Ireland legends like Keane, Liam Brady, Johnny Giles or even Damien Duff, this may seem strange. But McGrath is probably the greatest defender ever to wear an Ireland shirt, and one of the handful of best players the country has ever had. The Irish football public knew class when it saw it, especially in the 1990s, when much of our football was effective but not especially classy. The way Paul McGrath played football was always classy.
Especially considering the way he lived his life. A functioning alcoholic for much of his career, in his autobiography he describes suicide attempts, black-outs, going AWOL while on Pre-season tours and playing many games drunk. He went missing a couple of times when he should have been playing for Ireland in impotant qualifiers, turning up in small hotels then fleeing from the media. All this only made him more popular in Ireland, where people love a flawed hero. McGrath is obviously a troubled man, and his vulnerability makes it easier to like him. Not only his evident self-destructive streak, but his chronic shyness and the way that he played the last decade of his career plagued with a succession of serious knee injuries only made him seem more heroic. As does his background - the child of an Irishwoman and Nigerian, he was given up for adoption as an infant and spent much of his childhood in a series of Dublin orphanages. Ireland was not remotely multi-cultural until this century, and it must have been difficult to grow up in the 1960s and 70s, mixed-race in working class Dublin. Football would have been a good escape, especially to somebody so naturally athletic and gifted. His first professional club were St Patricks Athletic, where he drew the attention of several English clubs and earned the nickname "The Black Pearl of Inchicore". Manchester United signed him in 1982, and he joined a side with a few Irish players already established, notably Frank Stapleton and Kevin Moran. This eased the shy McGrath's social acceptance, and he gradually eased himself into the first team of a talented United squad.
But it was a United squad destined never to win the biggest prizes. Many blame that fact on the incredible drinking culture at the club at the time. The team was the best in England on its day - routinely beating the dominant Liverpool team of the era - but inconsistent and often appallingly sloppy. Players like McGrath, Moran, Norman Whiteside, Brian Robson and Gordon McQueen would go on marathon midweek benders involving lock-ins and endless pub-crawling. Manager Ron Atkinson turned a blind eye, in the main. And there was some success - that United side won the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985. The Cup Final in 1985 was possibly McGrath's finest hour in a United shirt. Playing an Everton team that was probably the best in Europe at the time, winners of the League and the Cup Winners Cup, United went down to 10 men when McGrath's partner in central defence, Moran, was sent off for a lunging tackle on Peter Reid in the second half. McGrath later said that he partly blamed himself for that, since it was his poor pass that had presented Reid with the ball. He more than redeemed himself in the game, utterly dominating Everton's forward pairing of Andy Gray and Graham Sharp for the rest of the match. McGrath's principal gift was his great ability to read a game. On his good days he seemed to glide around the pitch, never rushed or stressed, always ahead of his opponents, nipping in to steal the ball off a toe, timing his leaps perfectly, always playing simple balls out of defence. He was strong and fast and agile, too, meaning that he could dominate any kind of centre-forward, from a nippy ball technician to a monstrous bruiser. That day he dominated two of them, always first to the ball, never caught out, ever alert and sharp.
Alex Ferguson was less forgiving of that United teams drinking culture, and he quickly broke it up, getting rid of Whiteside and selling McGrath to Aston Villa in 1989. He later said that McGrath was perhaps the most naturally gifted player he had ever managed, which is obviously the highest of praise. After a shaky start, Mcgrath went on to become Villa's bedrock player under first manager Graham Taylor, then Josef Venglos, until he was finally reunited with Atkinson. That Villa team came close to winning the League on a couple of occasions, finishing second behind United in 1993. McGrath was the Fan-favourite, nicknamed "God", and impressed his fellow professionals so much that he was voted Players Player of the Year in the same year. He would go on playing club football at the likes of Derby and Sheffield United until he was 37 years old and had undergone eight separate knee operations. From his first year at Villa he didn't train with the rest of the team because his fragile knees couldn't take the strain. Instead, he did an hour a week on an exercise bike. And yet his performance levels never really seemed to suffer. He got better with age and experience as his understanding of the game developed.
Part of his high standing in Ireland comes from having been a major player during the years of the National Teams greatest success. He played in the 1988 European Championships and the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals. He excelled in each tournament, in fact. Coach Jack Charlton took his lead from previous manager Eoin Hand by playing McGrath in midfield at first. Ireland had a surfeit of quality centre backs during that era with Moran, David O'Leary, Mark Lawrenson and Mick McCarthy all in contention alongside McGrath. But McGrath had a combination of physical presence and ease upon the ball none of them could really match and so he found himself deployed as a holding player. He excelled there, too, neutralising the threat offered by Ruud Guillit in 1988. By 1994 he had established a new partnership at centre back with Phil Babb, while Roy Keane and Andy Townsend bossed midfield. In the first game of that tournament, Ireland faced Italy in Giants Stadium in New York. Italy, with players like Roberto Baggio, Beppe Signori, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi in their squad, were one of the tournament favourites. The game at Giants Stadium was expected to be like a home match for the Italians, with the great Italian community of New Jersey coming out to support them. Instead the stadium was filled with Irish supporters and Ireland fought out a 1-0 victory.
McGrath, whose left arm was paralysed by a virus throughout the match, was as poised and indominatable as ever. In his book he describes the way a match builds up a rhythm of its own, the way a forward and defender can both feel it. In that match, he says, Baggio, probably the best player in the world at the time, knew McGrath had the better of him, and he kept his distance. In that tournament, Ireland peaked in that, their very first match. All that remained were mediocre performances in the sweltering heat of midday games in Orlando in high summer and a desultory exit to Holland. McGrath was ushered out of the squad by new manager Mick McCarthy a few years later, nearing his late 30s, his knees in worse condition than ever. By then Ireland had a new talisman in Roy Keane, the heir to McGrath's crown as the teams only indisputably World-Class player. Keane gave Irish fans that feeling of safety that McGrath had done. With one of them in the team, there was always a strange feeling of security,as if they wouldn't alow us to lose, as if we knew that they would improve the standards of their frequently average colleagues. Generally they did. And never moreso than McGrath against Italy that day in New York.
Its just a pity that his catalogue of injuries and alcoholism conspired to deny him a fitting historical status outside Ireland. In 1987 he played at Wembley in a Centenary Game for a Football League XI against a Rest of the World XI that was like something from Pro-Evo* and looked totally at home. He was reckoned by many to be man of the match and comfortably subdued that terrifying attacking line-up.
There aren't any videos of him playing on the internet - I suppose great tackles, defensive headers and interceptions aren't as popular as goals and stepovers - but this is an excerpt from an Irish documentary about the 1994 World cup that gives you an idea :
* Football League XI : 1-Peter Shilton, 2-Richard Gough,3-Kenny Sansom, 4-John McClelland, 5-Paul McGrath, 6-Liam Brady, 7-Bryan Robson, 8-Neil Webb, 9-Clive Allen, 10-Peter Beardsley, 11-Chris Waddle.
Subs: Steve Ogrizovic, Steve Clarke, Pat Nevin, Osvaldo Ardiles, Norman Whiteside, Alan Smith, Selector: Bobby Robson,
Rest of World XI : 1-Rinat Dasaev, U.S.S.R.; 2-Josimar, Brazil; 3-Celso, Portugal; 4-Julio Alberto, Spain; 5-Glenn Hysen, Sweden; 6-Salvatori Bagni, Italy; 7-Thomas Berthold, West Germany; 8-Gary Lineker, England; 9-Michel Platini, France; 10-Maradona, Argentina; 11-Paulo Futre, Portugal.
Subs: 18-Andoni Zubizarreta, Spain, 12-Lajos Detari, Hungary, 17-Dragan Stojkovic, Yugoslavia, 13-Igor Belanov, U.S.S.R., 15-Preben Elkjær Larsen, Denmark, 14-Lars Larsson, Sweden, 16-Alexandre Zavarov, U.S.S.R. Selector: Terry Venables, England.
The Football League XI won 3-0 with two goals by Robson and one by Whiteside.