This feature is part of Virtuoso
In the summer of 1994, a 34-year-old Paul McGrath travelled to the United States to play in Ireland’s second ever World Cup. To say that the Dublin orphan had been through the ringer in the intervening years would be an understatement. Deep in the recesses of depression and alcoholism, not to mention a constant battle with injuries, McGrath had seen his marriage disintegrate and had attempted suicide twice in the space of a few years.
“If it’s possible to befriend pain, I had commenced an intense courtship with it by the mid-nineties,” he stated in his 2006 autobiography Back from the Brink. Despite all his inner turmoil, McGrath was also playing the best football of his career. After being offloaded by Man United due to his drinking habits, McGrath joined Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa and was instrumental in the Clarets’ early title challenges, helping them to finish runners-up in 1990 and 1993, winning the PFA Player of the Year award at the end of the latter season. When he swapped Birmingham for New Jersey, Villa had just won the League Cup against his former employers, McGrath playing a starring role.
Ireland barely qualified for that summer’s tournament, securing a World Cup spot on goals scored ahead of Denmark and it seemed that Jack Charlton’s side were approaching the end of an era, something further reflected in the average age of the 22-man squad. The average was 27, with eight of the selection over 29. Many of the players were now into their third international tournament with the national team, a run stretching back to Ireland’s debut at an international competition during Euro 88.
Ireland faced Italy, the side McGrath made his debut against nine years previously, in the opening match of Group E. Despite reaching the quarter-finals of the previous tournament, Ireland were still waiting for their maiden World Cup win in regular time with their only victory so far coming in a round of 16 penalty shootout win over Romania four years previous.
That first win seemed unlikely to come against the Italians. The Azzurri had been a mainstay in international competition and had won the World Cup just 12 years previous, finishing third in their home tournament in 1990, knocking Ireland out along the way. They had lost just once on the way to America and boasted the likes of Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini amongst their ranks.
Having never beaten Italy, the Ireland squad would need to be at their very best to do so in New Jersey, something which worried McGrath. Charlton had gambled on his fitness taking him to the States; the veteran centre-back had picked up a shoulder virus the night before the League Cup final and missed several games towards the end of the season. In fact, McGrath still wasn’t fully fit when he lined up at Giants Stadium for the opening match, claiming it took him three or four steps more than usual for him to get into full stride. Come the final whistle one would have hardly believed that McGrath was struggling with injury.
Kick-off was delayed by nearly a half an hour after both sides lined up wearing similar kits, meaning Ireland had to quickly change into their traditional green jerseys, something which many players claimed motivated them further to make the day a memorable one.
The match has since gone down in Irish footballing folklore as a classic case of David vs Goliath; the plucky Irish side holding off a world-class Italian outfit for a historic win, however what played out on the pitch was quite different. The Boys in Green completely dominated the opening 45 minutes and were well rewarded for their fast start with an early goal through Ray Houghton’s long-range effort. Despite Italy growing back into the game in the second-half through Roberto and Dino Baggio, it was Ireland who had the best chances to score.
It was a fabulous collective performance from the Irish with each section of the field led by its own star performer from Houghton up front to Roy Keane in midfield. At the back, McGrath was heroic, especially in the second half where he halted to two Italian attacks in quick succession, just seconds before the whistle was blown for full-time. With the ball, the Aston Villa man was progressive, regularly looking for the forward pass or a decisive ball to start a quick counter-attack.
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That win against Italy would be a high point for Ireland as they failed to win their next two matches and progressed to the next round as runners-up. Their World Cup journey came to a premature end with a narrow defeat to the Netherlands in the first knockout round. Italy would progress out of the group as one of the best third-placed teams and, undeterred by their tournament-opening defeat, reached the final where they lost to Brazil on penalties.
For McGrath, the 1994 World Cup would prove to be his final international tournament with Ireland, retiring from the national side in 1997 and the game completely a year later. His battle with depression and alcoholism sadly continues to this day.
Paul McGrath’s performance in New Jersey isn’t iconic simply because he was head and shoulders above every attacker he faced that day — that could be said for the entire Irish squad. Instead, what made McGrath’s performance in New Jersey so iconic is the very same quality that made McGrath such an iconic player years before. Sir Alex Ferguson perfectly described the Irish defender during his early days at Manchester United, “Paul had this really nonchalant way of defending. He could just sally through a game. A ball would come into the box and he’d just back-heel it to safety.”
Back-heels, feints to send Italians attackers skidding by him as he went the other way, and some heroic defending; all the things that made McGrath great were on display against Arrigo Sacchi’s Italy. It is startling that he could ooze so much confidence and self-belief on the pitch while also being bereft of these qualities off it. Never has an Irish player fit the tortured artist trope so well.
By Kristofer McCormack @K_mc06
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp