Football emerged staggering from the horrors of the 1980s, hooliganism and stadium disasters had left the British game on the precipice. Italia 90 signalled football moving into a new era, an era of globalisation and untold riches awaited. A cultural shift was also emerging in the game, all-seater stadia promoted a family-friendly environment whilst a new wave of coaches brought with them new ideas and a fresh approach to the game. The days of the drinking culture, rife throughout previous decades, were numbered; adapt or die seemed to be the general consensus. For one player, still known as ‘God’ by his former club’s fans, the latter seemed to be the most likely end to his career.
Paul McGrath was born in London to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, who disappeared shortly after conception. His mother, Betty, was originally from Dublin and fled to London amidst recriminations, back home, for not only having a child out of wedlock but also the colour of the father’s skin. She feared her own father’s reaction the most and subsequently watched from afar as her son pinballed around various foster homes before finally taking the heart-rendering decision to take the five-year-old to an orphanage. Although she still maintained contact with him, the experience shaped his adolescent years as he stayed in the system until his late teens.
His life in football began playing for local sides Pearse Rovers and Dalkey United, who had to seek permission from the orphanage for the quiet but sizeable boy to play for them. Being a mixed-race teenager in Dublin in the late ‘70s meant he stood out regardless of his aptitude, yet his football skills soon began to bring him another type of attention. McGrath stepped up to play for St Patrick’s Athletic, which supplemented his income as a sheet metal worker, and it wasn’t long before the clubs link up with Manchester United brought him onto their radar. Having received the PFAI Players’ Player of the Year award it seemed obvious that McGrath would be joining the burgeoning ranks of Irishmen at Old Trafford, yet in the days of penny-pinching, he figured to earn more money from staying with the metalwork and St Pats.
Finally deciding it was a chance he couldn’t pass up, McGrath moved to Manchester and soon became firm friends with fellow Irishmen Kevin Moran and Norman Whiteside. McGrath won an FA Cup winners’ medal in 1985 after Whiteside’s deft outside of the foot finish secured a 1-0 win over Everton. Whiteside’s career would ultimately be derailed by injury whilst McGrath too began suffering from recurring knee problems. It was whilst both players were sidelined they would find themselves whiling away the afternoons in various Manchester watering holes. McGrath later admitted he knew he had a drinking problem the very first time he got drunk, when on tour in Germany with Dalkey United, aged 18.
When Ron Atkinson was sacked and replaced in the Old Trafford hot seat by Aberdeen’s Alex Ferguson, word was out that McGrath, alongside several of his teammates, loved nothing more than sinking pints whenever the opportunity arose. They were not alone. The famous ‘Tuesday Club’ at Arsenal and tales of heavy drinking shenanigans coming from down the East Lancs Road in Liverpool were the norm. Ferguson was adamant: it had to stop. Keen to make changes and stamp his authority on the club the decision was made, these players would have to go. His decision made easier by McGrath’s repeated spells on the treatment table, Ferguson even offering him a £100,000 retirement settlement. Aged 29 and with an opportunity to represent his country at Italia 90, he declined, United eventually agreeing a £425,000 fee to sell him to Aston Villa.
McGrath grasped the move with both hands, eager to prove himself whilst still spiralling deeper into alcohol addiction and self-loathing. Graham Taylor brought him to Villa Park and very soon they had a mutual understanding regarding his training regime. McGrath’s strengths lay in reading the game, pre-empting the pass, the run, knowing what the attacker was going to do before he even did. He was fearless, sometimes to his detriment, yet Taylor knew he had a game-changer on his hands, so long as he could keep him on the pitch.
Physio Jim Walker became McGrath’s key man, keeping a close eye on him at Villa’s Bodymoor Heath training ground. McGrath would spend no more than 10 minutes on an exercise bike, some light weights and the odd soak in the bath. It was no secret his drinking had escalated and, whilst his behaviour was becoming more erratic, his performances meant teammates were more than happy to watch him pedalling away in the gym whilst they were put through their paces in the cold and rain.
His first season at Villa Park saw him form a solid back three with Derek Mountfield and Kent Nielsen. The Villains finished runners up to Liverpool which put them back into Europe, following the expiration of the five-year ban of English clubs. Villa proved the perfect club for McGrath and when Graham Taylor moved on to take the national job it would be his former boss Ron Atkinson who would mould Villa into one of the formative Premier League’s best sides. The ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage proved the case, with Atkinson allowing McGrath the leeway to manage himself whilst continuing his imperious form.
Rumours were rife throughout the game of McGrath’s off the pitch issues, yet no-one could have known the reason behind his wearing of sweatbands in a televised clash with Everton. Just days earlier the troubled defender took a knife to his wrists. A suicide attempt or cry for help, nobody knew. Either way, McGrath was sinking into the abyss off the pitch yet somehow rising to the fore on it. He later acknowledged taking to the pitch several times under the influence of alcohol but, by the end of the 1992/93 season, he had a PFA Players’ Player of the Year award to go alongside four successive honours of a similar ilk from his club. Now aged 33, he had played in all 42 league games, missing only one of 51 games across all competitions.
After his Old Trafford exit, McGrath held some bitterness towards Ferguson and his former club, so when he woke up on the morning of the League Cup final against them with a searing pain in his shoulder he knew he had to do whatever it took to play. The injections froze not only his shoulder but also his neck and parts of his head, yet McGrath led Villa to a 3-1 win nonetheless. Ferguson congratulating him after the game made McGrath wish he had been the first to put any previous problems behind them. An injury to striker Dalian Atkinson and a lack of depth behind fellow attacker Dean Saunders meant Villa had to settle for another second-place finish, this time behind Manchester United, yet the League Cup victory over them meant there would be no unprecedented treble for the Red Devils.
His second World Cup finals in the USA that summer proved McGrath’s commitment to his country, despite his injuries and off the pitch problems, he never considered calling it quits for Ireland. His finest 90 minutes coming in the heat of New Jersey where his tackles, blocks and headers stemmed wave after wave of Italian attacks. Roberto Baggio had probably never experienced such a difficult time in an Azzurri shirt, all this with McGrath again suffering with a recurrence of his shoulder injury. More injections got him through the game, outshining the likes of Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini as The Boys In Green pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament: Ray Houghton’s looped shot securing a 1-0 win; Ireland’s first World Cup win from open play.
McGrath wound his career down with Derby County and Sheffield United, eventually retiring aged 37, yet his name is still sung at Villa Park. His off-field problems continued, divorced twice and constantly building bridges with his children. The seminal autobiography Back From The Brink shed light on the battles he had been fighting all of his life, with it proving a cathartic moment for the shy man known as the Black Pearl of Inchicore, who now enjoys relationships with his mother, children and grandchildren. Having been written off aged 29, the unassuming McGrath went on to enjoy the best part of his career setting such high standards whilst crippled by injuries, addiction and self-doubt.
Whilst having many poignant faults, fans still hold the great Paul McGrath close to their hearts; closer than most. It is typical of football fans to feel a pull towards these sort of damaged characters, perhaps seeing similar traits in themselves. A colossus on the pitch, but like everyone watching on, a human all the same.
By Matt Evans @Matt_The_Met