Most of you will have already seen this, but for those who haven’t have a look, f**kin tragic.
McGrath loved by all but himself
By Robert Philip
Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, June 18, 1994: Against all known logic, Ireland are leading World Cup favourites Italy through an early Ray Houghton goal. With minutes remaining, the Italians are mounting the latest in a never ceasing wave of attacks when Juventus striker Roberto Baggio, the reigning world and European Footballer of the Year, lines up a shot on the edge of the penalty area. As Baggio draws back his right foot, Paul McGrath materialises as if from nowhere to flick the ball off his toe with a perfectly timed sliding tackle. The ball breaks to Roberto Donadoni, who whips in a wicked cross towards Baggio, who is foiled a second time as McGrath soars above him to head clear the danger, landing on his hands and knees. Giuseppe Signori latches on to the loose ball and unleashes a powerful shot which McGrath, still on all fours, manages to block with the only available part of his body his face. “Paul McGrath is one of the all-time greats,” Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton is moved to say afterwards. “Someone to compare with Bobby Moore…”
Like Bobby Moore, Paul McGrath played football as though he was wearing a silk smoking jacket with a crystal glass in his hand. Tragically, off the pitch there was invariably a real glass of vodka or whatever in his hand. An alcoholic by his mid-twenties, McGrath’s illness would result in four suicide attempts and two failed marriages during a career which brought him 83 international caps and the 1993 PFA Footballer of the Year award.
There should have been many, many more honours, needless to say. Towards the end of his playing days, McGrath returned to Old Trafford with Derby County to renew acquaintance with Sir Alex Ferguson, who had reluctantly jettisoned him after becoming Manchester United manager in 1986, because “my first concern was that I had to get rid of this idea that we were a drinking club rather than a football club”. Derby won 3-2 after which Fergie described McGrath’s display as “absolutely brilliant. He was man of the match. On the Monday after the game I remember sitting in my office with Brian Kidd talking about him. ‘I’ll tell you one thing,’ I said, ‘You have to wonder what a player Paul McGrath should have been’.”
McGrath does not deal in excuses for his addiction to drink even though his early life, as detailed in his recently published autobiography Back From The Brink, provides a heartbreaking insight into the possible reasons why he became such a tortured soul. The son of an Irish mother and Nigerian father whom he never knew, he was put into foster care at the age of 10 weeks and thereafter brought up in a series of Dublin orphanages. Now reconciled with the mum who was too terrified of her own father to bring home a black baby, there is nary a shred of anger in his voice when he explains: “Having got to know my grand-father in later years, I can fully understand why my mum couldn’t take me home. I grew to quite like him but he was a very tough man. It would have been impossible for my mum to introduce me as his grandson.”
Perhaps she could have simply pointed out how nicely tanned you were? “I don’t think that would have worked. More than likely I’d have been scrubbed with carbolic soap. Even when my half-sister Okune was born and was accepted by the family, I didn’t find it strange that she would come to visit me in the orphanage with my mum then go off home while I was left behind. At the age of five or whatever, you don’t think too deeply about those sort of things.”
McGrath’s harrowing account of his childhood is enough to make anyone reach for a strong drink. “Apart from my mum’s visits which weren’t yet all that regular there were no sweets, no affection, no outside contact. Our only toys were a batch of used tyres in the yard, supplied by a local garage. We would roll the tyres or beat them with a stick for entertainment. Christmas was different. At Christmas, we would pick our way through a bag of second-hand toys delivered to the orphanage as an act of charity. On Christmas morning, luxury of luxuries, we’d even get an egg with our toast.”
Football was to be McGrath’s escape from poverty from St Patrick’s Athletic,where he was dubbed ‘the Black Pearl of Inchicore’, to Manchester United but not from the demons which continued to haunt him. “Perhaps it was growing up in orphanages but I suppose I always felt I wasn’t good enough, as a player or as a person. There was a lot of racial abuse when I was a kid in the home there were five other coloured lads and we thought we were the only coloured kids in the whole of Ireland.”
And even though, long before the arrival of Eric Cantona, Old Trafford would reverberate to the chant “Oooh-aaah Paul McGrath” as the hero of the terraces broke up another attack with a cute backheel to the goalkeeper or a delicate chip over the head of an attacker, the feeling persisted that he never quite belonged in the same circle as Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins or his fellow serial carouser Norman Whiteside. Thus did the bottle become his crutch. “By the age of 26 I knew I was an alcoholic. If we were invited to a party or a social function I found I needed a drink before meeting up with the other United players. I thought it was a confidence-booster but, of course, it turned out to be a chain around my neck. I always felt I needed that little extra edge just to get me through the front door. And then I would make a show of myself. It was a roller-coaster because I could go months without a drink and then some social engagement I’d promised to keep would draw near and I needed the crutch of either tablets or alcohol.”
Eventually, Sir Alex had seen enough and both McGrath and Whiteside were unloaded, the Irishman to Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa, where he would win the first of two League Cup-winners’ medals against his former boss at Wembley in 1994. "In Ireland especially, I could do no wrong even when I’d done wrong so you have to admire Fergie for letting me go.
“We hadn’t spoken in the five years since I’d left Old Trafford but after that League Cup final he made a point of coming over to me on the pitch and saying ‘You had a brilliant game, son’, which meant a lot to me. He’s been fantastic to me all through my recent troubles and I’ve come to like him greatly. I hated him for a few months when he sold me but, to be honest, it was the right decision to make.”
At Villa, McGrath became an even greater cult hero, Player of the Year for four successive seasons even while making four suicide attempts, one of which involved a Stanley knife following which he turned out a few days later wearing sweatbands to cover the scars. “I hated that side of Paul McGrath, of being frightened of living yet frightened of dying. Are there four suicide attempts in the book? I wonder if I left any untold? I didn’t do it for attention but looking back, some of the things I’ve done in my life have been horrendous. I was obviously drinking wildly at the time and I was all mixed up the mayhem, the adulation, the craziness of it all. I had wonderful children, a wonderful career, the supporters seemed to genuinely love me, I got on well with my team-mates and opponents, I couldn’t have asked for more in life. And yet…and yet… there was still something in there telling me I was a piece of ****, basically. I can’t explain it.”
There is more, much more, of drinking Domestos and bleach because there was nothing closer to hand…drink driving charges…his arrest outside the home of his first ex-wife’s house…but nowhere in his book does McGrath resort to self-pity. “There are regrets, countless of them because I’ve let so many people down over the years. I don’t regret that I became an alcoholic because I hope to be leading my life differently from here on in. At the moment I’m well, I haven’t had a drink for a couple of weeks now. I can’t promise that I’ll never have a drink again but I don’t want to go down the same dark road again.” Another famous Irishman, comic Dave Allen, used to sign off with the benediction: “May your God go with you.”
May Paul McGrath’s God go with him henceforth.