The Sunday Independent

The Paul McGrath Story - In Three Parts

Back to a world

by Paul Kimmage

Sunday Independent – 4th February 2001

 

Prologue: Pearl fishing

LAST November I was sitting at home watching TV with Tony Cascarino one evening when a familiar face popped up during the ads. Dressed in a light grey T-shirt and blue training bottoms, Paul McGrath looked fit enough to play in the Premiership and gazed into our living room with a confidence that was disarming.

"It won't be long before everything is in euros instead of pounds," he announced, "shopping, pay packets, even football! Think about it. A pound will get you one euro and twenty seven cents. So get your head around the euro now. Think euro. The change is in your pocket."

Cascarino was stunned. Ten years previously he'd shared a room with McGrath for 12 months at Aston Villa and the experience had marked him for life. When he wasn't fending off reporters and fans and women and battling to keep the outside world from crashing in on McGrath ...

"Is Paul there?"

"Is that Paul?"

"Can I speak to Paul please?"

... he was barricading the door and battling to keep McGrath from crashing in the outside world. Where had they found this polished guy on the screen?

"Was that Big Paul or am I seeing things?" he asked.

His reaction immediately sparked my interest and I made a mental note to track down the Black Pearl for a column. Eleven years had passed since he had famously remarked (when asked if he would consider going into management in retirement) "Me! Manage a team!! I can't even manage myself!" Three years had passed since his last game for Sheffield United. Was retirement the hell he had once predicted? What had his life become?

An interview was arranged and then another and three sessions and several weeks later the column had become a feature and the feature had become a series and the series was fast becoming the core of an biography when I was dragged, kicking and screaming, back to Independent House. "What about the McGrath piece?" my editor fumed. "Any chance we might run it this century?"

"Okay" I pleaded. "I'm almost there. Just another few days ... just one more week ... I promise."

But inevitably the promise was broken. That's the thing about Big Paul; once you start scratching at the surface of his extraordinary life, the itch becomes addictive.

The scratching began on the third Saturday of December at Dublin airport when, after a day spent promoting the wares of Champion Sports, we teamed up at the check-in desk for the last flight back to Manchester. Dressed casually in black, every second face as we made our way to the departures gate had a greeting for him or a scrap of paper they wanted signed ...

"Good man Paul, how are you keeping."

"Paul, will you sign this for my son?"

"PAUL MCGRATH! It's an honour to shake your hand."

... but more than the recognition, it was the response that struck most, the way, instinctively, they all reached out to touch him. The sense you got that they all wanted to give him a hug. As we continued to stroll towards the gate, I was reminded of a call I'd made to Jason Doyle at Fish Films, the producers of the euro changeover ad.

"I'm writing a piece about Paul McGrath and I'm just wondering ... "

"What sort of a piece? Is it a positive piece?" he demanded.

"Eh, well," I replied, a touch taken aback that he should be so protective. "I hope it will be an honest piece. An accurate piece."

"Look," he said, "I've a lot of time for that man. I've worked with a fair share of wankers in my time but that man is a consummate gentleman."

And then it struck me. What I was dealing with here was more, much more, than mere recognition. What I was witnessing here, as the nods and waves and smiles rained down on him, was emotional attachment, an adoration bordering on love. When we boarded and took our seats, we had only just fastened our belts when the safety announcement was drowned by a familiar chorus at the back of the plane ...

"Ooh Ahh Paul McGrath,

Say ooh ah Paul McGrath."

... and though the Big Man dropped his head in embarrassment, there was no escaping the message. Three years after he last kicked a ball, Paul McGrath remains the most popular athlete in the history of Irish sport.

The next morning we left his home in the Manchester suburbs early and drove towards Kirkby and the Liverpool Football Academy where his eldest son Chris would be togging out for the Under 16's against Manchester City. As we sped through the Cheshire lanes, his radio was tuned to a political debate on Radio Five.

"Love that station," he says. "Listen to it all the time, even the political stuff. It's funny, but when I was playing it was all music and films and I never used to bother with the news and the papers and stuff but I can't get enough of it now. I love watching the history channels, give me anything on World War II, but I dunno. Don't ask me to explain it. I must be getting old."

"How in touch are you with current affairs in Ireland?" I ask.

"Reasonably," he replies. "I've been following the various tribunals. We've got Tara and I watch Glenroe sometimes, just to listen to the Irish accents. Caroline's always slagging that I'm homesick"

"What about Charlie (Haughey)? Do you think he should do time?"

"Ahh no," he smiles, "they should leave poor Charlie alone."

It felt odd to be sitting in a car with Paul McGrath. No, let me try that again: It felt odd to be sitting in a car and conversing normally with Paul McGrath.

"Did I ever tell you about the first time I tried to interview you?" I ask.

"Oh God," he replies.

It was March, 1991, and I had just started my second year at the Sunday Tribune. Here-we-go-mania was at its height and on the morning after the 1-1 draw with England at Wembley, my editor, Vincent Browne, was absolutely frantic. Despite every effort to deflect him ...

"Niall Quinn would make a great piece."

"Kevin Moran is always interesting."

... there was only one story he wanted to read that Sunday.

"WE MUST HAVE AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL MCGRATH!"

"But Vincent," I pleaded, "McGrath doesn't."

"FIND HIM! DO IT!"

I had never been to the Aston Villa training ground before, had no idea it was a 50 mile taxi ride from Birmingham station, but, thankfully, I'd got there just in time. Striding across the car-park, seconds after I arrived, was the great man himself. With no time to prepare a polished request, I decided to throw myself at his feet and grovel. But from the moment he spotted the tape recorder I knew I was doomed. I couldn't have frightened him more if I'd pulled out a gun.

"Hi-ya Paul."

"How are you doin'."

"That was a brilliant performance the other night."

"Yeah, thanks."

"Look, I know this is short notice but is there any chance you'd sit down with me for a couple of minutes to talk about it."

"Sorry, I'm in a rush."

"We can do it in the car if that's easier! Please! You can drop me anywhere in Birmingham."

"Sorry, but I'm going to Manchester."

And that's how it ended.

We're back in the car, driving to the game, and I'm laughing now at the memory but he's embarrassed: "Oh no. Did I really?"

"You did," I reply. "I had to walk two miles to a pub to phone a taxi."

"Oh God. Sorry about that ... it's just. I used to be so nervous. For years people had no idea I could even speak."

"So whatever happened to the frightened guy in the car park?" I ask.

He pauses and thinks about it for a moment but doesn't answer.

 

Pearl Harbours

FLOATING. Floating on a magical carpet above the waves. Rolling along for hour after hour and day after day, transfixed by the beauty of those fluffy white clouds and the glory of the haze. And the wind is caressing his shoulders. And the sun is kissing his face. And his mind is completely empty. No worries. No pain.

IT doesn't last. A week drifts by. The haze begins to clear and as the clouds lose their shape, there are shadows on the horizon; blurred images he can't connect with, sounds that make no sense.

What are they trying to tell him? What does it all mean?

WHATEVER happened to the frightened guy in the car park? How does he begin to explain? There was a time, not so long ago, when he wouldn't have tried. There was a time, not so long ago, when he'd have told the story of his life in a single breath: "Lived out in Dun Laoghaire for a while. Grew up in Sallynoggin and stuff ... and not much happened after that." He couldn't have mentioned the floating. He wouldn't have mentioned the pain. But it's getting easier now. He has taken the first step: "My name is Paul McGrath and I am 41 years old."

ADDICTION. He is standing by the side of a field in Altrincham, watching two groups of teenagers that mean absolutely nothing to him, chasing a ball around a pitch. A few minutes earlier, he had just dropped his second youngest, Paul, to school when he spotted the shirts across the hedge. He should have kept going to the gym. He should be pumping iron now or diving into the pool but, from the moment he heard those seductive chants ...

"Watch your house!"

"Down the channel."

"Man on!"

"In the hole."

Ah for fucks sake ref!"

.. there was no resisting the brake. Youth team or Premiership, he cannot pass a game without pulling in to watch.

He misses football. He misses the life. He misses the smell of it and the taste of it and the sweat of it but most of all he misses the safety of it. The reassurance. The football field was as close he ever got to the carpet ride. Once he stepped onto the grass and across those painted lines all the doubt seemed to evaporate. He was BIG Paul. Celebrated in song. Oooh Ahhh: let's here it for McGrath. But that's all behind him now and he's back in the other world. With the doubts. And the worry. Ohh ahh, it hurts.

He picked up a copy of One Voice by Christy Moore in November and as he worked through the pages of his friend's "life in song," there were passages he might have written himself. The observations on 'Liffeyside' struck a chord ...

"Drink ten drinks and be in a dirty snug in some arsehole kip and sing this song to some old drunks and feel their acceptance like a warm glow - feel at home with the alcohol coursing through the system within and fellow stupid fuckers nodding in agreement as we all assure each other that we truly understand.

... and the diary entry opposite "Little Musgrave" on page 99 ...

"Self inflicted torture repeated again and again. I had a huge desire to stop the madness but I simply could not. I went for one or two and ended up in oblivion, wherever the crazy trail might take me. But that was then and this is now and here today in Galway I have a clear head and a love for life and a gratitude for something and I trust in God and no longer have the responsibility of being all things to all people and nothing to myself."

That was him. That was Paul. That's where the disease was taking him. Those are the words they'd have chiselled on his grave. "Here lies the great, great Paul McGrath. He was all things to all people and nothing to himself."

IT wasn't just the safety. Sometimes, when he closes his eyes and is drawn by memory of those faraway bright lights, he is warmed by the moments of genuine pleasure. The penalty shoot-out in Genoa. Dave O'Leary placing the ball on the spot. The race to greet his joyous leap. Joining his team-mates in the scrum. The dressing room cheer. The supporters pouring their hearts out: "This is the happiest day of my life." But there are other moments he finds harder to explain.

Take the '85 Cup final against Everton: ask for his abiding memory and it's not the miss-hit pass that lead to Kevin Moran's expulsion. Or his complete domination of Graeme Sharp and Andy Gray (at the time, the two hottest strikers in England). Or John Motson's plaudits. Or any aspect of the extraordinary performance that won Manchester United the game. No, what he remembers most is how awkward he felt during the celebrations.

"The bit that sticks out is when we grouped for the photograph. I had seen this done time and time again but I just couldn't get into ... I've watched it on the video a few times since and I'm just so conscious of what we were doing. We were jumping up and down, trying to sing this song and I'm thinking 'Am I bouncing right? Will this look okay?' I had just won an FA Cup medal but I just couldn't get into the spirit of things."

Another recurring puzzle is Giants Stadium in '94, and the hour that followed what is generally acknowledged as the game of his life. It's over now. Italy have been defeated. A reception has been organised at a marquee near the ground. Jack's not keen and asks him to give it a miss. He is sitting alone at the back of the coach, waiting for the reception to end.

He gazes out the window. On the other side of the smoked plate glass, there are Irish fans everywhere, waving tricolours and dancing and singing. He studies the smiling faces, listens to the chants. 'Why don't I feel excited?' he wonders. 'Is this really happening? Am I living some sort of dream?'

CAROLINE can explain it. Caroline can explain everything. Caroline has always had her finger on his pulse. Last week, he was sitting in the kitchen, enthusing to a journalist how much he enjoys gardening, when his wife suggested there was more to his new found grá than then planting and the pruning.

"Paul would be quite happy to shut the gates and never see anybody for the rest of his life. Wouldn't you Paul?"

"Ahh no love," he grinned, trying to shake her off. "I'd like to see you and the kids the odd time."

"He has to push himself on a daily basis to mix more."

She was right. She is always right. If he didn't need the work, he knows the sign would go up tomorrow: "PAUL McGRATH: HAPPILY RETIRED FOOTBALLER. DO NOT DISTURB!"

WORK isn't that easy to find in England. He used to get recognised pretty much everywhere but when you're not working for Sky, or managing a team, it's amazing how quickly they forget. A few months ago, he was given a sharp reminder when they were out one evening in Manchester with Roy and Theresa Keane.

"We had just arrived at the theatre," he says, "and I was shoved out of the way in the stampede for Roy. I was standing there, desperate for one of them to ask for my autograph but they hadn't a clue who I was! I was gutted. And then I thought: 'Hang on a minute. You've been saying for years you hate the attention. What's all this about?' It was very strange."

He's thinking of hiring an agent. Pat Egan has worked wonders for him in Ireland but he needs something more regular and closer to home. "I'd love to be still involved in the game. I'd love if someone would click their fingers and have me back to Aston Villa as a coach. I'd love to be working with a youth team and joining in the five-a-sides but I just can't bring myself to pick up the phone. And the idea of having to go down there and introduce myself to everyone frightens the wits out of me.

"I'm better than I was. I'm a hundred times better than I was. There was a time when I couldn't even have gone to watch my sons playing in school ... but I just need my confidence to come up a bit more. Then I'll start pushing myself. I'd like to do a bit more TV but I still find it very hard. People are always saying: 'Forget the camera, it's just talking. It's just saying a few words about something you love.' It's stupid really but it's there. And it has to be got over."

SOMETIMES, when the panic washes over him, he can't help feeling it was all a bad a joke. That God was just having a laugh at his expense. Picture the scene. It's a slack day in Heaven and The Man Upstairs is in his drawing room, finishing his plans for the three greatest Irish players of all time.

The first one, he decides, will be stocky and tenacious and blessed with magnificent vision. He'll have two brilliant feet, exceptional passing ability, flair, a great shot and the ability to lead. "They'll probably think him a little gruff at times but it will serve him well when he retires," he smiles. "We'll give him a mop of curly hair and send him down to Dickie Giles in Ormond Square."

The second, he decides, will be a bit thinner on top but have the sweetest left foot he has ever created. An exceptional passer with exceptional vision, he will be patient. A playmaker. The classic Italian Number 10. "He won't be as much of a leader as Giles," he reasons, "and he'll be a lot more intense, but there's little this fellow won't achieve in life. And we'll place him with that nice Brady family in Whitehall."

When he sits down to draw the third, The Creator suddenly realises that his first two designs are really rather alike. They're both midfielders, both feisty, both passionate, and both gifted with exceptional self belief. "This one will be different," he decides. "We'll make him a defender. An athlete. Brave. Great timing. Beautiful striker of the ball. Brilliant in the air. Versatile. Com posed. And we'll give him two good feet."

But just as he's about to finish the work, he is suddenly overcome by an alien streak of mischief. He picks up the phone and calls Peter at the gate. "Let the third one think he's going to White hall as well."

"But Lord, that's cruel ... "

"Nike, Peter."

"I'm sorry Lord?"

"JUST DO IT."

Whitehall! Nike! He loves it. What a blast.

SUNDAY afternoon in a pent house suite of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin. After an afternoon playing for Shelbourne at Tolka Park (a charity appearance for Childline), he has retreated to his room before dinner to catch the last twenty minutes of the FA Cup game between Manchester United and West Ham. The journalist has followed him to the room and is chipping away again ...

How does it feel to be back in Dublin?

How different is it now to when he was growing up?

Is it true he never curses or uses bad language?

Is that why he confiscated the Eminem CD from his son?

... but he is finding it hard to take his mind from the screen. United have won a free kick on the edge of the West Ham box. David Beckham has stepped forward to take it. "Now," he says, "can he get the ball up enough to get it back down?"

Beckham can't. His shot canons into the wall. "Oh dear," McGrath sighs.

What about United?, the journalist asks. How would you rate them?

"I think they're unbelievable," he replies. "We hadn't a bad side when I was playing but there are so many good players on that team."

Who would you pick if you could only choose one?

"I'd have Giggs."

Really?

"Yeah ... no ... hang on ... I'd have Roy and then Giggs. I love watching Giggs, love watching him charging, running, moving, but you'd have to take Roy for his all round ability: every thing goes through him. And he makes it look so simple: get it and don't lose it. But Giggs is magnificent on his day."

The game continues. So does the journalist. A few loose ends he needs tied up.

What was your first childhood memory? he asks.

"My first childhood memory? Emm ... "

Paulo di Canio has slipped the United defence. The Italian is through. Fabien Barthez must come out. Fabien Barthez is standing still! The United goalkeeper is waving his arm!! Paulo di Canio scores!!!

"Oh my God! Sorry. What was the question again? Did you see that? Barthez was just standing there: I think he was trying to fool him. That's crazy. You've got to have a go no matter what, at least until you've heard the whistle. They'll get annoyed now, United. There's Roy running at the ref! Dear oh dear."

The question was your first child hood memory?

"Oh yeah," he says. "Three years old. I'm standing kicking a ball with Denis against the gates in Whitehall."

JANUARY 1960: Mammy and Baby on the boat home from England. Baby laughs, Mammy cries; at the age of six weeks there is not much he understands. She had imagined it so differently leaving home, one year earlier. London's promise was a fresh start, a new life. Get a job? Meet a guy? Fall in love? Say "I do?" Only in Mills & Boon.

Mammy and Baby arrive in Dun Laoghaire. Breaking-up is hard to do. Mammy wants to care for baby but Mammy is white, Baby is black and Mammy's country and religion do not look favourably on such things: Ireland in the rare ould times. Mammy isn't able to cope. She hands baby over to a fostering agency, people of a different faith. Baby gives her one more smile. Mammy cries and cries and cries.

Baby grows up in Whitehall, a suburb on the northside of Dublin. At the age of three, the picture is becoming clear. Mrs Donnelly is Mammy, but not his real Mammy. Real Mammy brings presents, from time to time and Baby's not complaining. Two Mammies are better than one. Denis introduces baby to football. Denis is his brother. His Big brother. Denis chases the kids that jeer him about his colour. Denis is more than the world's best brother, he's the world's best pal.

Baby is five when real Mammy calls one day. She's taking Baby to see a friend on the other side of town. The house is a short walk from where they stepped from the ferry in Dun Laoghaire. Big and grey and buzzing with other kids, this will be his home for the next five years. It doesn't feel like home. It doesn't have Denis. Baby gets upset when Mammy tries to leave.

The Big house frightens him. He doesn't like the big steel beds in the dormitory. He doesn't like the play room or the other kids. He wants his own bed. He wants his brother. He wants his Mammy. One of them! Baby cries and cries and cries.

HE'S sitting in the kitchen at home on a Wednesday evening. Caroline has just served dinner from the Aga ...

"The best thing we ever bought," he says, "the food tastes much nicer."

... and as he contemplates watching the match or washing the dishes, it is business as usual elsewhere around the house. Music. Bawling. Absolute chaos.

Two year old Ellis slips off the chair and bangs his head. "Ahh come here sweetheart," Dad says, "and I'll kiss it and make it better."

Fourteen year old Mitchell is looking for his Eminem. "I'm sorry honey," Dad says, "I don't want you listening to that garbage. The language is foul."

Six year old Paul has just lost a penalty shoot-out with Jordan (12) in the hall. "Don't cry sugar," Dad says. "Jordan! Come on love, give him a chance."

And Chris (16) is about to be picked up for training at the Academy: "See you later love," Dad says. Enjoy it."

Sweetheart. Honey. Sugar. Love. This is the way he talks to his kids.

ALMOST everyone in Dublin has a Paul McGrath story. Some tell you more than others. Meet Kieran Forsyth, a short little fellow with a dis position as warm as his smile. This is his story of a childhood spent with Paul.

"How do friendships ever start? I'm not sure, from little things I suppose. Ours began during that first year of Tech in Sallynoggin four or five guys who just enjoyed each other's company; who still do. I suppose the fact that he was black made him different, but then the way he moved the ball around the Tarmac during lunch-break made him different too. He was very skilful, very strong.

"Monday was a favourite day of the week. We'd talk about Stella Maris or Cherry Orchard or Home Farm or whoever we would have played in the Dublin Schoolboy League. Paul would listen, amazed: 'What! You mean you play at weekends!' He had never played in an organised game.

"It took a while for us to get him into Pearse Rovers. He wanted to join as soon as our manager, Tommy Heffernan, made him the offer but couldn't do so without the consent of his guardian, Mr Croxon, who was against the idea at first. I'm not sure why. Maybe we were seen as the Sallynoggin catholics because the orphanages, the Smyly homes, were very West-Brit. Anyway, Tommy kept at him and after a while Croxon relented.

"I remember his first game. I played left of midfield, he played everywhere; hadn't a clue about positions; was like a sheep after the ball. Tommy had to sit him down in front of a blackboard: 'this is how you play.'

"Racefield, the place where he used to live, was an open house there was a TV room and a snooker room and we used to go down there all the time, were practically brought up there ourselves. He was good humoured about his colour. If we were playing snooker and you nominated 'black' after tapping in a red, he would look at you in mock sternness and say, 'the number seven.' Or on the pitch, on those rare occasions when he'd duff a pass you could shout, 'you stupid black fucker' and he'd look at you and smile.

"Mind you, if somebody else said it, he'd cream them. That was another thing about him, he could look after himself, would never shy off a scrap. He was useful at other sports too snooker and table tennis. He loved putting spin on the ball. With Paul, it was always the skill.

"And then there was his impersonations. He did a great Jimmy Stewart, a great Grapes of Wrath: 'Whenever there's a cawwwp beatin on a kiiid' that sort of thing. But playing ball was what he did best.

"In school, apart from woodwork, nothing much interested him. When we'd come out of a career guidance class and you'd be talking about going for an apprenticeship he'd say: 'You can be a mechanic if you want to be but I'm going to be a footballer.' And he meant it, because while the rest of us planned being certain things by certain times, Paul never planned. He just kept playing ball.

"He looked different back then. He used to wear these big platform soles and he wore his hair much longer Afro style. I remember one afternoon, the two of us on the mitch, walking up O'Connell Street to the Ambassador to see The Godfather. And one of those guys, the old guys with the camera and the dirty Mac you don't see any more, jumped out to take our photograph. When he had taken the shot, he handed us a card each to collect it. I keep mine on the mantlepiece at home. I'm not sure if he ever went back for his."

SCENES from a childhood. The orphanages?

Three. He remembers them. The Birds Nest, Glensilva and Racefield. He lived in three different homes. And each time he'd feel comfortable, each time he'd feel secure, as soon as he'd lower an emotional anchor, they'd move him on.

The colour of his skin?

Black. He remembers it. From the moment he entered the orphanage, to the moment he left school. He was black. A nigger. "Hey Nigger." They never let him forget. Some got away with it; others, he'd paste. It depended on their size or how many mates or brothers they had. From the age of five, he learned how to defend.

That first kick of a ball?

Bliss. He remembers it. Shooting into the gate that first time in Whitehall. Playing mini-games at The Nest with Noel Plunkett. The FA Cup final when he was ten years old. Leeds against Chelsea! Brian Moore's commentary! Peter Osgood and Chopper Harris! Hour after hour alone in the garden at Glensilva, keeping the ball up, shooting against the wall, lifting the Cup in a theatre of dreams where you didn't need a Mammy and black was beautiful.

Those first games with Pearse Rovers?

Heaven. He remembers them. And Tommy Heffernan's lessons. There was more to the game than he'd imagined. And so many very good players. Des Kavanagh, at Joey's, had a gifted left foot; John Young was another Glenn Hoddle. There was a lot to do if he was ever to be as good as them. He'd get there. He'd do it.

His James Stewart impression?

Not bad. He remembers. But his Henry Fonda was better. He liked the movies. He liked meeting up with the lads and going to games. He seemed to have a lot more confidence before the crash.

Kieran and their day on the mitch? The bloody shapes of them, striding up O'Connell Street. Was it The Godfather? He's not sure. Was it the Ambassador? He's not sure either. And the photo? No, he never went back for his.

LYING awake, calculating the future,

trying to unweave, unwind, unravel,

And piece together the past and the future,

Between midnight and dawn,

when the past is all deception,

The future futureless.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages.

 

CHILDHOOD sucks. Every childhood sucks. One minute you're cruising along in a glorious world of make believe with Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse and Ma to wipe your bum and the next, you've been kicked in the crotch with that first big wake-up call. There is no Santa! There is no Mickey Mouse! That's shit coming out of my arse! "OH MY GOD, I AM GOING TO DIE!"

It was different for Paul. It was always different for Paul. When he was sixteen, and coming to the end of his term at the orphanage, his kick in the crotch was: 'Oh my God, I am going to live.' How? How was he going to support himself? Where was he going to sleep? Who was going to prepare his meals and wash his clothes? To whom could he turn?

The worry eased when he left Pearse Rovers for Dalkey United. His first club had always treated him well, but Dalkey was the ticket to a better life. They found him a job and a digs. Tommy Cullen used to buy him chips and drop him off after training. Johnny Dunne used to make him laugh and was always kind. Frank Mullen would become the father he never had. Things were looking up.

In the summer of '79, an end of season tour to Germany was announced. There was a slight problem securing his passport, but otherwise the tournament went well. Billy Behan, the legendary Manchester United scout, was following his progress and had sent positive reports to Old Trafford. McGrath was flattered by the rumours but also a frightened. He didn't want a move to England. He'd been uprooted all his life. Dalkey was family. Dalkey was home.

Two months after returning from Germany he suffered a mental breakdown. Severe depression was diagnosed. The weeks drifted by. He withdrew further into his shell. After a spell in St John of Gods, he started to come round and was reunited with his mother, Betty, in Drimnagh. He started playing football again. Life resumed its normal course and then, one morning, two months later, his mother entered his room with his breakfast on a tray and found him sitting, staring at the wall. Floating on that magic carpet. No worries. No pain.

THEY brought him to St Brendan's. Two weeks drifted by before the haze began to clear. Those faces, vaguely familiar. Those words, starting to connect.

It was Kieran.

"We've brought you some chocolate Paul."

And Frank.

"You're looking great."

And Tommy.

"You'll be back playing again in no time."

He didn't want to be playing in no time. He didn't want to leave the bed. They had to understand that it was over. He would never play football again.

Fear of Jack turns to utter respect

By Paul Kimmage

Sunday Independent - 11th February 2001

A TUESDAY afternoon in Manchester. After Charlie Walker, Ron Atkinson, Eoin Hand, Jack Charlton, Alex Ferguson, two World Cups, one European Championship, four mugs of tea and a slice of carrot cake, the session is just about to end when we return, again, to The Great Contradiction. Caroline has joined him in the drawing room and the conversation has shifted from his life in the game to the retirement and their fondness for theatre.

"We've been to Oliver and Blood Brothers," Paul explains, "and enjoyed them both, but I wasn't that mad on Cats. Do you know that bit where they jump off the stage and start sniffing around the audience? I was mortified. I was hanging onto the chair. Caroline knew exactly what I was thinking and just started laughing. I was terrified they would grab my arm and drag me into the spotlight."

There were no such fears on the football field. Once he entered the arena, all the anxieties that shadowed him in life disappeared. He remembers an electric evening in Rome in the summer of 1990; the excitement in the crowd when they arrived at the Olympic stadium; the tension in the dressing room as the clock ticked down; the surge of adrenaline as they stepped from the tunnel. And the buzz, mostly he remembers the buzz.

The game had just started and Franco Baresi was on the ball. Baresi was The Maestro. Baresi was Signor Cool. McGrath decided to test him. He had this trick he used to employ at times, where he would run at a player in possession and try to unnerve him with a shout. When he barked at Baresi, there was a flicker he hadn't expected. The Italian was nervous. The world's best defender was feeling the heat.

'Hey!' McGrath thought, 'we've got a real chance here.' And though the battle was eventually conceded, nothing in life compared to the buzz of those 90 minutes. And for 16 seasons, that's mostly how it was. What he loved most about the game was pitting his wits against the players he most admired. Rolling the dice with the best in the world: Baresi, Gullit, Platini, Van Basten, Lineker, Robson: 'Okay boys, show me what you've got?'

It was only the other stuff that made him nervous. The interviews. The spotlight. Andrew Lloyd-Webber's cats.

SOMETIMES, when he tries to join the pieces of the puzzle, there are chunks missing that he can't figure out. He's had this scar on his stomach since childhood but can't remember where it came from. He's seen a photo of himself in the orphanage but the caption says it's someone else. He hears distant voices in the dormitory and is confused by the taunting ...

"Hey Nibbly."

"Hey Nobbly."

"Hey Nobilo."

"Hey you! Paul Nobilo ... what sort of a name is that?"

What sort of a name was Nobilo? He had no idea. It hadn't been explained. For the first five years of his life he was Paul McGrath; for the next six, he was to answer to Paul Nobilo and at the age of 11, he was Paul McGrath again. It was all very confusing. And all very demeaning ...

"Hey McGrath."

"Hey Nobilo."

"Hey McGrath."

"Hey Nobilo."

"Hey nigger."

"Hey nothing."

Nothing: like a name casually discarded. Nothing: like dirt on the sole of a shoe. Nothing: like a kid with no past and a very uncertain future. Nothing. Always nothing. Nothing was the only constant. Nothing made sense.

THERE was one thing the world had to understand in the autumn of '79: Paul McGrath, or Paul Nobilo or Paul Whoever-The-Hell-He-Was did not want to play football again. He was 20 and they had brought him to St Brendan's Hospital in Grangegorman after a second mental breakdown. For a month he sat in silent stupor, lost in another world. He began to develop an affinity for the hospital. St Brendan's was safe. St Brendan's was warm. St Brendan's was the next best thing to the orphanage. And there was no age limit on how long you wanted to stay!

And he wanted to stay. He wanted it desperately. He wanted to stay in that hospital bed, doped to the gills and rotting with sores until they lowered him into the ground. But every day a familiar face from his past would show up with a ball and drag him down to the lawn: Frank Mullen or Kieran Forsyth or Johnny Dunne or Tommy Cullen or John Young. His old friends. The lads from Dalkey United.

"Have a kick Paul."

He ignored them.

"Head it back Paul."

He ignored them.

"Have some chocolate Paul."

He liked chocolate.

"Thanks."

They started luring him away for walks and games on Sunday afternoons but the pull to return to hospital was always strong. "They kept chipping away at me," he says, "but I did not want to see a ball. My nerves had completely gone and I just felt it would be too much to go back playing again. I was still coming off the pills and tablets and stuff and I felt very strange. It (St Brendan's) was an horrendous place but I loved the safety of going back to it."

His friends persevered.

"Just come along to Dalkey and say hello to the lads."

"Okay, just this once."

"Just tog out for training Paul and have a bit of a kick."

"Okay, just this once."

"We're a man short on Sunday Paul. Any chance you'd help give it a go?"

"Okay, just this once."

Within six months, he was a regular again at Dalkey United. Within 18 months he was a League of Ireland player with St Pat's. Eight months later, he was on his way to Old Trafford. The legend was up and running. His name would soon be revered. But there was a part of him that never checked out of St Brendan's. A part of him still chained to that hospital bed.

BIG Paul hits the Big Time. Some early milestones ...

March, 1982: First night in Manchester.

"Joe Brown picked me up at the airport and brought me to a digs. Norman (Whiteside) and about four other lads were lazing about on the sofas. I thought, 'Oh my God, what have I let myself in for here?' Barry Kehoe had come over on the same flight and was rooming with me. If he hadn't been with me those first couple of nights, I'm not sure I'd have made it. I had never met anyone as funny. He had me in stitches."

March 1982: First view of Old Trafford.

"We (the reserves) were led around the back of this stand and started climbing these steps for what seemed like 20 minutes before we finally reached our seats. I'd been to Lansdowne Road a couple of times for rugby matches but this was something else. I thought: 'what a place this is!"'

March 1982: First time to meet Kevin Moran.

"Frank (Stapleton) and Ashley Grimes and Paddy Roche were all at United at the time. But I remember thinking when I was on my way over that I would get to meet Kevin. I'd followed him with Dublin for years and remember wondering, when he first came over, whether he'd be able to make the switch (from Gaelic games). I thought: 'if he can do it, then maybe I can do it.' Kevin gave me hope."

May 1982: First cartilage injury.

"I had just been picked to travel with the first team to Vancouver for the end of season tour when I popped my knee in our last reserve game of the season at Sheffield. It was typical. You play in Ireland with the same pair of boots for years without a problem and then come to Manchester United, where everything is catered for, and you're knackered."

November 1982: First game at Old Trafford.

"It was a league game against Spurs and I was as nervous as I've ever been. One thing sticks out. It was early in the game and I was playing at right-back when the ball landed at my feet. Chris Hughton was running at me. The easiest thing would have been to belt it straight out but with the trickery in me, I decided to try to flick it round him. And when it came off, I immediately settled down. Later, I had a shot that either cracked off the post or just grazed the bar and remember it most for the reaction of the crowd. There was this massive 'WHOO.' I thought: 'the sound effects aren't bad here.' I felt part of it straight away."

May 1983: First goal(s) for Manchester United.

"Yeah, I scored twice and Ron couldn't believe it. 'That was the worst performance I've ever seen,' he said. 'You were shit today.' He was right. It was one of the worst games I have ever played in my career. I played in midfield instead of either Bryan (Robson) or Ray Wilkins who was injured, and just kept making mistake after mistake. He was about to take me off when the ball just dropped for me and I blasted it into the back of the net. And then, from almost exactly the same position, it happened again. It was surreal."

February 1985: First cap for Ireland.

"No disrespect to Eoin, but I don't think he was ever really convinced by me. We had some great centre-backs at the time Mark Lawrenson, Dave O'Leary, Kevin (Moran), Mick (McCarthy) and he wasn't as convinced as Jack that I could play in midfield. I was thrilled to get the call for the Italy game. It was the biggest moment of my career. It meant more to me than playing for Manchester United. I admired Liam Brady so much, thought the world of him. And to be able to chat to him and walk out on the same pitch was brilliant."

February 1986: First moment he heard of Jack Charlton's appointment.

"Do you want me to be honest? I thought: 'this can't be right. What the hell are they doing appointing an Englishman."

McGRATH didn't fancy Big Jack. He had watched him from afar for years and there was something about his manner that just didn't appeal. Jack seemed gruff, a typical schoolyard bully, and schoolyard bullies had always brought out the worst in him. When he was invited to join the squad for the upcoming game against Wales, McGrath travelled to Dublin with low expectations. But despite his prejudices, and the manager's insistence on calling him "James" ...

"I don't know where he dragged that one from," McGrath smiles. "He must have known a James McGrath in his youth."

... the relationship took off, almost from day one.

He remembers their first, serious, tete-a-tete. Most players do. It was a couple of games into the new manager's tenure and McGrath was returning to his room after training when Charlton requested "a little word." He had been mulling over his options and the way the team would play and wanted McGrath to play in midfield. "You're too ***king good to be playing at centre back," he announced. "I was a centre back but I couldn't play like you. I want you to take the ball out."

But McGrath had stopped listening.

An alarm bell was tripping in his brain. The hair on his neck was standing. 'Did you hear what he said Paul? He wants you to take the ball out! He's proposing to make you captain! HE WANTS TO SEND YOU OUT IN FRONT OF LIAM BRADY, FRANK STAPLETON AND KEVIN MORAN AND MAKE YOU CAPTAIN!! Hasn't he realised yet that you don't even talk?'

He stood, nodding in agreement ...

"Okay Jack."

"Sure Jack."

"Yeah Jack."

... but his world had just been turned upside down. There could be no question of him captaining Ireland. Not now. Not ever. Jack would have to understand. He sprinted down the corridor to find Brady and Stapleton. "Look Frank," he said, "I'm not trying to be funny here but I think he's just asked me to be captain! Go and talk to him, please! Liam! Tell him what I'm like. YOU'VE GOT TO!"

"Don't worry," Brady assured him, "it will be okay."

When the two players accompanied him to see the manager, Charlton couldn't believe he had sown so much panic. "There's no problem son," he assured McGrath. "Forget about it. It's nothing. I just thought you might like to take the ball out." It was his first time to experience the other side of the Master. His first time to realise there was more to Paul than James.

A few months later, Charlton's seventh game at the helm was a friendly against Poland in Warsaw. A few hours after the 1-0 defeat, he was sitting amongst the players in the night-club of the hotel when he noticed a couple of them sniggering and pointing across the dance floor. When he glanced across, at first he thought he was seeing things. Paul McGrath, his shy, soft-spoken midfielder, was moving from table to table, smiling and chatting to people he had never met before. The man who couldn't be captain had been totally transformed.

A TYPICAL hotel room bill (circa 1987):

Telephone call

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

Telephone call

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

Telephone call

4 Budweisers

4 Budweisers

4 Budweis ...

"I FOUND him unreachable. Time and again I would have him into my office, attempting to bring home to him the damage that alcohol was doing to his life. He would sit there and just nod in agreement, then walk out the door and carry on as before, seemingly indifferent to the threat his behaviour posed to a career already jeopardised by chronic knee problems. The methods that had served me so well over the years in dealing with the serious personal difficulties of players achieved nothing with him. But I went on trying for my sake as well as his.

"I knew that a fit McGrath who had his head straight would be a huge asset to Manchester United. He was an exceptionally skilful and stylish defender, with marvellous innate athleticism, a man whose abilities stood comparison with those of any central defender in the game. But his dishevelled lifestyle had taken its toll. In the match that was my first as United manager, that 2-0 defeat at Oxford, I had been advised to play him in midfield but he did not have the stamina for the job. He was so knackered that I had to take him off. Centre-half was the right position for him and if he had given himself a chance he could have flourished there."

Alex Ferguson in Managing My Life

WHENEVER he casts his mind back to the day the damage started, he always lands in Wattenscheid in the summer of '78. The summer of '78 was a summer of firsts. First passport. First time to leave Ireland. First time to fly. First time to visit Germany. First time to stay in an hotel. First time to taste the honey-coloured syrup that would poison him for life.

It was the end of season tour to Germany and his Dalkey United team-mates, had stocked-up heavily in the airport duty free with performance-reducing supplies. McGrath had kept his money in his pocket. He didn't drink alcohol. They were forever offering him sherry and wine at Christmas but he hated the smell of the stuff.

That night, after they had checked into their hotel, a raid was planned on the local discotheque and there was no shortage of volunteers.

McGrath wanted to join them but the alarm bells were screaming in his head. 'DISCO! DANCING! GIRLS! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR TIMID MIND!'

One of his friends extended a can: "Take a swig of that Paul and you'll be grand."

He swallowed a mouthful. And another. And by the time he had finished the tin, his inhibitions had gone. After 19 years, he had finally found a tonic that made him feel normal. He stopped drinking for a year after his breakdown but resumed when he moved to Manchester in 1982. The motive hadn't changed.

"We had a routine," he says, "where we used buy a bottle on the Saturday after a game and drink it before heading off to the disco: Once we were twisted, we all talked the same."

Over the next three years, the drinking exploits of United's Gang of Five McGrath, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, Kevin Moran and Gordon McQueen became the stuff of lore in the city.

Ron Atkinson didn't intervene once the team was winning but when he was replaced by Alex Ferguson, following a dismal run in the league in November of '86, it was obvious the policy would change.

And from the moment the Scottish Presbyterian decided to confront his easy-going Irish centre-half, the relationship was doomed. "Maybe it goes back to my childhood or something," McGrath explains, "but I've always had an awful aversion to people barking at me. I'm a quiet person, and can be as nice as pie with anyone, but as soon as someone tries to crank-up the authority with me, I go the other way. Once Alex Ferguson started shouting at me, I stopped actually listening to what he was saying. I thought 'No one is doing that to me. You're not going to dominate me that way'."

McGrath ignored the orders and kept on drinking, but within a year the problem was spiralling out of control.

"By 1987, I was drinking for fun. We weren't supposed to drink two days before a game but if I went out on the Wednesday, I would wake-up feeling that bad that I would have to have a drink just to get through Thursday. And suddenly it would be Friday, the day before the game and I'd think 'You've just got to leave it alone' but inevitably I'd push it right to the limit. And then I'd run out and face top quality people who've been on pasta diets all week.

"There was a couple of times, at Villa in particular, when I'd be sitting in the dressing room before a game with the comedowns and the jitters and I'd be feeling so scared that I'd have to ask the lads for a bit of a dig-out. And they always did. But it was an horrendous way to live as a sportsman, living like that, living on the edge. Some people say there's an excitement to living on the edge but it wasn't very exciting for me. It was horrendous."

"Unreachable?" Of course he was, but what manager was ever going to reach what he had never touched himself. "A dishevelled lifestyle that had taken its toll?" No, that was the amazing bit. That's where Fergie got it wrong. Shown the door at United, his legend continued to grow.

CORNERSTONES of the Legend. The Ireland years.

March 1986: Jack Charlton's new midfielder.

"I hated it at first, kept thinking I'm out of position here but Jack wanted to use me in a certain role; to bang a few heads together and run and tackle people which I loved. There was a lovely feeling, running at a quality player and being able to anticipate where the ball was going to go. And when I'd get it, I'd give it to Liam Brady or Ronnie Whelan, the two maestros. I was the comedian's sidekick and after ten or 12 games, I really started enjoying it because it was helping the team."

May 1986: A sign of things to come.

"Iceland. That was the tournament Dave O'Leary missed. It was a simple goal really but for me that tournament has great significance. I know it was a Mickey Mouse competition but it was great just to go there and win something, great to come away with that little Cup. I remember one of the FAI lads made a speech about it being the start of something huge and I think a lot of the lads felt that way. There was a great coming together there, a great bonding. It was great to see the excitement of all the officials. And it did lead to bigger and better things."

June 1988: Olé, Olé, etcetera.

"Germany (The European Championships) was the start of it all. It gave us all such a lift that the fans behaved so well. I used to get a real surge of pride when I'd hear that the German people were arm-in-arm with the Irish and giving them sandwiches. It was all so spontaneous. Nothing was arranged. We were all in it together. And even though I was a bit withdrawn, you just couldn't help getting caught up in the thing.

"I played poorly in the England game and to be honest should have come off. I had a shot after about seven minutes and felt my standing knee go 'click' and I limped for the rest of the game. I missed the Russia game and probably should have missed the game against Holland but I was desperate to play. I should have scored in that one; hit the post with a header from about three yards out a chance I would have taken, nine times out of ten. But it was great just being there."

June 1990: First World Cup (England).

"If I had to pick one (from the tournament) it would be the England game. That was always such a big one for us. There was a fair bit of banter at the club in the run-up; you'd bump into Tony Adams or John Barnes on the circuit and it would be "payback time". There was a real sense they were out for revenge. When we went behind, I thought: 'Oh God, maybe they are going to score two or three,' but we gritted our teeth and back we came."

June 1990: First World Cup (Romania).

"My abiding memory that day is of Dave O'Leary. That was his moment. To have the bottle to start organising the thing (the penalty shoot-out) and then to take one himself that, for me, was fantastic. Dave a great player for Ireland over the years and I don't think he deserved to be treated the way he was. Jack was very harsh on him for something so trivial. It was a great achievement for him to come back and stand up that day, the way he did."

June 1990: First World Cup (Italy).

"Too many of our lads and myself probably included thought that game was our final. I remember, when I first heard we were playing them, thinking 'What a good game for us to go out on'. I don't think we really believed in ourselves enough. It wasn't until I started chasing one or two of them around that I realised how worried they were until they scored. Overall, they deserved to win but I just feel that on another night, if we'd believed in ourselves more, we might have done it."

June 1990: First World Cup (Overview)

"I don't think any of them were great football games but we held our own. And we played better football than we had over the years and knocked it around a bit more but a lot of it wasn't pretty. I remember feeling quite depressed about it afterwards. I thought 'I'm 30 years old. I will never get as far in a competition again'. But if we'd beaten Italy in Rome that would have been me finished: 'Go on youse and play the semis'. I'd have hung up my boots."

JUST when he thought he had reached the abyss, there was always another level to fall. In October of 1990, with his marriage on the rocks and his life unravelling, McGrath travelled to Dublin early one weekend before the start of a European Championship game with Turkey.

A binge that began before he left Birmingham airport on Friday, ended after midnight on the eve of the game, when he was finally located in a house in the Dublin suburbs and returned to the hotel.

A few hours later, as he joined his team-mates on the coach for the journey to Lansdowne Road, McGrath was overcome with remorse.

"Things were pretty bad at the time and there was a whole load of stuff going on. I came over early that weekend to do (record) a song and had a drink and then another drink and before I knew where I was, I was sitting on the coach, on the way to the ground. I thought 'I can't do it. I can't play. I'm going to make an unholy show of myself'. And decided the safest thing to do was just not get off the bus.

"So we got to the ground and the rest of the lads got off and I just sat for a while down the back until Jack arrived. He was in shock. 'For f**k's sake Paul,' he says, 'just come in and sit in the dressing room. And if you can't play then fine but just walk in with me'. But I was thinking 'Well, once you've refused to get off the bus, you can't really go back on it, can you? All of the lads are going to know you stayed on the bus'. And it became a big embarrassment."

"I said 'No Jack, I can't'. He said 'Your international career is finished if you don't get off the bus'. I said 'My international career is finished then'. But I eventually decided to walk in with him. Eddie Corcoran was asked to drive me back to the hotel. The sweat was pumping out of me. People were smiling as I walked through the crowds to the car but the smiles were like daggers. I really felt I had let them down.

"Eddie dropped me back to my room and then when Jack came back later, I was under the blankets shaking, with buckets of sweat coming out of me. I couldn't believe it when he apologised: 'I'm sorry son. I didn't realise'. It really made me feel better. I thought 'At least he understands that this is not just a game I'm playing'.

"I used to think you could just refuse it and that nothing would happen. But the pull or the draw of it is just horrendous. The things it makes you do and the places it makes you go, it's horrendous. And at that stage it really was horrendous. A lot of people just think it's a lack of willpower, but if they could see you in that state. I don't think anyone would want to go where I was at that stage."

TONY CASCARINO was sitting beside McGrath on the coach that afternoon. "It was one of the unspoken rules on the team, that we never spoke to the papers about Paul. We protected him. He was family. We all knew he had problems but it never changed what we thought of him. Everybody put him on a pedestal because he was the way he was.

"He was such a gifted player. In all my years with the team, I don't ever remember him getting the yellow jersey in training (awarded daily to the worst player) even after he'd been out for a drink!

"And unlike almost every other footballer I know, you'd never hear him bragging about a goal he'd scored, his rating in the paper or how well he'd played. And everybody loved him for it."

THREE years after the Turkey game, in May of 1993, Caroline Lambe was sitting alone one evening in a Liverpool bar, when this guy she had never set eyes on before started chatting her up. He was obnoxious. A real mouth. And he couldn't take a hint.

'Of all the bars in all the world,' she thought. But the guy sitting next to him seemed nice. Loud mouth kept pointing to him like he was some kind of star.

"Do you not know who this is luv? Have you never heard of Paul McGrath?"

Embarrassed, McGrath glanced across and gave her a smile.

He didn't know it at the time, but he'd just had his first big break.

 

 

The Lion in Winter

By Paul Kimmage

Sunday Independent - 18th February 2001

 

PAUL McGRATH always dreaded the thought of retirement. When the crash finally came, in the summer of '98, it was more brutal than he had ever imagined and for a while those closest to him feared the worst. And then, on the eve of his 39th birthday, a package arrived from Dublin. It was a video. An old children's classic. Someone had sent him a copy of The Wizard of Oz. PAUL KIMMAGE concludes a remarkable story.

THE American actor, Sean Penn, once noted that "the greatest violence is when you attack somebody with the notion that they're hopeless; that they can't change. That is violence." Paul McGrath would certainly agree. From 1964, when he first entered the orphanage, to 1993, when he was announced The Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year, McGrath subjected himself to the greatest violence. The Player of the Year? They had to be joking. He was nothing. He would always be nothing. It would never change.

He remembers standing with Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs at the awards ceremony in London.

'If they only knew the real me they'd know I don't deserve this.'

He remembers being presented with crystal as the FAI Player of the Year.

'You're stealing this.'

He remembers entering a ballroom once with some of the world's great players.

'There's Kenny Dalglish! And Gary Lineker! And Liam Brady! What are you doing here?'

And then he met Caroline and the therapy began.

It's a Wednesday afternoon in January and the interview has moved from the kitchen to the front sitting room where her fingerprints are everywhere. All those crystal vases and trophies he collected over the years? She has them shining and displayed prominently on shelves. All the photographs and glowing newspaper tributes? She's had them framed and mounted on the walls so that every time he enters the room there is no escaping the message.

There's a photo of him standing with Pele, Bryan Robson and Liam Brady at Wembley in 1987 when he was selected to play for the Football League in a centenary game against the Rest of the World ...

Who's that standing with Paul McGrath?

A photo of him clutching the Player of the Year award flanked by Giggs and Bobby Charlton ...

You are every bit as good as them ...

A framed Sunday Independent tribute: 'McGrath: The Genuine Article' by Eamon Dunphy.

Read what it says Paul! 'He belongs with Pele, Best and Charlton (Bobby) in that special place reserved in our hearts for the very greatest'.

A magnificent portrait of a defining moment from his finest hour, steering the ball from Guiseppe Signori at Giants Stadium, New Jersey in June of 1994 ...

Be proud of who you are!

"He used to be so nervous meeting up with people," Caroline says. "I remember him coming home one time after he had been away with the Irish lads and saying, 'Gary Kelly kept looking at me across the dinner table.' A few weeks later there was an interview with Gary in one of the papers where he said, 'I can't believe I'm in the same dressing room as Paul McGrath.' I showed it to Paul. 'Look, that's why he was staring at you. He looks up to you.' He's a lot better now but when I met him first it was incredible; he never had any confidence when it came to meeting other people."

1: HE was sitting close to Dalian Atkinson in the dressing room. It was the last week of March, 1994 and the Aston Villa training ground at Bodymoor Heath was humming with big match buzz. Outside, the car park was heaving with excited supporters. Inside, Andy Townsend was holding court with his latest stand-up routine.

Tomorrow, they were travelling down to London where a capacity crowd was expected for Sunday's League Cup final. It was Villa's first Wembley final for 17 years but for Paul McGrath there was another incentive: They were playing Manchester United ...

Five years had passed since his acrimonious exit from Old Trafford and though he had proved Alex Ferguson wrong, the wounds hadn't healed. The closer he got to the game, the more the prospect of putting one over on his former manager appealed. It wouldn't be easy. United were cruising in the league, dominating the (FA) Cup and all set-up for a unique "treble."

'Imagine if we beat them.' McGrath mused. 'What a result that would be! What a kick-up Fergie's arse!'

He turned to Atkinson, Villa's erratic but prodigiously talented striker. "Come on Dalian," he urged, "you've got to pull one out of the bag for me on Sunday." He desperately wanted to win.

2: WAS The Man Upstairs a Scottish Presbyterian? Was he being punished for his uncharitable thoughts? It certainly seemed that way. Two days later, in the early hours of the morning of the final, he awoke with a terrible pain. "It was as if someone had plunged a hot poker into my shoulder," he explains. "I ran to Jim Walker's (the Villa physiotherapist) room, and he gave me some paracetamol and sent me back to bed but I was up for the rest of the night. I was in agony."

Aided by a series of pain killing injections, McGrath declared himself fit for the final and played his usual pivotal role at the heart of the Villa defence. Dalian Atkinson pulled one out of the bag; United were defeated 3-1 but, for McGrath, the joy of victory was short-lived as within an hour of leaving the field the pain in his shoulder had returned.

Sidelined for the month of April with what his doctors described as a viral infection that could take a year to clear his system, McGrath began to worry he might miss the World Cup. He returned for Villa's last two league games of the season but was dropped by Jack Charlton two weeks later for the friendly against Bolivia. The manager had noticed him "carrying" his arm in training and was worried about his fitness. "If it doesn't improve," he warned, "I can't take you." McGrath started to panic.

There was one more game - a friendly against Germany in Hanover on May 29 - before the panel of 22 was chosen. McGrath came through the 90 minutes unscathed and secured his ticket. But as the opening game against Italy loomed, Charlton continued to monitor his progress. "Ronnie Whelan was giving me terrible stick during the build-up," McGrath recalls. "I couldn't lift my arm above my head. It was almost paralysed but every time we'd warm up before training, Ronnie would be at me like a parrot: 'Come on Paul, roll your shoulders, roll your shoulders.' He thought it was hilarious."

On a stifling afternoon in New Jersey, on Saturday, June 18, McGrath marched out to face Italy for the third and final time of his career. Cometh the hour, cometh the man: there was something about the Azzuri that always brought out the best in him.

3: BUT if those gathering in the Burlington Hotel to honour Paul tonight really want to know what greatness is they should watch a video of Ireland's World Cup encounter with Italy in Giants Stadium, New York, last June. On that day more exquisitely than any other, Paul McGrath testified to the qualities of courage, intelligence and wit that are the essence of greatness in any man. For the people of both nations this was more than a game. National character was on the line. Self-esteem would be assessed on the basis of the result: ridiculous, primitive, but true.

The great and good were present to bear witness. Two nations watched on television. The anguish would be real as would the joy of this day. Much responsibility weighted on young shoulders, too much. The humidity descended like a clammy shroud over the arena, the atmosphere was fraught, the air thick with hope. and fear. The match began fitfully. The frenzy of the audience generated errors on the pitch. Even great players like Maldini, Baresi and Roberto Baggio seemed frail against this day.

Ireland were fortunate to secure an early goal, thanks to Ray Houghton's eager love of conflict, and some gremlin in the air that caused a harmless shot to dip insanely over the Italian 'keeper's head. Now battle commenced in earnest. The Italians moved up a gear, Ireland defended their advantage rather tentatively. Roy Keane was splendidly aggressive. But through the middle period of the first half, one could feel the tide turning in Italy's favour.

Then there was a moment that changed everything, a moment that coloured indelibly what would subsequently happen on a day we will never forget. Ireland were defending stoutly, but danger lurked as with each forward thrust the Italians became ever more cohesive. Just inside his own half, the ball fell to Paul McGrath who was stalked by two Italian players.

He might have lunged. panicked. or lofted the ball aimlessly away from trouble. Instead this great footballer chose the moment of maximum peril to send a signal to his opponents by deftly flicking the ball to a green shirt in space. Simple yet inspiring insouciance, the response settled Irish nerves and surely cast a shadow over the enemy's aspirations for this day. - Eamon Dunphy 'McGrath: The Genuine Article'

4: McGRATH was 35-years-old when he walked off the field that afternoon at Giants Stadium but retirement was still a distant cloud on another horizon. He married Caroline a month later, enjoyed two successful seasons at Villa (winning a second League Cup with a 3-0 success in the final over Leeds) and rewarded himself with a holiday to Sardinia. It was the summer of '96 and as he relaxed by the pool with his family at the end of his 15th season, he began to reflect on the areas of his game that were starting to fray.

The high balls he once soared to with such assurance were no longer automatically won. Those critical interceptions with his feet, for so long the Master's trademark, weren't always as impeccably timed. His ability to read the game was better than ever, but what good was anticipation when the ball was played in behind and he was three strides down on Ryan Giggs? No, he would have to work harder. Class was no longer enough. He would start that evening with a session in the gym.

When the new season began, McGrath was in the best shape of his life but was ironically dropped for Villa's opening game. The manager, Brian Little, had decided to invest in the future: Gareth Southgate (26) and Ugo Ehiogu (24) would form the pillars of his defence. Confined to the bench for the next two months, McGrath watched with growing impatience: deep down he knew he was still good enough and when the opportunity arose to sign for Derby in October, he jumped at it.

The records show he made 23 league appearances for Jim Smith that season. They also show that Derby's advance to the fifth round of the FA Cup was at the expense of a certain Aston Villa. They do not record McGrath's inspiring contribution to that game (revenge always brought out the devil in him). Nor do they record what many observers regard as one of the outstanding moments of the season.

In the second week of January, 1997, Derby travelled to Wimbledon desperate for a result. With the game poised at 1-1, McGrath was just inside his own half when he miss-hit a pass that was immediately intercepted by the lightning Efan Ekuko. Three strides down before he turned to race back, he caught the Wimbledon striker on the edge of the penalty area and whipped the ball to safety with a perfectly timed slide that had to be seen to be believed.

It was, as one witness observed, a classic example for the coaching manuals: the perfect turn, the perfect chase, the perfect tackle. But there was another lesson in that classic intervention, one McGrath preaches regularly when advising aspiring kids: "even the great players make mistakes but it's how they bounce back from them that counts."

Six months after the Wimbledon game McGrath signed a one-year deal at Sheffield United and prepared for his first season in Division 1. After opening with a convincing 2-0 win over Sunderland at home, McGrath steeled himself for the trip to Wolverhampton a week later where he would face the division's newest and deadliest strike force.

Steve Bull was a goal-scoring legend at Wolves; Robbie Keane, a 17-year-old whizzkid who had hit the target twice on his debut the week before. McGrath knew Bull and had heard all the rumours about 'I'll-twist-you-inside-out,' his promising new sidekick. As he ran out to warm up the old adrenaline was pumping. This was the addiction. This was what it had always been about; from Richmond Park to Giants Stadium; from Alan Shearer to Roberto Baggio; 16 years of measuring himself against the best.

Bull and Keane threw everything they had at him from the kick-off but it wasn't enough. Bull was substituted. Keane walked off with a blank. The headlines the following morning belonged to the veteran: 'Lesson for Keane from the Master'. The kid was good, but he just wasn't ready for Paul yet.

The sun was shining that afternoon in Molineux and as he sat back in the dressing room and wiped the beads of sweat from his face, a game had never felt sweeter. He wanted to go on forever. But the end was just around the corner. And 12 months later, he would wake-up in St Pat's, shivering and shaking and about to self-destruct.

Retire, retire into a fungus basement

Where nothing moves except the draught

And the light and dark grey figures

Doubling their money on the screen;

Where the cabbages taste like the mummy's hand

And the meat tastes of feet;

Where there is nothing to say except:

'Remember?' or 'Your turn to dust the cat.'

- Adrian Mitchell, 'Old Age Report'

6: PAUL McGRATH dreaded retirement. It was a still too distant cloud and he wasn't going to consider it. "Even when my knees were giving me trouble," he says, "I always thought there'd be a way back for me; that even if I had to drop down a division I'd find a team and keep on playing. It was always 'I'll squeeze one more year out of it.' You never wanted to admit that the day would come when you'd say 'that was my last game.'

Eight weeks after his fine performance at Wolves, McGrath lined out against QPR at Bramall Lane. "I've never played a game like it," he says. "It was embarrassing. None of the things that used to come off regularly for me - anticipating, stopping the ball, playing the little flicks - were working. Every ball that came to me I passed to their striker. I'd had bad games before but never one like this one. After, the lads kept asking me, 'what was all that about?' I hadn't a clue. I think someone up there was trying to tell me something: 'you've played this game long enough."'

Perhaps, but he still wasn't listening. Three days after the QPR game, he had recovered most of his faculties in the 5-1 trouncing of Stockport. The following weekend he played again in the 2-1 defeat at West Brom. Absent from the next two games through injury, he returned to first team duty for the 2-2 draw at Ipswich. The date was Sunday, November 9; there were 9,695 people at Portman Road and they had just witnessed the final act of a remarkable career.

"I had no idea walking off that I'd just played my last game. My knee had been giving me trouble for a while and needed another clean-out. I had it opened and started training again but it wasn't right. I was hobbling around but it just wasn't happening for me and it was soon obvious that I wasn't coming back from this one. If I had kept on pushing, I would have had serious problems and I wanted to be able to play with the boys out the back."

Christmas came and went and the first months of retirement were almost enjoyable. In May, a capacity crowd packed Lansdowne Road for his testimonial and a week later, when all the loose ends had been tied, McGrath settled down to the rest of his life.

The fungus basement.

'The boys will be heading back for pre-season training soon.'

World Cup '98.

'Remember Paul?'

The deafening silence of morning.

'Christ I've got to do something!'

His turn to dust the cat.

He started drinking heavily again. In the five years since meeting Caroline he had managed to keep the disease reasonably in check but retirement had stoked up some old demons and by the end of July it was out of control. Caroline was distraught. Sick with worry and unsure where to turn, she called Christy Moore and asked if there was anyone he could recommend. And Moore immediately arranged a visit with Dr Patrick Nugent.

"The first time I met Patrick," McGrath explains, "was up at his house. I was in the throes of an horrendous comedown and his wife Sybilla gave me a cup of tea but my hands were shaking so badly I couldn't pick it up. But Patrick was amazing. I don't know what it was about him but from that very first meeting, he seemed to be able to look inside of me.

"He was leaving for a holiday in America the next day but he phoned me every single day he was away, bar none. And he'd be on the phone for an hour! He was able to tell me exactly how I was feeling and basically lived my life for me those first few weeks. 'Now I know you feel this way and I know you're thinking about this and I know you're ashamed of that ... ' and I'd put down the phone thinking someone had massaged my brain!"

The massage continued over the winter. One night, towards the end of November, they were chatting over another fresh pot of Sybilla's tea when the doctor suddenly announced: "You know, you remind me of someone and it's been nagging me for weeks but I just can't put my finger on it." But before the end of the night it had come to him.

"Do you know what you need Paul?" he smiled.

"What's that?" McGrath replied.

"The courage."

"The courage?"

"Yeah, the courage! The courage to live as you've played. The courage to shove your chest out and tell the world who you are. You remind me of that bloody big lion in The Wizard of Oz."

"Oh!" McGrath smiled, "I haven't heard that one before."

A week later, on the eve of his 38th birthday, a package arrived from Dublin in the post. It was a message from his favourite doctor. A copy of The Wizard of Oz.

7: Cowardly Lion: "All right, I'll go in for Dorothy; Wicked witch or no Wicked witch; guards or no guards; I'll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I'm going in there . . . There's only one thing I want you fellows to do."

Tin Woodman and Scarecrow: "What's that?"

Cowardly Lion: "Talk me out of it."

- The Wizard of Oz

8: PATRICK NUGENT, a native of Murroe in County Limerick, was no ordinary General Practitioner. In his book “One Voice, My Life in Song”, Christy Moore pens the following tribute: "Over and above his skills as a GP he had a deep insight into the human condition and he had a particular love and understanding for the weak ones in his care.

"For most of my life as a performer I always maintained that the work was so pleasurable that it could not be difficult. I used this theory to fool myself. Patrick pointed out to me the pleasures and pitfalls of my occupation and I believed him when he spoke of the pressure of trying to fulfill people's expectations night after night, of trying to reach the lofty heights I felt were necessary. When I tumbled Patrick put me together again."

In the winter of '98, Nugent began the reconstruction of Paul McGrath. Drink wasn't the problem, he would have to confront the layers underneath. And once they had started shining some light on those dark corridors, the things he had never understood ... locking himself in his room away from his team-mates ... feigning happiness during the celebrations after the 1985 FA Cup ... the isolation he had felt gazing from the window of the coach at Giants Stadium: 'is this really happening?' ... began to make sense.

"Alex Ferguson had said it years before. I had this self-destruct thing and it was as if all of the good stuff that was happening in my life counted for nothing. I used to get so embarrassed when I was presented with a trophy or an award. I used to feel I was stealing them. I'd think: 'If they only knew the real me, they'd know I don't deserve this.' It was very strange.

"I've had this really amazing life but for years I couldn't help feeling it was meant for someone else ... that I had slipped into a role. I'd think: 'Well, you're not actually supposed to be here. And this isn't supposed to be happening to you but just say nothing, go along with it.' I felt I had cheated someone along the way.

"At the Irish football dos, I used to beg them to tell me who'd won. I was terrified when they'd say 'Paul McGrath.' I'd think 'Oh my God, there's a lot of people sitting here and they know you're cheating.' But with the help of Patrick and the help of Christy and the help of my family and Caroline especially, I've been getting to grips with it and am learning to accept the stuff that went on."

Within a few months of their first introduction, McGrath's relationship with Nugent had bonded into friendship. When Ellis was born, they asked Patrick and Sybilla to be the godparents and by the spring of '99, the future wasn't nearly as bleak as it had seemed before. But that summer, the doctor suddenly took ill with cancer and before the onset of winter he was gone. For McGrath, Moore and the countless other lives the remarkable doctor had touched, it was a devastating blow.

"It just seemed so unfair," Caroline says. "I know it was unfair for Sybilla and for Patrick's family but for Paul ... that he should finally find the person he'd been looking for and then have him taken away ... "

"Right up until the end," Paul says, "he was still scolding me and arranging for people to give me little messages. I'd go up to see him in the hospital and he'd be still chipping away at me: 'You've got to make sure you don't do this' and 'watch it doing that.' He was just unbelievable.

"I used to think I was unique; that The Man Upstairs had never made anyone like me before: 'A black Irish fellow!' That no one had ever felt the way I feel but Patrick helped me understand that loads of people feel the way I feel and that it's how you deal with it that's important. I still think of him a lot, even now. It hasn't been easy without him and I still have a long way to go but I still feel he's helping me. And I'm getting there."

9: MEET the family: "The Boys" by Paul.

Ellis (2): "The baby. The little imp of the family. He loves being the centre of attention. He plays on the fact that he's the baby and you can never get him out of his Everton shirt."

Paul (5): "The brains of the family. Full of confidence and very intelligent, loves to work everything out. There used to be a fellow in a comic 'Why Dad why?' Well, that's Paul. There's about a hundred questions I get asked before I get him to school."

Jordan (11): "Hard work ... ahh no, he's a love. He causes a lot of mischief in school but he is very good hearted. You have to keep at him though or he won't do a tap."

Mitchell (13): "Mr Smooth. I've never been on holiday with Mitchell when he hasn't picked up at least five birds. Again, he's a character and very like Ellis when he was a baby: a little showman and he hasn't changed much. Plays rugby for his school and wants to play for England one day. We'll see about that!"

Christopher (16): "Hmmm Christopher. Where do I start with Christopher?"

10: A BITTERLY cold morning in December. We are shivering by the side of a pitch at the Liverpool Academy watching Christopher McGrath play football. If you've never seen Christopher McGrath play football (he played for Ireland's under 16s against Norway in Drogheda during the week), you won't need the number of his shirt to find him on the field: looks like his Dad; shuffles like his Dad; hangs his head like his Dad; plays in the same position as his Dad.

"If you study them facially you can see the differences," Caroline says, "but when you look at the overall, sometimes, when I'm kneeling down and he walks into the room, I can't get a presence. I can't tell whether it's Chris or his Dad. It's his body and the way he walks ... but he just doesn't have the same aggression."

"His heading is his biggest weakness," Paul concurs. "I think he's afraid of getting a kick on the face or someone holding an elbow up. But I talk to him regularly about it: 'Don't be afraid to stick your head in. Run at the ball and jump your highest and try to put your head on it', but it's the one thing he's not doing great at the moment."

Steve Heighway, the director of football at the academy, marches down the touchline. There are four games being played simultaneously in the complex. He's on his way to watch the under 17s. He picks out Paul from the parents on the rails and gives his fellow international a nod. "He's doing a very good job here," Paul observes. "I've watched him coaching the kids and he puts everything into it."

The game finishes 1-0 to Liverpool. Christopher is substituted with ten minutes to go and we scurry back to the warmth of the car. "He didn't play particularly well today," Paul says, "but there are other days when he's been the best player out there and I've got really excited. I shouldn't I suppose. I know the percentage of kids that make it and am always telling him his studies come first. But it does give me a thrill to see him doing so well. I'm very proud of him. He's a decent human being and a lovely lad."

The "other" Liverpool are also in action this morning. They've just gone 1-0 up against United at Old Trafford and we journey back to Knutsford, transfixed by Five Live's commentary from the game. There was a time when a 1-0 lead for Liverpool would have brightened up his day. Not any more. The old grievances with his former manager have been well and truly buried.

"Alex Ferguson has been brilliant to me recently. For years, we used walk by each other, turning heads; I'd turn one way and he'd turn the other ... but over the last three years he has really been decent. At a time when he was so big he could have easily washed his hands of me, but he invited me to his testimonial and will always stop me now and have a bit of chat and that's lovely.

"I hated having that (bad feeling) hanging over us. It was horrible. I hated the fact that I couldn't even say hello to him. It was bad to have that hanging over you for six or seven years. But that's lifted from us now and as a result, a bit of the old feeling towards Old Trafford has come back. I love going down there now and still get a great reception from the supporters."

11: THIS is how the interview ends. We're back at the house and he has followed me into the Trophy room and found me gaping at the classic shot with Signori at Giants Stadium. The essence of greatness? He isn't convinced.

"This was early in the game," he says, "and I'd hardly had the chance to warm up when this ball was played in behind me and I had to turn and chase. Signori started a couple of strides behind me. He was on fire that season. I thought, 'if I don't get to this, we're in trouble.' I could sense him getting closer. We were five yards from the ball and I thought, 'you're going to have to lunge and try to get your toe on it.' And luckily I just managed to get there before him."

"Everybody says that was your finest hour?"

"I don't know ... I think footballers have those sort of days when every ball put in lands directly on their skull. When I look back on that game I'm amazed I was even playing in it. It just seems ridiculous that I even tried to play in a World Cup game with my shoulder the way it was, but it was just such a thrill to be there."

No Paul, the thrill was all ours.

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