Football’s Great Hell Raisers #1 – Paul McGrath

Football has been graced by the exploits of many flawed genius’s – George Best, Diego Maradona and Paul Gascoigne to name three. They were all creative maestros and their off-field problems were almost expected. They were mavericks. Surely a defensive hard man could not be described in the same vein? Think again, because many who saw Paul McGrath play certainly described him as a genius and he also unquestionably suffered much turmoil away from his football. The former Manchester United and Aston Villa centre-back struggled with alcoholism but that did not stop him from becoming one of the best defenders of his generation. He was cultured, classy, quick and strong and had the uncanny ability to read the game quicker than most of his peers. One quote famously said of his abilities: “Defending is known as the devil of football, McGrath makes it seem like a work of art.” Like all of football’s flawed genius’s, fans just loved watching McGrath play.

The Irishman, who went on to make 83 appearances for his country, had a hard start in life. His mother, Betty McGrath, fell pregnant to a Nigerian medical student and, certain that her father would be very angry, she fled to England and put her son into foster care. This did not last long though and he was soon sent to an orphanage in Dublin where he was very badly treated. When he had grown up McGrath started work as an apprentice sheet metal worker and security guard before he started playing football full-time for the League of Ireland club, St Patrick’s, in 1981. During his one season with the club he was named PFAI Player of the Year.

This helped earn him a move to Old Trafford when United were managed by Ron Atkinson. Because of McGrath’s ability on the ball he was often used in midfield during his seven years in Manchester but his alcohol problems worsened and so, too, did the knee injuries that had plagued his career. He fell out of favour when Sir Alex Ferguson took charge and was sold to Villa in 1989. He was absolutely adored by the Villa fans and his contribution in his first season helped the West Midlands club to a second placed finish in the league. He earned the nickname of ‘God’ at Villa Park and, despite his injury problems persisting, went on to make 322 outings for the Birmingham club. He had brief spells with Derby County and Sheffield United before retiring in 1998.

McGrath admitted that he often took to the pitch while drunk and his alcohol problems continued after his playing days had ended. The depths of his illness were recounted in his autobiography, aptly titled, ‘Back From The Brink.’ Shortly after its release three years ago the troubled star gave his opinion on how tough it was to write about some of his past.

He told the Independent: “When I read the proofs back I thought ‘Jesus, what sort of a human are you, that you can do these sorts of things?’ I think even a few people close to me were shocked. I was sick, which is not a great excuse, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I’d get depressed, then heap alcohol on top, which is a depressant itself. And I ended up doing some of the most ridiculous things imaginable considering that I have [six] children. I’m blessed that they’re being brought up in a great manner.”

Interestingly, the book is sub-titled, “The Story of Ireland’s Greatest Ever Footballer.” A statement that many would agree with, but McGrath’s fantastic talent is also accompanied by unfaltering modesty – a trait only adds to his popularity. He was not so sure about it.

He said: “I didn’t see it until the book was finished, and then I thought ‘why did they have to put in something like that?’ If I was a Roy Keane, a Liam Brady, a Johnny Giles, a Ronnie Whelan, I’d have been insulted. But I’m sure those fellas would look at it and say ‘it’s obvious Paul didn’t want this on the front of his book’. No, Jesus Christ, in some ways I think that might put people off buying it. But the people who know me, they know I wouldn’t say something like that. Jesus, not in a million years.”