Reflecting on the storied careers of Irish soccer greats, Green Giants is a feature that will be written by SWAI members, tapping into their knowledge, experience and interaction with some of the best players to pull on a Republic of Ireland jersey.
This latest profile is on former defender/midfielder Paul McGrath.
By Emmet Malone (Irish Times)
Paul McGrath’s international career may have started and ended amid mayhem off the field, but oh the glories that came in between.
In 1985, the problems weren’t his; Dalymount Park had been filled well beyond capacity for the visit of the then World champions, Italy, and very few of those present would have really appreciated the significance of what they were witnessing when Eoin Hand threw on the 25-year-old to make his debut as a replacement for Mark Lawrenson.
Few who knew anything about him doubted that he had ability even then but not many appreciated the scale of it. I’ve missed the signs with my fair share of players down the years, but I like to think I was on the McGrath bandwagon from the early days having first encountered him when he was turning heads at Dalkey United and I was on one of the club’s youth teams.
I was even on the ill-fated trip to Germany where he first drank and realised he rather liked the stuff. I knew nothing of that at the time, having stayed with the family of a local player and seen little or nothing of what the seniors got up to, but I heard the talk, constantly, of what a star McGrath could be and the affection with which club officials like Frank Mullen spoke of the troubled 20-year-old.
Even then McGrath seemed embarrassed by how well he was regarded. His discomfort with the attention seemed to make him all the more likeable at the time but, of course, it didn’t auger well for a player who was going to be one of the finest of his generation.
Drink became a default coping mechanism and his problems were compounded by injuries – especially knee injuries – that sidelined him at times but more often simply left him playing through the pain barrier. Most of us just saw his willingness to play when unfit to do so as one more reason to admit McGrath but what few of us knew at the time was that he spent much of his time living through the pain and his ability to play top-level football in England for so long was, even allowing for his many talents, is something close to miraculous.
Still, it’s worth dwelling on those talents. McGrath tells in his remarkable biography, Back from the Brink, of his difficulties in school but his reading of the game suggested something close to genius. He was strong in the air and a brilliant timer of a tackle. He was wonderfully calm and composed with the ball at his feet, a good decision maker and a terrific passer. Most of all, though, the way he played suggested that, for him, it was all sort of going on in slow motion.
McGrath clearly saw things unfolding a moment before anyone else and so started reacting a little sooner. His style was forever languid, though, and so he was endlessly surprising you with what he did because, in truth, he regularly looked as though he was about to screw up but whether playing centre-half or, as he regularly did for the Republic of Ireland, defensive midfield, he simply never did.
‘Paul was probably the best player I ever played with,’ Mick McCarthy told Vincent Hogan, who wrote Back from the Brink with McGrath. ‘He made it look so bloody easy. He was quick as anybody, yet he was always unhurried. He never looked under any pressure at all.’
It’s hard to imagine what sort of career McGrath might have had now. The demands are different, even more intense perhaps, but clubs are better at bringing through and looking after their players now than they were then. The bubble that the game’s greatest players inhabit might just have suited him and certainly his injuries would have been better addressed.
As it is, he played for more than a decade at the very highest level and having won the PFAI Player of the Year award for his one and only season in the League of Ireland, with St Patrick’s Athletic in 1982, he picked up its English equivalent in 1993, some four years after Alex Ferguson had effectively decided he was more trouble than he was worth at Manchester United, where the first suggestion was that he take a pay off and retire.
McCarthy reluctantly came to the same conclusion after McGrath got so drink at Ireland’s team hotel in early 1997 that he was unfit to travel to Macedonia where, as it turned out, they really could have done with him at his best.
He owed none of us anything by that stage. He had played 83 times for his country, mostly with enormous distinction and some of his performances at Ireland’s three major championships (Euro ’88, Italia ’90, USA ’94) rank right up there in terms of the sporting history of this nation.
Some others, towards the end, might have been better had he not been struggling in one way or another with his demons but his very flaws, including his inability to construct a hard-nosed persona to hide them, only seemed to make more popular. Certainly the Aston Villa supporters hold him in high regard for his admirable service with the club.
Ireland may, it’s arguable perhaps, have produced one or two better players down the years but most, especially the only recent contender, Roy Keane, divide opinion to one extent or another. What we have surely never done is produce one who is more likeable and universally liked.
And while that might not count for too much in sport, it should surely always be cherished in the wider world.