There’s never been a defender quite like Paul McGrath. A player who faced a lot of challenges throughout his career but managed to surmount every obstacle in his path, endearing himself to the fans and fighting through the physical and psychological barriers of multiple injuries and issues, McGrath made his mark as one of England’s strongest ever centre backs in every sense of the word.
Born in London to an Irish mother, Paul’s childhood followed an unusual path. His father wasn’t around for his birth and his overwhelmed mother gave him up to a foster family. McGrath would go on to spend his younger years being passed around between several Dublin orphanages, turning to the football pitch as a way to escape from the difficulties of his troubled home life.
Like many Irish players, he took his first professional steps into the footballing world with an Irish club. He turned out for St. Patrick’s Athletic for just one season, instantly impressing as he was awarded the PFAI Player of the Year Award and caught the eye of Manchester United, who snapped him up in 1982, while Big Ron Atkinson was in charge.
Similarly to Roy Keane, it didn’t take long for McGrath to make his name known around the stands at Old Trafford, forging a fearsome partnership alongside fellow countryman Kevin Moran, while also being used now and again in midfield due to his versatility and skillset. An indefatigable presence at the heart of defence, McGrath stood out for his awareness, composure, and intelligent reading of the game.
He spent several seasons at United, winning one FA Cup, but recurrent knee injuries and off-field issues led to the Red Devils letting him go. It was at his second Premier League club, Aston Villa that McGrath would really come into his own. The Irishman and the Second City side were a match made in heaven, and McGrath played the best football of his career at Villa Park, while also starting to excel at international level too.
He’d already stood out at Euro 1988, Ireland’s first ever international tournament, but was even stronger at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, with the latter tournament featuring one of McGrath’s finest hours as Ireland won 1-0 against Italy. The centre back was suffering with knee pain for the whole game but fought through it all to make his country proud.
Knee injuries were a recurrent problem for McGrath, who would go on to win two League Cups with Villa and help them to some impressive Premier League placings, including second spot in the 1992-93 season under Big Ron again. He also became one of the only Irish players to ever win the prestigious Players’ Player of the Year award.
His knees were eventually in such a state that he was unable to train, often doing little more than 10 minutes on an exercise bike to stay fit. These sorts of physical problems would have spelled the end of many a career, but McGrath’s commitment and dedication saw him star for Villa for seven seasons.
As well as his injuries, McGrath has also had to deal with alcoholism throughout his life. He’s been admirably open about his personal battles, sharing some moving stories in his award-winning autobiography, Back from the Brink, and has admitted to missing matches due to his addiction and even playing under the influence on multiple occasions.
Time and again, McGrath was faced with issues that would have gotten the best of the boldest men, but he somehow found the strength to keep on going, forging a fantastic career, including 12 years at international level that saw him score 8 goals in 83 appearances.
The defensive stalwart has rightfully gone down in history as one of the finest Irish footballers to ever play the game, right up there alongside other national heroes like Liam Brady and Johnny Giles. His ‘never say die’ attitude in the face of lifelong adversity is an inspiration and it’s no surprise that long-term Villa fans still refer to the Irishman as ‘God’.
Words Ben Powell