perfect fit | 

Aston Villa steered me away from a darkness that threatened to consume me

Birmingham club and the saintly Graham Taylor helped save my life

Paul McGrath makes another vital clearance for Aston Villa during his days at the club© Getty Images

Paul McGrath always get a warm welcome on his return to Villa Park© Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Paul MGrath (left) is signed for Aston Villa by Graham Taylor© Getty Images

McGrath during his Manchester United days© Getty Images

Paul McGrathSunday World

Aston Villa – the football club, the fans, the city of Birmingham and, the saintly Graham Taylor – saved my life.

If that sounds a little dramatic, it speaks of how my move from Villa steered me away from a darkness that threatened to consume me as things turned sour at Manchester United.

The two clubs with whom I am most closely associated meet at Villa Park today.

Some people might think I have a lingering resentment towards United. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have very fond memories of my time in Manchester. I made great friends. I remember the shiver that would go down my spine in the early days, when Bobby Charlton or even George Best might appear at the ground and wave in your direction.

George Best! Saying hello to me?

Older pros like Martin Buchan and Gordon McQueen taught me invaluable lessons in the central defensive art. Without their guidance, I might not have become the player I did.

It was only the last days at Old Trafford that put a negative slant on my experience.

I was unhappy, frightened and a mess as things unspooled.

But, in hindsight, the problem was largely of my own making. Alex Ferguson was completely justified in his actions. The way a few of us were carrying on, the drinking, that just couldn’t continue.

I was scared when it became clear I had no future with United.

My knees were pretty much shot, I had advanced into my 30s, sporting old age back then – and if I couldn’t continue as a footballer, what in God’s name was I going to do?

Enter Villa.

Initially, the fans were suspicious.

I think they thought I was going there for a last contract, an old man trying to squeeze a final few quid from the game at the club’s expense before riding off in the sunset.

In many ways, their viewpoint was entirely understandable.

I was 31, with dodgy knees and Sir Alex had encouraged me to take an insurance settlement and retire from the game.

But Villa, and in particular Graham Taylor, rescued me.

I know a lot of people lampooned his time as English manager, but he was so good to me. His humanity is something I will never forget. He was a very special individual.

Paul McGrath always get a warm welcome on his return to Villa Park© Aston Villa FC via Getty Images

Football can be a cold and brutal business, but he was a very caring, considerate man.

I was at one of the darker periods of my life at the end of my days in Manchester. I was very down, very unwell, my whole world close to completely unravelling.

I was right on the edge, close to the point of no return. Things were spiralling out of control.

Graham and his wife, Rita, were like guardian angels pulling me back from the brink.

They offered to put me up at their house. They told me that whatever personal issues I had they would stand by me, and help me get well again.

I can’t properly explain how priceless such reassurance was to a bruised soul.

I vowed there and then I would give everything for the club. The happiest years of my life followed.

They looked after me financially, too, immediately doubling my Manchester United salary, with a promise of a further increase if things worked out.

Paul MGrath (left) is signed for Aston Villa by Graham Taylor© Getty Images

I was flabbergasted. I’d never felt more wanted. Villa truly wanted me to play for the club.

It was such a contrast with my last days at Old Trafford.

It was just a perfect fit. The contract was for two years, but I stayed for seven seasons and even managed to win the PFA Footballer of the Year, an unbelievable thrill.

But even bigger for me was my relationship with the fans. Those people were so good to me. They didn’t judge me.

So long as I tried my best to contribute on a Saturday, they had my back.

I grew up as a Chelsea fan, seduced by the 1970 FA Cup final, but these days Villa are closest to my heart.

The fact that I use the term “we” when I speak about that wonderful claret-and-blue institution tells you everything.

All those years later, I still feel like one of them. We are and always will be a band of brothers.

A win today would really kick-start our season. But I would take a draw.

Anything more than that and the Holte End, in full voice, will take me back to the days of my club football life.


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