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Paul McGrath on Alex Ferguson pay-off offer, his demons and Big Jack calling him James

Five minutes in, we were both drowned out by the crowd singing ‘Oh Lord, Paul McGrath’ to the tune of Kum Ba Yah, which McGrath remembers hearing from Villa Park’s Holte End.

Aston Villa defender Paul McGrath chases down Ruel Fox of Newcastle United with Ireland team-mate Andy Townsend (far right) close by during a Premier League clash in 1994. Photo: Clive Brunskill/allsport© Getty Images

Former Aston Villa players Johnny Dixon (right) with the FA Cup trophy and Paul McGrath on a hoarding at Villa Park prior to the Premier League match against Bournemouth last weekend. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images© Getty Images


It had taken the best part of a decade to get there, but, finally, I found myself sitting next to the man whom, for more than 30 years of my life, I have referred to as ‘God’.

That we were on a stage in the Old Library in Digbeth – Peaky Blindersterritory for those not familiar with the geography of Birmingham – was not how I had imagined this meeting with Paul McGrath.

For the last 10 years I had been trying to get an interview with one of the greatest players to pull on the Aston Villa shirt, and, at last, the day had come.

McGrath had been booked to make a rare public appearance as part of the city’s St Patrick’s Day celebrations.

It seemed my best chance to ask the former Villa and Ireland defender a question was to buy a ticket, which is what I did.

I was not prepared for the email that landed in my inbox in January asking whether I would be interested, as a football journalist and a Villa fan, in hosting the event,

So three months later, the night before St Patrick’s Day, I sat on stage next to ‘God’ in front of a sold-out congregation of fellow worshippers and fulfilled a long-held ambition.

“I don’t think the man upstairs would be too pleased with that,” said McGrath about being called ‘God’.

Five minutes in, we were both drowned out by the crowd singing ‘Oh Lord, Paul McGrath’ to the tune of Kum Ba Yah, which McGrath remembers hearing from Villa Park’s Holte End.

​“It took me a while to cotton on to what was happening,” he said. “The ‘Oh Lord’ song, that’s the one I heard first. I was running around the pitch and thought, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s not for me is it?’ It was lovely.”

Later in the evening, a voice from the crowd alerted McGrath to a fan of his in the audience who is due to celebrate his 90th birthday next month, Joe Burke – grandfather to Jack Grealish, who knows a thing or two about being adored by the Villa fans.

McGrath speaks with a lilt so soft that the microphone had to be turned up more than once and, even aged 63, is at odds with his imposing frame. There remains a vulnerability about him, a consequence of a childhood spent in Dublin orphanages, where he received beatings and experienced racism.

It was in one of those orphanages he watched Chelsea win the 1970 FA Cup and he was immediately hooked on a sport that offered the possibility of a different life.

“I was about 10 when I fell in love with Chelsea, so it was Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. David Webb, of course, Peter Osgood – players like those. Ian Hutchinson,” explained McGrath. “We had a football pitch out the back of the orphanage, believe it or not, and I would just go outside and kick the ball and keep it up as many times as I could. I’d run around on my own if nobody wanted to come out with me. I’d run as many laps as I could because I knew that I wanted to be as good as the players I’d seen on TV.”

It is a miracle that McGrath lived to tell the tale of a career that was intertwined with the crippling effects of his demons. He tried to take his own life on four occasions. His chronic knee injuries required eight operations.

McGrath’s alcoholism resulted in him being sold by Manchester United, where he won the FA Cup, but he went on to enjoy the best years of his career at Villa, lifting the League Cup twice, in 1994 and 1996, and almost winning the championship at the end of the 1989/’90 season in which he had tried to take his own life. McGrath returned from a suicide attempt to play in a 6-2 victory over Everton with bandages covering his wounds and did not miss another game that campaign.

“I came alive in that game,” said McGrath. “I wanted to win for the manager, Graham Taylor, and the physio, Jim Walker. I did a couple of crazy things at Villa and Graham got me the help I needed at the time and I wanted to pay him back.”

Fortunately, in Taylor at Villa and Jack Charlton with Ireland, McGrath found two managers who chose understanding and forgiveness over punishment and pique when confronted with his problems.

“Graham and his wife Rita said, ‘Do you want to come and live in our house?’” said McGrath. “I was thinking, ‘Have you not read the newspapers or anything?’ So I couldn’t have done that to them, but he did ask me if I wanted to go and live with them. He was a really good man and I just couldn’t thank him enough.

“Jack called me James for three to four years and, like the fool I am, I just answered to it. I don’t know if he was messing or something, but Jack had all sorts of tricks to keep us on our toes and he got us to places I never dreamed of getting to.

“I once took off and decided to get on a flight to Israel with a friend of mine when I was meant to be on international duty. I had been out in Cork one night and we just decided to go, I didn’t even know we could fly to Israel from there. We had a game in four days or something like that so I rang Jack and said, ‘Hiya Jack, I’m in Israel’. He lost control, quite rightly, but let me keep playing for Ireland. He was brilliant with me.”

The performance McGrath produced for the Republic of Ireland against Roberto Baggio and Italy in the 1994 World Cup is still rated as one of the best in his country’s history. “I’ve watched that game about 150 times,” said McGrath to loud applause. “I loved Italia ‘90 when we got to the quarter-finals, but we owed the Italians one in ‘94. I maybe thought we could hold them to 0-0 or a 1-1, but then Ray Houghton scored in about the eighth minute and I remember thinking, ‘Now we’ve got to hang on for 82 minutes.’”

McGrath’s career could have ended five years before that performance in USA ’94, had he accepted an offer to retire from the game from Alex Ferguson, who essentially kicked him and Norman Whiteside out of United because of their drinking.

“Sir Alex got me into the room and just said, ‘We’d like you to stop playing football’,” said McGrath. “Simple as that. And he said they were willing to give me £100,000 to quit playing football altogether and just go back to Ireland.

Former Aston Villa players Johnny Dixon (right) with the FA Cup trophy and Paul McGrath on a hoarding at Villa Park prior to the Premier League match against Bournemouth last weekend. Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images© Getty Images

“I was thinking about it because £100,000 back then was quite a lot of money. But I spoke to Kevin Moran and Bryan Robson, and I just said I wanted to play on because I thought I could still do something in football. So Gordon Taylor, who was at the PFA, went into Sir Alex and said, ‘Paul’s playing on, you can fine him, you can do what you want but he’s going to play football – here or somewhere else’.

“It wasn’t a shock really because we were acting up a bit back then. We had a bit of fun but we overdid it, so then he just wanted me out of the club. Then Bryan Robson was having a barbeque at his house and suddenly Graham Taylor was on the phone saying, ‘Can you come up to Aston Villa’ and I jumped at the chance. I thought, ‘Jesus, I can play there every week’.”

While going up against Baggio and Premier League stars of his era, such as Alan Shearer and Eric Cantona, posed no fears for McGrath, a chronic lack of self-esteem made life in the public eye a challenge to the extent he had to be talked into attending the 1993 PFA Player of the Year evening at which he was declared the winner.

“The fact Gordon Taylor asked me to go got me thinking, ‘Oh, Jesus, it couldn’t be, could it?’ It was the best trophy I’ve ever won and I love the fact I won it,” said McGrath.

“I never did really mix too well with the other players, it’s just the way I was, I was a little shy. When I got to know them, I was much better but it would take me a while, so to get an award voted for by the other players was just so special.”

McGrath once talked Charlton out of giving him the Ireland captaincy, reasoning: “Me telling all the other lads what to do and all this? No. It was a lovely gesture, but I knew that I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t great off the pitch because I was never really taught how to enter company or have chats with people and stuff like that. I didn’t really want the spotlight, to be honest, and it’s not something I ever really learned to enjoy.”

​Villa finished second to United at the end of the inaugural Premier League season for which McGrath won his Player of the Year award, having also finished second in his first season at the club behind Liverpool.

The only dissenting voices of the night in Digbeth came when, self-deprecating as ever, McGrath admitted to a personal regret over never winning a league title with Villa.

“I thought we could do it, but, to be honest, some of my antics might have let the side down from time to time,” said McGrath, to loud shouts of ‘no’ from the crowd. “If I had taken it a little more seriously on certain occasions then we might have actually won a title. So I’ve always got that thing in the back of my mind that I should have behaved a little better sometimes.”

McGrath might have behaved a little better sometimes, but it was clear during two hours together that nobody inside the Old Library would change anything about him. One man approached me at the end of the night to say that watching his hero play and listening to him talk was the closest thing he had felt to a religious experience.

As for the £27.50 I had spent to secure my place at an evening with Paul McGrath, before being asked to share the stage with him? You don’t ask ‘God’ for a refund.

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