131. Paul McGrath
McGrath began as a schoolboy with Pearse Rovers and played junior football for Dalkey United. While at the latter, he attracted the attention of the Manchester United scout Billy Behan. McGrath moved to Manchester United, then managed by Ron Atkinson, in 1982. His only honour there was the 1985 FA Cup, where United defeated Everton 1–0. McGrath was named Man of the Match in the game, the game is remembered for the sending off of Kevin Moran – the first person to be sent off in an FA Cup Final – and where Norman Whiteside scored the winner.
In his early years at Manchester United, he was frequently used as a midfielder, changing to defender still at Old Trafford. McGrath relied mainly on pace, strength and his ability to read the game. Ben Dyson quoted: ‘Defending is known as the devil of football, McGrath makes it seem like a work of art’.
Often regarded as one of the best defenders in the game, several knee injuries stopped McGrath from becoming a regular under new United manager Alex Ferguson. McGrath and Ferguson also faced a turbulent relationship, as McGrath’s alcohol addiction and physical problems led to United offering him a retirement package of £100,000 with a testimonial. McGrath refused, and instead Ferguson began to inform clubs of his availability. Although McGrath’s former manager Atkinson made an offer from Sheffield Wednesday, Aston Villa’s offer was accepted and McGrath signed in 1989.
While at Villa, McGrath played some of the best football of his life despite recurrent problems in his knees. Villa came close to winning the title in McGrath’s first season, finishing second to Liverpool F.C.. The next season saw Villa fighting relegation for much of the season, a shadow of the side the previous season under Graham Taylor, who had left to take control of England. Atkinson then took over and Villa again ended as runner-up, to McGrath’s former employer Manchester United. McGrath won the PFA Player of the Year award at the end of the season, and would also win his first Villa trophy in 1994, defeating Manchester United in the League Cup final.
McGrath left Aston Villa in 1996, considered one of the greatest players in the side’s history and is nicknamed “God” by their fans, who also remember his services by singing a terrace chant every matchday to the tune of “Kumbayah”. He retired from the game in 1998, after very brief spells with Derby County and Sheffield United. He helped Derby to a secure 12th place finish in their first Premier League season, and completed his playing career by guiding Sheffield United to the FA Cup semi-finals as well as helping them secure a playoff place – although they were beaten by Sunderland in the play-off semi-finals.
McGrath won his first Republic of Ireland cap against Italy in 1985, last playing 12 years later, against Wales. During that time, he was often regarded as the single most influential player Ireland had in the national team’s glory days. He was capped 83 times, scoring 8 goals. McGrath was a major part of the breakthrough of Ireland’s national team of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the early part of Jack Charlton’s era, McGrath played in the centre of midfield due to the wealth of talent Ireland had in defence. The national side’s victory over England in Euro 1988 was regarded by some as the greatest upset of the tournament.
In 1990, Ireland qualified for their first FIFA World Cup in Italy and got through to the Quarter Finals, eventually losing out to Italy in Rome by 1-0, with McGrath ever present in the lineups (5 matches, 480 minutes played). He captained the team four times in 1992 after the retirement of Mick McCarthy, and ignored a painful shoulder virus to play in the 1994 World Cup. Ireland came up against favorites Italy in the first match and got a dream start thanks to Ray Houghton’s early goal (1-0 win). In a perfect example of his commitment to the game, as Ireland were leading and Italy were besieging the opposing goal, McGrath was marking Roberto Baggio who had the ball at his feet. McGrath slid across Baggio’s front and tackled the ball straight off his toes, knocking it back to the feet of an Italian player, who immediately chipped the ball into the air, to try and set Baggio up for a half-volley.
As the ball was dropping, McGrath got off the ground, leapt up and headed the ball away, beating Baggio in the air. McGrath landed on all fours, facing out from the goal. The ball landed on the half-volley right in front of an opponent who shot for goal, with McGrath taking the shot straight in the face and immediately beginning to chase the ball. McGrath single-handedly kept the star-studded Italian forward line at bay for the rest of the match, in what was arguably his best international performance, and would eventually receive votes in the Team Of The World Cup poll.