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Football League Greats: Paul McGrath

26 February 2013

By his own admission, Paul McGrath was neither an angel on the pitch nor a saint off it.

The centre-half loved a tackle during a game and a tipple afterwards, but his fierce battles with opposition strikers and his own demons alike only served to endear him to supporters at every club he graced.

There were also his infamously dodgy knees.

McGrath endured eight operations - five on the right knee, three on the left - during his seven years at Old Trafford and by the time he arrived at Aston Villa, the most strenuous activity he was able to undertake during the week was a gentle warm-up on an exercise bike.

But while injuries and alcoholism plagued his career, the adopted Irishman still shone like a beacon on the pitch, and his 16 years as a professional with over 500 first-team appearances to his name were the very epitome of a player who defied the odds.

Born in London but raised in care in Dublin, McGrath was spotted by a Manchester United scout playing for Dalkey United at the age of 22. He headed back to England but, before even featuring in Ron Atkinson's first team, a misjudged tackle in a reserves game left him clutching his knee and the depressing pattern of injuries had begun.

A lesser player might have packed his bags but McGrath recovered, persevered and eventually prospered - and under Atkinson he became a key figure in the United side. His only major honour may have been a 1985 FA Cup winners medal but his Man of the Match performance, shackling the twin threat of Andy Gray and Graeme Sharp, was as instrumental in the 1-0 triumph as Norman Whiteside's famous winning goal.

The arrival of Sir Alex Ferguson the following year was supposed to spell the end of McGrath's time at United. His crumbling knees and persistent drinking were anathema to the new manager and the club offered him a £100,000 pay off and a testimonial to leave quietly.

"I was only 29 and the PFA's Gordon Taylor thrashed everything out with Alex Ferguson and the chairman Martin Edwards on my behalf," he said. "But I walked out of that meeting in pain and I thought, 'it can't end like this' - I wanted to keep playing.

"I went away and spoke to Bryan Robson, Kevin [Moran] and Norman [Whiteside] and they said I shouldn't accept it. They were right and deep in my heart I knew I didn't want to do it. They could throw me out of the club, but there was no way I was quitting the game."

His stubbornness prolonged his Old Trafford adventure but in 1989 it was finally time to move on, and after a nervous afternoon undergoing a stringent medical, Aston Villa boss Graham Taylor decided to take a gamble on his deteriorating joints and signed him in a £400,000 deal.

Still smarting from his experiences at United, McGrath played the best football of his career in the Midlands. His impeccable reading of the game, his surprisingly sharp turn of pace and relish of the physical contest all made him an instant fans' favourite at Villa Park and his presence in the heart of the defence coincided with the club's first silverware since the 1982 European Cup.

Villa finished Division One runners-up to Liverpool in his first season and although there was collective disappointment for the team, there was personal recognition for McGrath when he was named the PFA's 1993 Player of the Year.

They came second again in the inaugural Premier League campaign to United, while his first trophy was the 1994 League Cup courtesy of a bitter-sweet 3-1 win over his first club.

A second League Cup success followed two years later after a 3-0 demolition of Leeds United at Wembley and despite his crumbling knees and ongoing personal problems, McGrath's place in Villa folklore, not to mention the hearts of the Holte End, was already assured.

He played five more games that season but in the summer of 1996, just a few months short of his 37th birthday, he was sold to Derby County after seven years and 252 league appearances for the club.

"I trained for the first few months I was at Villa but never again over the next seven years," he said. "The Villa physio Jim Walker is basically the one that kept my career going. Jim created a regime where I just went in and did 10 minutes on the bike each morning and that was about it. Some days I would just have a bath. The games would look after my fitness. It was hard not to join in with the rest of the guys training, especially the five-a-sides, which I used to love. I'd just watch them and collect the balls."

McGrath spent a single season at the Baseball Ground before a monthly contract with Sheffield United turned into a last permanent deal, playing the final game of his professional career for the Blades against Ipswich Town at Portman Road in November 1997.

Retirement has been relatively kind to the player who won 83 caps with the Republic of Ireland and featured at two World Cups and one European Championship, in '88. The arthritis which threatened to consume him after his repeated appointments with the surgeon's table has not crippled him, while his painfully honest Back From The Brink won the British Sports Book Award for best autobiography in 2007.

He has even made a foray as a recording artist on a charity album but whatever the merits of his musical or literary endeavours, McGrath remains best remembered as a cultured, uncompromising albeit troubled centre-half, whose talents far outweighed his self-proclaimed flaws.

Career Statistics:
Manchester United (1982-89) - 163 Football League appearances, 12 goals
Aston Villa (1989-96) - 252 Football League appearances, 9 goals
Derby County (1996-97) - 24 Football League appearances
Sheffield United (1997-98) - 12 Football League appearances

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