Paul McGrath, footballer for St Patrick’s Athletic, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Derby County and the Republic of Ireland.
Paul McGrath (born 4 December 1959) is a retired Irish footballer, who played as a defender from 1981 until 1998. McGrath is widely recognised as one of the greatest players to have ever come out of Ireland.
In a career greatly hampered by physical and off-the-field problems, he played 14 professional seasons with Aston Villa and Manchester United (seven apiece). A tough tackler, he played extensively despite persistent problems with his knees. He also played for St Patrick’s Athletic, Derby County and Sheffield United.
Also a long-time member of the Republic of Ireland national team, he appeared at the 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cups, as well as UEFA Euro 1988, the team’s first-ever international tournament.
McGrath was born in Ealing, London to an Irish mother and a Nigerian father. According to Donald McRae, his father disappeared soon after his conception, while his mother, Betty McGrath, gave him up for fostering when he was four weeks old: terrified that her father would find out she had become pregnant outside marriage and in an interracial relationship, she travelled in secret to London to have her child, who was considered illegitimate.
When he was 5 years of age, one of the daughters of the family he had been fostered by came to Betty to say they couldn’t control him. At that stage his mother had him back for a number of days before having to put him into an orphanage. Despite being Paul McGrath on his birth certificate, the admission form required the name of the father, hence he was known as Paul Nwobilo for a time. He was brought up in a number of orphanages in Dublin but had regular visits from his mother, as well as his sister, up until the time he left.
St Patrick’s Athletic:
McGrath began as a schoolboy with Pearse Rovers and played junior football for Dalkey United. While at the latter, he attracted the attention of Manchester United scout Billy Behan. Before becoming a full-time professional with League of Ireland club St Patrick’s Athletic in 1981, he briefly worked as an apprentice metal worker and a security guard in Dublin.
McGrath made his debut in a League of Ireland Cup clash with the Shamrock Rovers in August at Richmond Park. He ultimately excelled at St Pat’s, earning the nickname “The Black Pearl of Inchicore” and receiving the PFAI Player of the Year Award in his first and only season, scoring four goals in 31 total appearances.
In 1982, McGrath moved to Manchester United, then managed by Ron Atkinson. His only honour there was the 1984–85 FA Cup, in a 1–0 defeat of Everton. He was named Man of the match in the game, which was remembered for the sending off of Kevin Moran – the first ever in the competition’s final. In his early years at Manchester United, McGrath was frequently used as a midfielder, changing to defender still at Old Trafford. While he had a lazy running style, he did not lack pace.
Several knee injuries stopped McGrath from becoming a regular under new United manager Alex Ferguson. The pair 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, former European Champions Aston Villa’s offer was accepted and McGrath signed on 3 August 1989 for a fee of £400,000, after 194 official appearances for The Red Devils, with 16 goals – the last of which came in a 2-1 league defeat against Norwich City at Carrow Road on 25 February 1989.
During this time McGrath was offered terms at S.S.C. Napoli. While at Villa, McGrath played some of the best football of his career, despite recurrent problems in his knees. Villa came close to winning the title in McGrath’s first season, finishing second to Liverpool. The next season saw the club fighting relegation for much of the campaign, after boss Graham Taylor left to take control of England. Despite the managerial upheaval, McGrath’s performances continued to impress. Under Josef Venglos, the first top flight manager to hail from the European mainland, McGrath became a consistent mainstay of the Villa line up. After one season of Venglos, Ron Atkinson took over, building one of the finest sides of the early Premier League era. Aston Villa again ended as runner-up, this time to McGrath’s former employer. As a sign of the regard he was now held in by his fellow professionals he won the PFA Player of the Year award at the end of the season, and would also win his first trophy with the Villans, defeating Manchester United in the 1993–94 Football League Cup. In 1996 McGrath won a second League Cup for Villa. By the end of his Villa career he had chalked up 252 appearances in the claret and blue. He is affectionately referred to as ‘God’ by many Villa fans.
After winning another League Cup, McGrath departed Aston Villa in 1996, leaving a legacy as one of the greatest players in the club’s history. He is immortalized most match days, when supporters sing the ‘Paul McGrath, my Lord’ terrace chant to the tune of “Kumbaya”. Subsequently, he retired from the game at almost 39, after very brief spells with Derby County and Sheffield United: he helped the former to a secure 12th place finish in its first Premier League season. He played his final game as a professional for Sheffield United against Ipswich Town on 9 November 1997.
For many years, McGrath suffered from alcoholism, and missed occasional matches as a result. In an interview with FourFourTwo, he admitted to playing football while still under the influence of alcohol; additionally, his recurrent knee problems resulted in him undergoing a total of eight operations during his career. McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink, co-written with journalist Vincent Hogan. It was the inaugural winner of the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year (2006), won the ‘Best Autobiography’ of the British Sports Book Awards (2007), and won the ‘Sports Book’ category of the Irish Book Awards (2007).
Upon retiring, he settled in Monageer, County Wexford. In 2004, one year after being taken to court, charged with a breach of the peace, McGrath returned to the football world after five years, moving to Waterford United in Ireland as director of football.
On 29 June 2013, McGrath was arrested over an alleged public order offence at a hotel in County Offaly. He was bailed and will appear at Tullamore district court on 17 July.
McGrath won his first full 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 eight 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, he played as a defensive midfielder, due to the wealth of talent Ireland had in defence. In UEFA Euro 1988, as the national side first qualified for an international tournament, McGrath was present in the 1–0 group stage win against England.
In 1990, Ireland qualified for its first FIFA World Cup, in 1990 in Italy, eventually reaching the quarterfinals, where they lost to the hosts (1–0 in Rome), with McGrath ever present in the lineups (five 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.
In Ireland’s opening game of the 1994 World Cup – a 1–0 win against favourites Italy, thanks to Ray Houghton’s early goal – in a perfect example of his commitment to the game, McGrath put up an astonishing defensive performance in spite of excruciating knee problems, including blocking a shot from Roberto Baggio with his face. Even after his retirement from international football in 1997, he is still regarded today as one of the greatest ever players to put on Ireland’s green shirt.
In 2011, Paul launched his singing career with a cover version of the Gerry Goffin and Carole King song “Goin’ Back”. The recording is to be followed by an album of covers by the footballer, with a percentage of the album’s proceeds going to the Acquired Brain Injury Foundation and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation of Ireland.