For many in Ireland, Paul McGrath is a living legend. No player in Ireland’s history has had so many column inches written in his honour, yet the defender has always remained modest about his ability.
Born in London, With an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, McGrath spent the first 16 years of his life in an orphanage and started his football career with Dalkey United before joining St Patrick’s Athletic. He won the Young Player of the Year award in 1982 and joined Manchester United for a bargain £30,000 the following season.
On the pitch, McGrath settled in easily alongside Manchester United’s superstar, winning a FA Cup medal in 1985, but off the field he turned to alcohol to deal with the pressures of being a professional footballer.
In 1985, he won the first of his 83 caps though it wasn’t until Jack Charlton became manager that McGrath became a key member of the side. Chosen regularly in midfield by Charlton, McGrath helped Ireland to the European Championships in 1988 and World Cup two years later. Four years later, he was also part of the Ireland side that qualified for its second World Cup.
However, the story was not as straightforward as it may sound. McGrath’s drinking problems meant that on two occasions, he missed Ireland matches, while at club level, Manchester United decided to cut their losses and let him leave for Aston Villa. He was also injury prone and during the course of his career he had eight knee operations, which meant that towards the end of his career, he was not training in the accepted sense.
It is testament to his natural fitness that despite this, he still played football at the highest level until he retired in 1998. To this day, the greatest player ever to play in two world cups and don a green jersey.