Obituary: John McGrath

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The Independent Culture
THE LURID public persona of John McGrath - something between Desperate Dan and Attila the Hun, as perceived by the average English football fan during the 1960s and early 1970s - was viewed wryly by those who had monitored the progress of the burly Mancunian at his first professional club.

At Bury, whom he had joined in 1955 after failing to break through as an amateur with Bolton Wanderers, McGrath was seen primarily as a constructive centre-half for whom lofty ambitions were harboured. Indeed, there were those at Gigg Lane who saw in the personable son of a policeman a certain likeness to John Charles, the "Gentle Giant" a byword for polished central- defensive excellence. In the event, McGrath never proved remotely close to the majestic Welshman in terms of class, but he did enjoy a worthy and colourful career, much of which was spent in England's top division.

After becoming established at Bury, he left the Shakers three months before they claimed the Third Division Championship in 1961, though he had played enough games to earn a medal. Evidence of his burgeoning status were his destination, Newcastle United, and his fee, pounds 24,000, plus the services of the hugely respected veteran Bobby Stokoe.

However, despite winning England under-23 honours shortly after his move, McGrath took time to settle at St James' Park, and the hopes of his boss Charlie Mitten that the newcomer would be instrumental in saving the ailing Magpies from relegation were dashed. It was not until the pragmatic Joe Harvey became the long-term replacement for the adventurous Mitten that the young defender began to flourish. Under Harvey his game was transformed, a new and often fearsomely abrasive approach belying his genial character, and he formed a formidable half-back line alongside Stan Anderson and Jim Iley which inspired Newcastle to the Second Division title in 1964/65.

Back among the elite, McGrath prospered for a season, but then found himself squeezed out by a combination of Ollie Burton, John McNamee and the richly promising Bobby Moncur. Accordingly in February 1968 he accepted a pounds 30,000 transfer to Southampton, for whom he became the commanding cornerstone of one of the First Division's most rugged rearguards. So outstanding was his form at the Dell that he moved to the verge of full England recognition, although selection for the Football League in 1969 was the closest he came.

In 1973, McGrath took up coaching with Southampton, whom he left in 1979 to become manager of Port Vale. After a sticky start with a poor side, he led them to promotion from Division Four in 1983, only to be sacked later that year when the Valiants floundered at the higher level. He encountered further travail at the helm of Chester before tasting success with Preston North End, whom he guided up to the Third Division in 1987 and to the promotion play-offs two years later.

However, he returned to the basement with Halifax Town, where cash was so short that, as he put it at one press briefing, there wasn't enough to feed the club cat. The upshot was that the Shay was deluged with catfood from animal-lovers all over England - and Halifax had no cat!

Though John McGrath's wit did not save him from dismissal in November 1992, it served him admirably in his subsequent successful career as an after-dinner speaker and as a soccer pundit on local radio in Lancashire.

Ivan Ponting

John Thomas McGrath, footballer and manager: born Manchester 23 August 1938; played for Bury 1955-61, Newcastle United 1961-68, Southampton 1968-74, Brighton on loan 1972; managed Port Vale 1979-83, Chester City 1984-85, Preston North End 1986-90, Halifax Town 1991-92; married; died Middleton, Greater Manchester 25 December 1998.