Health: 400,000 pounds legs that need a helping hand: Paul McGrath has had eight knee operations but is still a top player. Christopher Mowbray found out how

They may be scarred and hairy, but they are among the most famous and interesting examples of their kind. They have appeared on television in a dozen countries and are discussed by sports pundits the world over. These are the knees of Paul McGrath, Aston Villa and Republic of Ireland football star.

By rights these knees, which have carried McGrath to the heights of his profession, should have carried him off the field years ago. They have been so badly injured during his 12-year career that it is a wonder, at the age of 34, he can continue to play at all.

As McGrath embarks on a new football season, which will include service for both Villa and the Irish in European competitions, his knees are often too painful for normal training. He overcomes this with the help of a physiotherapist who has devised an alternative way of keeping him fit.

McGrath's professional career started comparatively late - and almost ended immediately. He was spotted in his native Dublin by a Manchester United scout when he was 22. He was still in the United reserve team when he suffered the first of his injuries, a twisted knee during a tackle. It took him two- and-a-half months to get over the operation.

He got into the first team the following season, then was injured again. During the seven years he spent with United, he had only one season without injury and eight operations on his knees.

Injuries like his are known simply as 'cartilage problems' and are common among professional footballers. But McGrath stands out for the number of times he has suffered them, and the severity of his associated arthritis.

When the knee is twisted at an unnatural angle during a tackle, there is usually damage to the meniscus - the pad of cartilage in the knee which acts as a shock absorber between the femur in the upper leg and the tibia in the lower leg. The damage varies from the meniscus being slightly chipped to being torn in half.

The chipping injury is the most common and can be cured fairly simply with an arthroscopy. This involves inserting a thin 'sight line' into the knee with keyhole surgery so that the specialist can look inside and locate the floating fragment of cartilage which lodges in sensitive areas of the joint, causing pain and swelling. The fragment is flushed out with water squirted down the same thin tube, or sucked out by a miniature vacuum with a cutting edge on the end.

When the meniscus is badly damaged, however, it often has to be removed with major surgery. Many footballers can continue without it, although its absence leads to arthritic changes in the knee which are likely to shorten their careers.

Without the natural shock absorber to act as a cushion between them, the ends of the femur and tibia rub against each other and gradually wear away the layers of hyaline cartilage which coat the knuckle ends of the two bones. There comes a time when bone grinds against bone and the discomfort makes it impossible for the footballer to continue playing.

In McGrath's case, the left knee has survived three arthroscopies, the meniscus is still in place and he has little trouble with it. The main problem is in his right knee which has undergone three arthroscopies and two major operations, resulting in the removal of all the meniscus.

The whole of this medical process took place while he was still with Manchester United, who then put him up for sale. Aston Villa paid pounds 400,000 for him in 1989 after he had been examined by the club surgeon, El Safty, who decided his knees were still up to the rigours of modern football.

Since his arrival at Villa Park five years ago McGrath has needed no further surgery and has not missed a match because of knee problems. Two seasons ago he played in all 42 league matches - a feat achieved by only a handful of professional footballers each year. It was the season in which he received one of the greatest accolades of all - the Professional Footballers' Association's Player of the Year award.

But it has been at a cost. The arthritic condition in his right knee has been ever-present and he is usually in some pain. If it is particularly bad, he will take two paracetamol on match days plus an anti-inflammatory drug the day before, the day of the game, and the day after.

He is often excused the seven to eight hours a week of normal training and running expected of his team mates. Instead he is handed over to the club physiotherapist, Jim Walker, who arranges a special fitness programme which ensures that the painful grinding of his femur and tibia is confined to matches. It is almost certainly a unique situation for a world-class player.

He spends five hours a week on a cycling machine and does leg muscle exercises for 10 minutes of every waking hour when this is practical. The latter strengthen the hamstring and quadricep muscles in his upper leg, and this reduces the amount of body weight carried directly by his knee. 'Whenever my knees are sore I know that I should not be doing normal training and Jim arranges the alternative for me,' he says.

'I know when I need to train and do just enough to keep ticking over. When we are due to play I don't even go on the cycling machine the day before, but do warm- up exercises instead.'

'Paul really is walking a tightrope and I therefore always listen carefully to what he says,' says Mr Walker, who was a professional footballer for 15 years. 'If he says his knees are sore and he should not be training, I believe him and we work in the gym instead.

'It is a feat to be playing Premier League and international football at Paul's age, even without his arthritic problems. The fact that he does so is due to his enormous enthusiasm. There are not many players like him.'

McGrath is more diffident: 'In spite of my injuries, I believe that I am a lucky player. I keep thinking about how many years I will not be able to play football once I am too old, and that makes me determined to play on for as long as I can.'

Paul McGrath's autobiography, 'Ooh] Aah] Paul McGrath', is published by Mainstream at pounds 12.99.

(Photographs omitted)

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Vehicle Broker / Purchaser

    £18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

    £18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

    Recruitment Genius: Call Centre Manager - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative online car purc...

    Recruitment Genius: Subscriptions and Marketing Assistant

    £12500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A subscriptions and marketing a...

    Day In a Page

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate