Football: McGrath defies the devils to the praise of his peers: Ken Jones on the Aston Villa defender who may be 'the best player ever to come out of Ireland'

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The Independent Online
MOST fully motivated footballers respond to the physical effects of age by conditioning themselves more intensively. Paul McGrath, who became 33 last December, and is at short odds to be voted Player of the Year by both his fellow professionals and the football writers, hardly trains at all.

Amid the miscellaneous excitements of the championship race that takes him back to Old Trafford tomorrow in Aston Villa's colours, McGrath is a wonder of the game, getting around on wonky knees, defying the devils in his life. 'Paul McGrath? People don't know the half of it,' a Dubliner said recently of him.

It is an odd story, really, and touching. Here is a man, born in Ealing, who was taken to Dublin as a baby by his Irish mother, and whose boyhood, until 16 years old, was spent in an orphanage. In Dalkey, the birthplace of George Bernard Shaw, people remember that he composed poems, and sadly refer to the nervous disorder that interrupted his progress in football. 'He was a quiet boy, deep, kept very much to himself, but never any bother.'

Above all they remember the tremendous impact McGrath made when first turning out as a teenager for Dalkey United in the North Leinster League. Frank Mullen, who has been connected with the club for more than 30 years and is now chairman, said: 'I have never seen a better prospect. Just looking at Paul made you tingle. He was a boy playing against men but you would never have known it. He had everything. Skill, strength, mobility and a football brain. He was a giant in defence, and if you desperately needed a goal there was only one player to send up there. Believe me, it was no exaggeration to speak of Paul as another Duncan Edwards. Some great footballers have come out of Ireland, but I think we were looking at the best of them.'

Were they? Was he? For McGrath it might quickly have come to past tenses. Earmarked for Manchester United by their famed Irish scout, Billy Behan, he became seriously disturbed when on tour with the Dalkey youth team in Germany, and later suffered a relapse.

By the time McGrath recovered, interest in him had waned. 'Paul was only 19, but probably because word of his problems had got around, clubs were no longer keen,' Mullen added. 'Eventually, he joined St Patrick's, and played so well that he was transferred to Manchester United. No matter what other people like to claim, Paul probably wouldn't have made it but for Billy Behan. Billy never lost faith in him.'

Trusting in that faith, Ron Atkinson, who is again an influential figure in McGrath's career, paid pounds 30,000 to sign him. Six years later, by then a senior player at Old Trafford and in the Republic of Ireland team, but plagued by knee injuries, McGrath's relationship with Atkinson's successor, Alex Ferguson, reached breaking point.

In his autobiography, Six Years At Old Trafford, published last year, Ferguson wrote: 'My first concern was that I had to get rid of this idea that Manchester United was a drinking club rather than a football club . . . I knew that I would have to separate Norman (Whiteside) and Paul, because it would always be as a pair that they seemed to hit the newspaper headlines. And it was as a pair that they eventually left Old Trafford. In the case of Norman I have nothing but the greatest of admiration for him and I sincerely believe that most of his problem went down to disappointment and depression with his continual injury. However, although having a sympathy of a kind for Paul McGrath it was quite a different relationship. I sensed he was on a self-destruct course. I don't know when it started but it was gathering momentum by the time I reached Old Trafford. Whether he lacked intelligence to understand what was happening or whether he had gone too far down the road to ruin, I'm not sure. The sad part for me among many sadnesses about the whole situation was that I didn't register with him.

'Popular opinion seems to have it that after he had moved to Aston Villa, Graham Taylor found the right way to handle him, giving him a professional minder, more medical help and the like. I must tell you we offered him every facility and advice we could think of. Sir Matt Busby spoke to him along with the club doctor, Francis McHugh, and we even got his parish priest in to try and help.

'We tried every avenue to make Paul understand he was ruining his career. I even spoke to his wife several times. My conclusion from all this was that I was battering my head against a brick wall.'

Later, when it was suggested to him that those words may have caused McGrath a great deal of embarrassment, Ferguson said: 'I had to describe certain events to explain why I let a great player leave Old Trafford. I have the highest regard for McGrath, who has since admitted that leaving United was the right thing for him and the club. Indeed, it is possible that my decision saved his career.'

Without any great effort you can come across stories about McGrath that would be easier to believe if he was not playing well enough to be spoken of as one of finest central defenders at work in the game. 'I can't think of anyone better,' said the Republic's manager, Jack Charlton, who is typically blunt in dismissing questions about McGrath's social habits.

'In my mind Paul is something of a miracle. Because of the knee problems (McGrath has had surgery eight times) he can't be expected to exert himself in training but that doesn't seem affect his overall fitness. He's done a tremendous job tidying up in front of the back four but now we get the best out of him as a central defender. I don't think there is anyone as good at the job anywhere in the world. With a bit of luck we'll get another couple of years out of him.'

Nobody speaks more enthusiastically about McGrath than Steve Staunton, the Villa and Republic of Ireland left-back. 'When you play alongside him at centre-back as I did earlier this season, you become even more aware of his ability. You never have to worry about jumping for the same ball because Paul reads the game so well that he will drop off and cover. It's amazing to think that he doesn't do much during the week apart from riding a mountain bike across the fields near our training ground and referee the five-a-sides.'

Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea and Manchester United manager who has special coaching responsibilities at Villa Park, is another of McGrath's admirers. 'Part of Paul's secret is the good balance that comes with a low centre of gravity,' he said. 'He can twist and turn, and unlike the majority of defenders in this country, doesn't settle for the easy way out of trouble. Add his vision and passing ability, and you have quite a player.'

Probably, McGrath does not give it a second thought. He is reluctant to speak with reporters and nobody can remember him being interviewed on television. Sometimes he may have felt that it was hardly worth hanging on. If so the truth of it must be that he is an extraordinary fellow.

(Photograph omitted)