Paul McGrath: 'I don't know if I've had my last drink'

Brian Viner Interviews: The former Irish international talks about his alcoholism, his loneliness after a triumph... and what he does now
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The Independent Online

It is disconcerting finally to come face to face with Paul McGrath in his agent's office in the heart of Dublin, for I have just spent a couple of hours walking round the city seeing him gazing out at me from every bookshop window, under the banner "Number One bestseller".

His superb, corruscatingly candid autobiography is called Back From The Brink, and the brink refers to the precipice overlooking the grim canyon of alcoholic self-destruction, on which he has teetered many times. But let's not start with the booze. Let's start with the football. His book is sub-titled "The story of Ireland's Greatest Ever Footballer," and I can't help wondering whether this quietly spoken (when sober), fiercely intelligent, engagingly self-effacing man concurs with the description.

"God, no," he says, with a soft smile. "I didn't see it until the book was finished, and then I thought 'why did they have to put in something like that?' If I was a Roy Keane, a Liam Brady, a Johnny Giles, a Ronnie Whelan, I'd have been insulted. But I'm sure those fellas would look at it and say 'it's obvious Paul didn't want this on the front of his book'. No, Jesus Christ, in some ways I think that might put people off buying it. But the people who know me, they know I wouldn't say something like that. Jesus, not in a million years." And yet there are plenty in Ireland who do not consider it to be publishing hyperbole. His enduring stature there is best summed up by the chant that greeted Nelson Mandela when he visited Dublin four years ago: "Ooh, ahh, Paul McGrath's da'!"

Even when he was fuelled by alcohol, McGrath was by any standards an outstanding player, whose career-defining performance was arguably in the World Cup on 18 June, 1994, in the Group E match at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, between Ireland and Italy. The oldest man on the pitch, older even than Franco Baresi, McGrath was thrillingly, inspirationally obdurate at the heart of the Irish defence. And yet after Ireland's famous 1-0 victory, he found himself unable to celebrate. "I was sitting at the back of the bus, looking through the tinted glass, watching the Irish supporters all delirious, yet I couldn't tap into what had just happened."

It wasn't the first time. He'd had the same feeling of detachment following Manchester United's 1985 FA Cup final victory over Everton. "I've watched the video back, and I can see myself sort of half jumping up and down, thinking 'I wish this was over'."

I tell McGrath that, coincidentally, Mark Hughes once told me exactly the same thing about the same match, that while the likes of Bryan Robson and Frank Stapleton celebrated, he felt left out. His eyes open wide. "Really? I had no idea Sparky felt the same way."

It's rather poignant, I venture, to think of these two hard men wandering around the Wembley pitch, at a moment of such collective triumph, feeling lonely. McGrath laughs. "Yeah... I can't speak for Sparky, but for me it was a self-esteem thing, the idea that I was gatecrashing someone else's party. All I could think was 'let them get this song out of the way, then I can scurry back to the dressing-room'."

Low self-esteem has always been at the core of McGrath's problems, and you don't need a degree in psychoanalysis to trace it to his childhood, maybe even to his conception. In 1959, in Dublin, his mother, Betty McGrath, became pregnant by a Nigerian medical student. Betty felt certain that her father, a hard-drinking builder, would have gone doolally had he found out, so she left immediately for England, ostensibly to find work. Baby Paul was fostered, and later, when his foster parents could no longer look after him, sent to an orphanage. There, he was beaten when he wet the bed, to the refrain, "dirty, little, nigger boy".

Years later, Ron Atkinson used the same horrible word about Marcel Desailly. McGrath loved playing for Atkinson, both at Manchester United and Aston Villa, and admits in his book to thinking the world of Big Ron, so I ask him what his feelings were in the wake of the Desailly episode?

A pause. "Well, Ron's old school, I have to say that. But Jesus, he's one of the furthest men away from being a racist." A further pause. "He might say the odd word that makes you think 'Jesus, what's happening here?' He had this thing in training, where he'd say 'it's the coons against the rest'. But we'd just laugh about it. And the so-called coons had a good team - me, Yorkie [Dwight Yorke], Dalian Atkinson, Cyrille Regis - so we were delighted. Never once would any of us have taken exception.

"What he said about Desailly, that's something you shouldn't be saying. But I grew up with all that. There were only about four black people in Dublin back then, and I got into so many fights when things were said in malice. If Ron had ever done that, I wouldn't have taken it from him. But I always thought he had a kind of fondness for the black lads." McGrath laughs, gently. "I hope that doesn't go out the wrong way."

He need have no such worries about his book, which offers very little scope for misinterpretation. A life littered with broken relationships, suicide attempts and a dependence on alcohol so chronic that, unable to find any vodka in the house, he once downed a pint of Domestos; it's pretty unequivocal stuff. Was it cathartic to write? Or, given that the Irish journalist Vincent Hogan did most of the writing, to read?

"Well, yeah, but when I read the proofs back I thought 'Jesus, what sort of a human are you, that you can do these sorts of things?' I think even a few people close to me were shocked. I was sick, which is not a great excuse, but it's the only one I've got. I'd get depressed, then heap alcohol on top, which is a depressant itself. And I ended up doing some of the most ridiculous things imaginable considering that I have [six] children. I'm blessed that they're being brought up in a great manner."

Hogan has very cleverly interspersed McGrath's own memories with the recollections of others, making the book as much biography as autobiography. And the final paragraph is a comment from his son, Jordan, saying: "He shouldn't carry any guilt over what we've been through. Because we don't carry any burdens. He's a good dad. It's still a really, really proud feeling just to be walking down the street with him."

I tell McGrath that I was moved almost to tears when I read that, so heaven knows what he must have felt. "Yeah... yeah... that's fabulous for me, to be able to read that, to know they're still in my corner." So what now?

McGrath is living near Wexford, working hard at being a recovering alcoholic. He is receiving help but is sparse with the details. "It's kind of like a clinic, but really it's just a group of people. I see them weekly or whenever I want. It's going brilliantly, but it's the old cliché of a day at a time. I honestly don't know if I've had my last drink. It's been a few months now, but while I was still playing football I once went a year and four months [on the wagon], which is as well as I've ever been, so I know what the prize is."

There is no sign that his alcoholism has wrought any physical damage - he looks lean and healthy - but financially as well as emotionally, it has been costly. He is not a particularly wealthy man. "Which is OK. I like the simpler things, and I don't really want for anything. But I have commitments back in the UK, and I need to work. I'd love to get back into football. It's the only thing I know anything about, really. I got involved with Waterford [United] there for a short time, which was just a joy."

Maybe some far-sighted Premiership club will offer him a coaching job, I suggest. Maybe even Martin O'Neill at his beloved Villa? "You never know. There might be someone who thinks it a good idea to bring a hooligan to the club."

McGrath's conversation is studded with these little put-downs of himself, which suggests that self-esteem is still an issue, a paradox (though far from uncommon) in someone held by so many in such mighty esteem. In the book, Ron Atkinson says that McGrath the player was better than John Terry or any of the current crop of top central defenders, a compliment that pleases McGrath, in his resolutely modest way.

"I'm like everyone. I love it when people appreciate what I do. I sometimes think that I wasn't everything I am made out to be, but then I read that and think 'yeah, I wasn't a bad player, I might even have been a good player'."

At Derby County, in 1996-97, he played under the regime of Jim Smith and a rising young coach named Steve McClaren, whom he rather damns with faint praise. "He's a really nice fella and I hope he does well, but if I was in his shoes, I'd maybe have stuck around at Middlesbrough for a while longer. I understand that the England job doesn't come around too often, and at least he'll always have the comfort of knowing that he was England manager for a certain period of time, but I think it's been frighteningly quick, from where he was at Derby, to Man United, to Middlesbrough, to England.

"When I've said that before, one or two journalists thought I meant he wasn't good enough, and that's not it, exactly, but it's been an amazing rise from where I knew him, at Derby, where he never got too much respect from the boys."

On the subject of Roy Keane's managerial prospects, McGrath is more upbeat. "I think he'll definitely be successful. He has a winning temperament, and it rubs off the people around him.

"I'm a friend of Mick McCarthy's but during the stuff in Japan [in 2002] I came down on Roy's side. That was anyone's World Cup to win, and there was no need to send him home. If I'd been manager there's no way I would have sent Roy Keane home. Maybe five or six of the other lads."

A chuckle. "No, no, I'm joking." I wonder whether he is, entirely.

"It's interesting that Roy's now the one in charge of the discipline," McGrath continues. "Of course, you never know which players will succeed as managers. I'd never have thought Sparky would do so well. He was the quietest fella when I first knew him. When he finished playing I just thought he'd have his business or whatever... it's good to see one of the quieter men going well."

Let us hope that we can one day say the same about McGrath. In the meantime, I have one more question for him that I hope he won't consider crass. I'm spending the evening in Dublin and wonder whether he can recommend the best place for a pint of Guinness? He obliges me with a short chuckle. "I wouldn't know," he says. "Guinness was always too much of a meal for me."

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