Profile: Defender of the faith: Ian Ridley looks at the strife and times of a veteran aiming to be the toast of Wembley today

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The Independent Online
WHEN taxi drivers find out that they have a sports writer in the back of the cab, they just cannot resist it: tall tales, gossip, anecdotes and slanders flow forth, or rather back, about various footballers in various conditions who once sat right where you are now. The thing about Paul McGrath is that most of the stories are true. Paul McGrath probably told them himself.

For a seemingly solitary, shy man who has felt compelled to seek the deceptive courage of a bottle to confront a social gathering, McGrath's life has frequently seemed a well-circulated series of tabloid tales of torment and torture as he too has felt compelled to justify the errant excesses. There have been the drinking, the women, the injuries, the verbal feuds, the absences without leave, the drinking. And occasionally the football. Should matters out of the arena be considered in assessing a sportsperson? With McGrath, both sides explain the coin.

The game is the public light in which McGrath bathes, providing escape from private darkness for a man with a sad, troubled past that continues to weigh oppressively on his present. Today the boy brought up in a Dublin orphanage will step out to do what he does best for Aston Villa against his former club Manchester United, who discarded him in acrimonious circumstances five years ago, in the Coca- Cola Cup final. It is just a few weeks since the latest scar, the death of his 32-year-old sister Okone of a blood disorder.

Most eyes this afternoon will be drawn initially to the more topical flawed colossus, Eric Cantona, but the outcome of the match will ultimately depend on how he is handled by his defensive equivalent, the man who originally inspired the 'Ooh-Aah' refrain now adopted for the Frenchman in Manchester, who may well succeed McGrath as the Professional Footballers' Association player of the year.

Ooh-Aah, Paul McGrath is the title of a biography that will be published at the end of next month (Mainstream, pounds 12.99) and it promises to illuminate the details of a dark-clouded career that has followed the pain of Protestant childhood experienced without his Nigerian father and Irish mother in a Catholic country, and adolescence undermined by nervous disorders that delayed his move to Manchester United. The book's subtitle is 'The Black Pearl of Inchicore' - a nickname from his days with the St Patrick's Athletic team who occupy that district of Dublin - which captures neatly the shade and light of its subject.

'He is the most misunderstood person,' says its author, Cathal Dervan. 'Everyone has this idea that he is a heavy drinker, a womaniser and aggressive, but he is a good man. He is a drinker, no doubt about that, but his threshold is quite low.'

United's scout in Ireland, Billy Behan, retained faith in the sensitive young man, a writer of poetry, and finally Ron Atkinson paid pounds 30,000 for the 22-year-old 12 years ago. An auditor at the time found an entry in St Pat's massively overdrawn books: 'Don't worry. Expect to sell Paul McGrath to Manchester United soon.'

In the goldfish bowl in which other Mancunian-Irish sportsmen have struggled to swim, a lonely McGrath, frequently out injured as he underwent eight knee operations, was out of water and sought solace in alcohol and kindred company. Two years after Alex Ferguson replaced Atkinson, under whom he won his only team honour, the 1985 FA Cup, McGrath was unloaded to Aston Villa for pounds 450,000, Graham Taylor backing a hunch that the athlete he remembered dominating his Watford side was more than the damaged goods - physically and emotionally - that the game's grapevine whispered.

'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,' Ferguson wrote in his own autobiography, Six Years At Old Trafford. 'I knew that I would have to separate Norman (Whiteside) and Paul, because it was as a pair that they seemed to hit the newspaper headlines.'

Of McGrath, he went on: '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.' McGrath bit back in print and was fined pounds 8,000 by the FA.

There is a theory that a Ferguson now experienced in handling more maverick talents such as Cantona might have got more from McGrath, whose renaissance with Villa since the age of 30 has been remarkable. Though rheumatic pain in the knees restricts his training to 20 minutes on an exercise bicycle - and then not the day before a match - some stretches, some weights and refereeing (badly, according to team-mates) five- a-side matches, he has missed only 12 league matches in five seasons.

Some absences have had other excuses. In January, apparently believing himself omitted from the FA Cup tie at Exeter after complaining about his knees, he spent an afternoon in a Sutton Coldfield pub and did not join up with the team. It cost him a fine of pounds 10,000. He should, too, have had more than his 63 caps for the Republic of Ireland, missing one trip when, he said, he felt the need to escape his problems and fetched up in Cork. At present he is going through a divorce, custody of his three sons being contested.

After each episode there is the remorse of a man floundering in pain and seeking help. 'I've been a fool,' McGrath has admitted. 'Drink has been a great comfort to me. I've more personal problems than anyone can imagine . . . though problems do start when I hit the bottle . . . But I can stop drinking.'

Taylor, Atkinson (at United and now Villa) and Jack Charlton with Ireland have persevered with him because in an era of mediocre centre-backs, McGrath is a genuinely outstanding figure. Though his passing and distribution may not be of the highest quality, as was shown during a spell in midfield for his country, in his ability to defend he has few peers in the world.

The frame that ambles around a training ground merely spectating comes electrically alive when the whistle to start a competitive match is sounded. His heading and footwork are solid but it is above all his anticipation of situations, employing a pace to deal with them surprising given his surgical history, that singles him out.

'When you play alongside him you become even more aware of his ability,' said his Villa team- mate Steve Staunton after a match filling in as a central defender. '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.'

Dave Sexton, the Villa coach, adds: 'Part of Paul's secret is the good balance that comes with a low centre of gravity. He can twist and turn and, unlike the majority of defenders in this country, doesn't settle for the easy way out.'

McGrath is at present discussing with Atkinson a new two-year contract, though the manager has made it privately clear in stronger terms than his customary public flippancy - 'I told him my problem was whether to include appearance or disappearance money' - that McGrath is running out of second chances. One suspects, though, that with the survivor's instincts that surface in such a character, McGrath will rise to today's occasion and the World Cup finals to prove his worth and ability to continue. The fear of retirement will motivate.

Football managers worry more about the contribution of a player than his well-being; Atkinson talks of McGrath going on as long as he can do a job, Charlton of just needing a few more months out of him. One senses, though, that difficult as McGrath's problems may so far have been, they will intensify when he is finally forced to finish playing.

Then, should he get sick and tired of being sick and tired and have nothing which demands his staying healthy, he will need to draw on his own resources and others' compassion if stories of the sort taxi drivers are prone to embellish are not to overshadow the heroic yarns that admiring football watchers are able to tell.

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