Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now
“Cinderella Man” is the story of the Irish-American boxer James J. Braddock. He was a supposedly washed-up fighter who came back from obscurity and became the Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World from 13 June 1935 to 22 June 1937. On 10 November 1982, Paul McGrath made his competitive debut for Manchester United, a 0-0 draw away to Bradford City in the 3rd Round of the League Cup. He was football’s Cinderella Man.
Paul was born on 4 December 1959 in Ealing, London to an Irish mother, Betty, and a Nigerian father. Perhaps as a result of feeling guilty about becoming an unmarried mother, Betty made her way to London, where she knew no-one and gave birth to Paul. After she returned to Ireland, baby McGrath was passed from orphanage to orphanage in Dublin for the first sixteen years of his young life. Paul began his football career with his school side, Pearse Rovers, before joining the junior side Dalkey United in the city. When he was playing for the Hyde Park club he was spotted by Manchester United’s chief scout in Dublin, Billy Behan. In 1981, the 21-year old signed as a full-time professional with St. Patrick’s Athletic after working as an apprentice sheet metal worker and a security guard in the Irish capital. Paul made his debut for St. Pat’s in a home game against Shamrock Rovers in a League of Ireland game at Richmond Park, Inchicore, Dublin. Although he only spent one season at St. Pat’s the fans took to him instantly and nicknamed him “The Black Pearl of Inchicore.” Paul was a rock in the heart of the Irish side’s defence, a cool, calm and collected defender, and won the PFAI Player of the Year Award in his only season in League of Ireland football. He played 31 games and scored 4 goals for he Irish club.
In April 1982, Ron Atkinson swooped for the 22-year old McGrath and secured his signature for Manchester United in a bargain £30,000 transfer deal. Prior to the start of the 1982-83 season Paul tasted first team action on 2 August 1982 for the first time in his United career when the club agreed to play Aldershot FC in a friendly game. The match was in aid of the “South Atlantic Fund” (Britain was at war at the time with Argentina over the Falkland Islands issue) and was played at Aldershot’s Recreation Ground home. However, a niggling injury prevented his senior debut until 10 November 1982 when he played in United’s League Cup 3rd Round 0-0 draw away to Bradford City.
Gary Bailey, Mike Duxbury, Arthur Albiston, Paul McGrath, Gordon McQueen, Remi Moses, Bryan Robson (Capt), Arnold Muhren, Steve Coppell, Frank Stapleton, Norman Whiteside
Three days later Big Ron handed Paul his First Division debut in place of Kevin Moran in a 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford (scorer: Arnold Muhren). His assured performance won over the United faithful instantly. However, Atkinson put McGrath back in the Reserve side the following week and he did not reappear again in the first team until 2 March 1983, a 1-0 loss away to Stoke City.
Part of the deal which saw McGrath leave St. Patrick’s Athletic for United was an agreement by United to play the Dublin-based club in a friendly at a later date. On 15 March 1983, United were in the Irish capital to honour that commitment and faced St. Patrick’s Athletic at Dalymount Park before a crowd of 16,000. The game was a dull affair and not even the sight of McGrath back at his old stomping ground was sufficient to help raise the tempo of the game. It wasn’t until the 75th minute before the first goal came with Lou Macari scoring a volley from just outside the box. Arnold Muhren added a second for United from a free kick 10 minutes from the end to seal the victory for the visitors. Four Irish players played in the game for United; Northern Ireland’s Norman Whiteside (came on as a sub for Remi Moses) and the Republic of Ireland’s McGrath, Ashley Grimes and Frank Stapleton.
Paul played in 13 League games for United in his first full season at the club, 1982-83, scoring 3 times with his first goal for United coming in a 3-0 home win over Luton Town on 9 May 1983 (he scored twice in the game with Frank Stapleton scoring the third United goal that day). The latter game was the first in which the famous Irish quartet of McGrath, Moran, Stapleton and Whiteside all played together. However, Paul was not selected for United’s 1983 FA Cup Final team; Big Ron opting for the centre half pairing of Kevin Moran and Gordon McQueen.
In season 1983-84, Atkinson played Paul in 9 League games (scored once) and often switched him from Paul’s preferred defensive role to a combative midfield role. At the start of the 1984-85 season Moran and Graeme Hogg dominated United’s No.5 and No.6 jerseys with Paul having to bide his time in the Central League team. However, McGrath’s strength, speed, stamina and coolness under pressure could not be ignored any longer by Atkinson. When Moran suffered an injury Paul slotted in at centre half and his constant Man of the Match displays saw him play in every one of United’s last 21 First Division games of the season. When United reached the 1985 FA Cup Final Big Ron had no hesitation in pairing Moran, who had returned to the team in late April 1985, alongside McGrath to face Everton. In the final Paul was a colossus and snuffed out attack after attack from the Merseysiders with Andy Gray and Graeme Sharp barely getting a touch of the ball and all this despite United going down to 10 men after Moran was sent off. Not surprisingly Paul was voted Man of the Match in the 1985 FA Cup Final which saw him collect his first and only winners’ medal with Manchester United.
When I (the author) was writing my book, “Irish Devils – The Official Story of Manchester United and The Irish,” I interviewed Kevin Moran and I asked him what it was like to play alongside Paul for club and country:
‘My all-time favourite Manchester United footballer has to be without any shadow of a doubt, Paul McGrath. Paul was a magnificent player, courageous in the air and in the tackle, aggressive but not dirty, tremendous stamina, powerful, a great reader of the game and a man you could always rely on to dig you out of trouble if you happened to be having an off day against an opponent. I loved and still cherish every minute of every game I had the honour and privilege of playing alongside Paul in the red of United and the green of Ireland. Paul’s dominating presence on the pitch frightened the life out of even the toughest of centre forwards but off the pitch he was a very quiet and shy man and I should know because I shared a room with him. Paul’s place in the history of United’s most famous Irishmen is assured as is another one of my good mate’s place – Norman Whiteside. What a player Norman was and what a ferocious pair he and Paul made but having said that, they are two of the nicest lads you will ever meet. I remember Paul, Norman and myself going to a Wolfe Tones concert at an Irish Centre located in the Levenshulme area of Manchester during the mid-1980s. To say we had a bit of craic that night would be a gross understatement. I don’t think Big Norman had ever heard of the Wolfe Tones prior to that memorable night out but by the time we left the place he knew all about the history of one of Ireland’s most famous bands.’
After making 40 League appearances (3 goals) in season 1985-86 and 34 League appearances (2 goals) in season 1986-87, McGrath’s career at Old Trafford went on a downward spiral. Accusations of post training drinking sprees with team-mates, notably Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside, coupled with chronic knee injuries took their toll on his body and severely restricted his ability to train and therefore reduced his appearances in his favoured No.5 United shirt. During his last two seasons at United he played in 39 First Division games (out of a maximum of 84) and scored 3 goals. In August 1989, Alex Ferguson allowed Paul to leave United after making 198 appearances for the club, scoring 16 goals, and he signed for Aston Villa in a £425,000 transfer. In 1959, the movie “This Town Will Never Be The Same” starred the American actor Paul McGrath and was about the last day of publication of a newspaper hit by financial woes and union demands. Both the staff and the community feel its impending loss. When McGrath left Old Trafford the United fans felt his loss and Manchester United was never the same again.
Ron Atkinson, Sheffield Wednesday manager at the time, attempted to sign Paul for the Owls but United opted instead for Villa’s offer. Tottenham Hotspur were also keen on signing Paul but they looked further north and bought Paul Gascoigne from Newcastle United. When Paul left United many sports writers at the time were scratching their heads as to why the Villa manager, Graham Taylor, would pay so much money for a player who was just weeks away from his 30th birthday, had dodgy knees, was injury prone, could hardly run let alone train and according to reports brought some social baggage with him.
James J. Corbett, the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion (7 September 1892-17 March 1897) said: “You become a Champion by fighting one more round. When things are tough, you fight one more round.” McGrath had one more round left in him. Corbett’s words rang so very true with McGrath and he soon had these very same doubters eating their misguided words as he played some of the best football of his career in his 7 years in Birmingham.
In his award winning book, ‘Back From The Brink,’ Paul said that he found the move to Aston Villa a very traumatic one and just 6 weeks into the 1989-90 season he was so depressed that his drinking spiralled out of control and he even attempted suicide. Paul said that his actions were a cry for help and thankfully for all Irish football fans that cry was answered by Taylor. Taylor gave Paul all the support he needed and after spending a month at the Priory Clinic recuperating McGrath had only one thing on his mind when he left and that was to repay the faith Graham Taylor had shown in him. When Paul returned to Villa Park he played in every single game of the season as the Villains narrowly missed out on clinching the First Division title after finishing behind Liverpool. Meanwhile, Taylor was persuaded to take charge of the England national team as the successor to Bobby Robson in the summer of 1990. Now managed by his former boss at United, Big Ron Atkinson, Villa pushed United all the way down to the wire in the race to win the inaugural FA Premier League in season 1992-93. In the end United ended their 26-year wait for that elusive 8th Championship title with Villa finishing runners-up whilst Paul was voted the PFA Player of the Year in deserved recognition of his masterful displays in the centre of the Villain’s defence.
The 1994 League Cup Final pitted United against Aston Villa and it was McGrath and Atkinson who were left beaming with smiles when United were beaten 3-1 at Wembley Stadium. However, United had the consolation of going on to retain their Premier League crown and win the FA Cup to claim the club’s first Double. In the summer of 1996 Paul left Villa and to this day is still considered to be one of the greatest players in the club’s history. Indeed, the Villa fans nicknamed him ‘God’ as a result of the adulation he received in Birmingham. Paul played 252 times for Aston Villa scoring 9 goals in his 7 years with the club. Following brief spells with Derby County (24 games in 1996-97), who he helped to a 12th place finish in their inaugural season in the Premier League, and Sheffield United (11 games in 1997-98), who he helped to the Play-Offs and an FA Cup semi-final, he retired from the game aged 38 with 8 knee operations behind him. He released his autobiography, “Back From The Brink” (co-written with journalist Vincent Hogan) in 2007 and it won the inaugural William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year.
Paul won the first of his 83 international caps for the Republic of Ireland on 5 February 1985 when he came on as a substitute for Mark Lawrenson in a friendly against Italy in Dublin. Interestingly, the Italians would subsequently be the opponents for two major highs in Paul’s 12-year international career. During his first year with the Irish national side Paul found himself in competition with Lawrenson, Mick McCarthy, David O’Leary and his United team-mate, Kevin Moran, for one of the two centre half spots in the team. However, Paul became an established figure in the Irish side after Jack Charlton took charge of the national team in March 1986 and recognised that Paul was as valuable in the Irish midfield as he was in their back four. Two stand-out performances by Paul in an Irish shirt spring to mind when Irish soccer fans are asked about Paul’s greatest matches for his country. The vast majority of Irish fans cite Paul’s two magnificent performances against Italy. In the first of these games Ireland faced the host nation in Rome in the quarter-finals of the 1990 Fifa World Cup Finals. The Italians were short priced favourites to beat Ireland but McGrath was the star performer in the Republic of Ireland’s narrow 1-0 loss when the Juventus striker Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillachi broke Irish hearts. In Ireland’s opening Group E match at the 1994 Fifa World Cup Finals in the USA Paul was in imperious form as he helped his country to an unlikely 1-0 win over Italy in New York. Back in his favourite position at centre-half McGrath was simply magnificent. Ireland led early in the game through a Ray Houghton goal in the 11th minute and then the Irish defence had to endure some periods of sustained attack from the talented Italians. But time and again McGrath repelled Italian attacks, snuffing out danger early, making last ditch tackles and making towering clearing headers. His performance that day in the Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New York had it all including one cameo where he made a number tackles in quick succession finally taking a shot full in the face from Roberto Baggio. Unbelievably he was back on his feet in a flash ready to stop whatever else the Italian attack could throw at him. Paul was certainly a giant for his country that day. During Paul’s international career Jack Charlton acted very much as a father figure to him and there seems to have been a genuine warmth between them. Like Alex Ferguson, Charlton, cuts quite a strict authoritarian figure yet when it came to handling Paul, particularly when it came to dealing with his drinking problems, Charlton dealt with him sensitively and compassionately. Paul played his last game for his country on 14 November 1990 in a 1-1 draw with England at Lansdowne Road, Dublin in a qualifying game for the 1990 European Football Championships. In the 83 games he proudly represented his country he scored 8 times whilst Ireland won 33, drew 29 and lost 28 of the internationals.
“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor (a quote by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle).” Paul McGrath possessed courage in abundance.
On 1 November 2006, Ian Clark from the PFA magazine, http://www.givemefootball, spoke to Paul McGrath about his brutally honest autobiography, ‘Back from the Brink.’ The following is reproduced by kind permission of Players’ Club – the official magazine of the PFA.
IC: By the time you left Manchester United you admitted that your life was going downhill but on the pitch you were still able to play without a care in the world – is that fair?
PMcG: By the age of 26 I knew I was an alcoholic and I had problems with my knees. Graham Taylor was the only manager who put his money where his mouth was. He made a firm offer for me to go to Villa I earned another ten years in the game because of him and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I was told that if I ever left Manchester United I would be on a downward spiral but the supporters took to me at Villa and I had eight seasons there. It was a brilliant move for me. On the pitch, I always had confidence but I lacked it off the pitch. I didn’t like doing interviews, for instance. I suppose that I came alive on the pitch.
IC: Would it be fair to say that Villa saw the best of you?
PMcG: It’s a difficult one. I felt that I played my best football under Ron Atkinson. He was a brilliant manager, full of fun. He loves the game so much and that transmitted itself throughout the side. We were pushing for the title in Ron’s second year. But our main problem was that so many of the lads were young and weren’t able to fix on the prize. The older players realised what was at stake but the younger ones weren’t focused. Perhaps they couldn’t handle it. Yes, I think I played my best football at Villa. At United, even when the team wasn’t doing well, there was much more expected of you.
IC: What was the highlight at Villa?
PMcG: For me, the League Cup victory in 1994 against Manchester United – closely followed by the other time Villa won the trophy against Leeds.
IC: Were you bitter at the way it ended under Brian Little (at Aston Villa)
PMcG: We never fell out. He just didn’t see me as playing every week. I thought I could still play but he wanted new blood in, which was fair enough because I was almost 36. If ever I made a mistake, I would be the first to be dragged off. So I asked to go. To be honest, I probably should have stopped playing earlier, but I still needed to make a living. I loved the game. My knees were telling me to go earlier but I needed to earn money because I knew I’d struggle after I retired.
IC: You still found time to play for Derby and Sheffield United though?
PMcG: Actually, one of my fondest memories came with Derby. I went up to Old Trafford with a young team and won 3-2. At the end of the game, the Manchester United supporters clapped us off the pitch which was a lovely gesture.
IC: Your book is called ‘Back From The Brink’ – is that how you feel now?
PMcG: I moved back to Ireland when I finished playing. I thought I’d be able to work in the media and I thought there would be more work available for me there. It’s proved to be difficult. Writing the book has been brilliant. Reading it back was hard though because I’ve had such highs and lows. Since I moved back there, I’ve had long periods when I’ve been well although it has been a rocky road. And yes, I believe I’m back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d been through an up and down time but I genuinely believe I’m back now. You can’t put your family and friends through what I’ve done to them without realising the time has come to stop. I’ll never give up the fight though. One of us is going to win and I hope it’s going to be me. I know I am blessed because I have good people in my life. I know I was a pretty decent footballer. I know that, despite my worst excesses, I can still be a pretty decent father. I just need to stop running. The past is unchangeable. It’s time to stop looking behind.
“Obstacles don’t have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don’t turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it.”
One of the greatest basketball players ever, Michael Jordan, uttered these words but Paul McGrath’s career mirrored them.
Ooh, Aah, Paul McGrath.
Did You Know That?
Bradford City’s home ground, Valley Parade, was built in 1886 and was the home of Manningham Rugby Football Club until 1903 when Bradford City Association Football Club was formed, the same year the club was elected to the Football League. In 1908, Archibald Leitch, the football architect who designed Old Trafford, among a number of other stadia in Great Britain, was given the commission of redeveloping the ground when the club was promoted to the English First Division. In season 1907-08, the season Manchester United won their first ever trophy, the English First Division Championship, Bradford City A.F.C., Bradford City, nicknamed “The Bantams,” punched above their weight and won the English Second Division Championship. They clinched the title by 2 points over Leicester Fosse (who changed their name to Leicester City in 1919) in a League which also included Blackpool, Burnley, Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. However, on Saturday 11 May 1985, Bradford City played Lincoln City at home in their final Third Division game of the season. The afternoon began well for the home side when they were presented with the Third Division Championship trophy before kick-off but at 3.40pm, 40 minutes into the game, a fire broke out in the main stand and within 4 minutes the windy conditions helped the fire to engulf the entire stand which resulted in the tragic loss of 56 fans. The event became known as “The Bradford City Stadium Fire.” This tragedy was seen by many as a wake-up call for English football clubs to improve the state of their grounds and implement more stringent safety measures to bring an end to various problems which had been plaguing football in England for many years without any effective action being taken by the game’s governing body, the Football Association.