Some would have us believe the nickname ‘The Black Pearl’ is, at best, politically insensitive if not downright incorrect, yet somehow if perfectly fits the man on whom it was first bestowed more than three decades ago.
Voted PFA Players’ Player of the year in 1993, McGrath has surprisingly little in the way of tangible medals and honours to show for a career spanning 17 seasons as a professional, but those of us lucky enough to have seen him play in the flesh can give testimony to just what an awesomely magnificent player he really was.
That he was able to enjoy such a sustained career after overcoming obstacles that would have floored a lesser man made his achievements all the more remarkable.
Celebrating his 60th birthday just a week ago, McGrath did not have the easiest of starts in life. The result of a mixed-relationship between his Irish mother, Betty McGrath, and his Nigerian father, Paul was placed into foster care as a baby.
Although his mother visited him often as a young boy, Paul was eventually raised in an orphanage in Dublin and by all accounts suffered from a great deal of bullying and victimisation due to his mixed-race.
Those who knew him at the time, however, say that despite this most unfortunate start in life McGrath grew up to be a pleasant and friendly if somewhat quiet and introverted boy.
His mother stayed in his life, and into his teenage years, the two lived together again. By this time McGrath was heavily into football and after some forays into local football, he was signed by League of Ireland side, St. Patrick’s Athletic where he made his professional debut in 1981 at the age of 21.
It was at the Richmond Park club that he first acquired the nickname “The Black Pearl of Inchicore”, and it was the shortened version that stayed with him the rest of his career and persists to this day.
McGrath combined playing for St. Patrick’s with working as an apprentice metal worker and was highly thought off in both roles of employment. In fact, it was due in part to the progress he was making in his career away from football that he very nearly turned down the chance to leave St. Patrick’s in 1982.
After just one season at St. Patrick’s, McGrath started to gain attention from clubs ‘over the water’. Amongst those tracking his progress were Manchester United, then managed by Ron Atkinson, and when United finally made their move McGrath’s first instincts were to turn the club down.
As he himself stated in an interview in FourFourTwo magazine many years later: ‘I was actually earning more playing part-time for St Pat’s and working with the metal gates than what Manchester United offered me. When I was asked to go to Manchester I really had to think about it and nearly turned it down.’
Luckily for all concerned, McGrath decided to go to Manchester and take up Atkinson’s offer and so a legend’s career really got underway. Quickly making friends with another young Irishman, McGrath settled down to life at Old Trafford, but while his new best friend came from the north, was four years his junior, and soon made his breakthrough in the team, McGrath found himself playing second-fiddle both on and off the pitch.
Norman Whiteside was everything that Paul McGrath was not. He was loud, he was an extrovert, and he was very self-confident and self-assured. In stark contrast to Whiteside, McGrath suffered from both nerves and a lack of faith in his own ability throughout the entirety of his career.
McGrath described himself as a person who needed a drink in order to settle his nerves off the field, and a good early touch in the game in order to settle them on the park. In the 17-year-old Norman Whiteside, he found a kindred spirit he felt close to and with whom he could actually relax around.
The two became inseparable, but as McGrath himself says despite their age difference it was Whiteside who led the way with McGrath more than happy to follow.
McGrath played intermittingly in his first two seasons at United, not making the 1983 FA Cup Final squad, but made a breakthrough in the 1984-85 season as United challenged Merseyside’s grip on the domestic trophies.
The latter stages of the 1985 FA Cup saw United overcome first Liverpool after a replay, and then Everton at Wembley to deny the Toffees the Double. In all three games, McGrath was simply imperious.
The final that year is, of course, remembered for the sending off of Kevin Moran who became the first player to ever be dismissed in an FA Cup Final for a foul on Everton’s Peter Reid.
What is often forgotten is that it was McGrath’s poor pass to Moran that was intercepted by Reid and allowed him to run through on goal. McGrath said that for years afterwards, he felt guilty about that pass and for causing Moran to bring down Reid.
With ‘Big Ron’ at the helm, it was a case of ‘so-near-and-yet-so-far’ with regards to the league title, with golden opportunities to end the wait for the championship passed up time and again. One of the reasons put forward for United being unable to last the pace of a nine-month season was the alleged existence of a ‘drinking culture’ at United at the time.
This allegation has been a bone of contention over the years, but what is undeniable is a number of players certainly enjoyed a drink or two at the time. The three names invariably put forward as perhaps the biggest culprits at the time are Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath.
McGrath first realised he had a problem with drink in his early twenties, but being a naturally shy man he used alcohol as a crutch to give him confidence. This perhaps escalated to the stage where he became dependant on alcohol and, by his own admission, developed into full-blown alcoholism.
Not long after United failed to win the title in 1986, Atkinson was sacked and the man who would ultimately end McGrath’s Old Trafford career took up residence in the United hot-seat.
Alex Ferguson arrived from Aberdeen in November 1986 and was shocked at what he perceived to be a lack of fitness and professionalism in the squad he had inherited. According to his own accounts, he tried hard to get both Whiteside and McGrath back on track and counselled them accordingly.
All attempts were to no avail, however, and so he finally decided he had no option but to dispense with the pair of them.
Matters came to a head when the two players appeared drunk live on television the eve of an important cup match with QPR. Although neither man was expecting to play the next day, that wasn’t really the point and Ferguson had had enough.
McGrath came into work the following Monday to find himself summoned to a meeting where he was informed that United wished to cancel his contract, pay him a six-figure sum, and agree to a testimonial in Dublin. In return, McGrath would agree to retire from the game.
After due consideration, McGrath turned the ‘offer’ down and decided to keep playing. Although he did play a few more games for United after this incident, his time at Old Trafford was up and in August 1989 he was transferred to Aston Villa.
It was true that McGrath didn’t want to leave United and in his disappointment, he sold his story to a down-market Sunday newspaper. The article quoted him at length being disparaging about United and his former manager in particular, and so the club announced its plans to take legal action.
It was a mean and spiteful end to McGrath’s time at United and in direct contradiction to the legendary manager’s oft-cited proclamations that ‘loyalty is everything’.
Anyway, despite being written off by many people, McGrath went on to play some of the best football of his career at Villa Park under first of all Graham Taylor, and then Ron Atkinson (again), and finally Brian Little. Twice he came closer to winning the title with Villa than he ever did with Manchester United, and twice he won the League Cup.
It was this period of his career that also really saw him shine on the international stage under Jack Charlton. The two men got on famously and developed a real bond over the years together (as did McGrath and Graham Taylor, in particular) and so McGrath responded in kind on the field.
A run to the Quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup and a memorable battle with hosts Italy was followed four years later with a rematch against the Italians in New York.
It was here that McGrath played arguably his finest ever 90 minutes in his career. Time and again he stood firm in the face of incessant Italy pressure, putting himself and his body on the line repeatedly and marking Roberto Baggio out of the game.
His presence and the sheer aura surrounding him that day was an inspiration to those players bedecked in the green of Ireland around him, and the Republic prevailed to a richly-deserved 1-0 victory.
Writing later in his autobiography, Roy Keane had this to say on McGrath’s performance that day: “Big Paul McGrath showed all the qualities demanded of us for half an hour in Giants Stadium that day. For him the word big is appropriate. Known for his poise, his ability on the ball, his unique gift for reading the game, Paul displayed these qualities on this day. One other huge asset was his courage. When the Italians did get sight of the goal, Paul presented a final, insurmountable obstacle. Paul inspired us as much as in the end he demoralised Roberto Baggio and the other Italian players “.
Seven years and more than 300 games after being advised to retire by Alex Ferguson and Manchester United, Paul McGrath finally left Aston Villa. Still he wasn’t quite finished with football, though, and two more seasons at Derby County and Sheffield United followed before Old Father Time ultimately caught up with him and he finally retired a month before his 38th birthday.
Undoubtedly one of the all-time greats, the legacy of Paul McGrath lives on. Not just an absurdly talented man, but by all accounts one of the nicest men in football too.
Paul McGrath, a true legend.