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'Most remarkably of all, this was him at his peak': When the Pearl shone brightest

It’s 25 years since the icon was crowned the PFA Player of the Year.

Image: Phil O'Brien
There it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence.”

JUST A FEW short weeks after he walked up to a stage and accepted the Player of the Year award to wild adulation from his fellow professionals, Paul McGrath was AWOL.

The Republic of Ireland were due in Tirana to face Albania in a World Cup qualifier. But as the squad made their way to the Balkans for a curious and tricky fixture, their centre-half was at Cork Airport and pursued by a pesky Marty Morrissey who had a TV report to file for RTE.

“I was skulking around the tarmac, liquor humming through my head,” McGrath later told Vincent Hogan in the seminal Back From The Brink.

He brushed off the relentless questions about why he wasn’t with the Irish team and boarded a flight bound for Birmingham.

But Morrissey had got his scoop. McGrath was supposedly injured but now there seemed to be more to the story.

In Birmingham, he caught another flight. To Israel.

Five years later, McGrath briefly touched on the episode in the official booklet that accompanied his testimonial.

A week on the booze had left me in a depressed haze in Israel of all places when I should have been fighting Ireland’s cause in Tirana. To make matters worse, I had got Caroline (later to become my wife) to phone and say my knee was sore. Jack would have known the truth immediately.”

The FAI contacted Interpol to try and find him and tracked down his hotel.

McGrath had ended up in Tel Aviv but, after a while, realised the party was only temporary.  Before the FAI called, McGrath phoned them.

Long-time Irish physio Mick Byrne later told Hogan that McGrath was ‘in bits’ when they finally talked. He just wanted to come home.

Remarkably, two weeks later, he was back in the Irish lineup for another away assignment against Latvia in Riga. Even more remarkably, McGrath scored the second goal in a 2-0 win – his only one of the entire qualification campaign.

Soccer - FA Premier League - Aston Villa v Coventry City - Villa Park Source: EMPICS Sport

And most remarkably of all, in spite of everything that was occurring in his private life, this was him at his peak.

In spite of the voices in his head and the torrent of complex personal demons, McGrath – during this period particularly – pushed his football to the limits.

Though his exceptional form had been recognised with an individual accolade in England, he should have also finished the 1992/93 season as a Premier League champion.

McGrath played in every single one of Aston Villa’s 42 league games. In the wider context of his battered body, his age (33) and the toxicity of his private life – it’s an astonishing feat.

In total, he missed just one of the 51 they played in all competitions. He contributed four goals in the top-flight, a better return than midfielders Ray Houghton and Kevin Richardson. Some were important strikes too, like the respective winners in home and away wins over Nottingham Forest, the latter coming at a crucial part of the season.

The victory over Forest came on 4 April but within a month, Villa had lost the title.

They had seemingly done the hard part – beating Arsenal at Highbury before navigating a clash with Manchester City pretty easily. But at Ewood Park – the third-last game of the season – there was a turning point after just nine minutes.

With Villa caught high up the pitch, McGrath was pulled to the left side to cover Stuart Ripley. He blocked the winger’s first attempt at a cross but couldn’t repeat the trick. When the ball broke to Mike Newell in the area, Shaun Teale was too slow to react and the attacker turned the ball to the bottom corner.

Given McGrath’s penchant for perfectly-timed interventions, his absence in the box was undeniably critical.

Source: Villa Boy/YouTube

Six minutes later, Teale was turned easily on the edge of the area and Newell’s shot was only parried by Mark Bosnich right into the path of Kevin Gallacher, who doubled Blackburn’s lead. They’d add a third before the end and Villa needed snookers.

Atkinson’s side were stunned. It wasn’t the first time they’d leaked three goals in a game that term but from their previous 11 games, they had racked up seven clean-sheets.

Still, as mercurial as McGrath was at the heart of the defence, Villa began to struggle badly at the other end.

Arguably, their season veered from the intended path in December when they lost Dalian Atkinson to injury.

He had managed 11 league goals by the start of that month but began to suffer with a stomach problem and was ruled out for months. Even after returning to the team, he didn’t score again that season.

For a while, Dean Saunders – a club record summer signing from Liverpool – stepped up and delivered. But when his goals began to dry up in the spring, Villa didn’t have the depth to handle it.

From their final ten games, they managed 10 goals. And three of those came against Man City.

Ultimately, the end came in embarrassing fashion: a home defeat in the penultimate game of the campaign against Oldham that confirmed Manchester United as champions.

Finishing with three straight losses (the final-day reverse to QPR was a hangover from hell) was a damning indictment of Villa’s inability to deliver when it mattered most.

And what surely irritated McGrath, Atkinson and Villa was that the club seemed to have United’s number too.

“For a couple of seasons after leaving United I wanted them to lose every game, but that anger left me,” McGrath told FourFourTwo in 2007.

Maybe we didn’t have the experience or mental strength to go all the way.”

The sides met three times that season and Villa won twice. Dalian Atkinson was the game-winner at Villa Park while Saunders knocked them out of the League Cup at Old Trafford.

But in March, they had to make do with a draw in a game billed as a title decider. Steve Staunton put Villa in front with a magnificent curling drive early in the second-half but their hard work was undone when they conceded instantly.

SOCCER Source: EMPICS Sport

Considering McGrath’s status in the game, his haul of trophies – for himself or his club du jour – is incredibly small.

One FA Cup with United and two League Cups with Villa: a meagre return.

The Player of the Year award may seem inconsequential but it needs to be contextualised. On the 41 occasions it’s been handed out, you can count on one hand the amount of times a defender has been recognised.

McGrath is part of a very special group. Since he stepped up on that stage a quarter of a century ago, only John Terry has followed suit and been acclaimed for his defensive prowess.

But, it’s also worth remembering McGrath’s mindset and the self-sabotage that ran alongside his entire career. The contrast between the powerful player and the fragile man. And somewhere in there, he managed to not just survive but elevate himself to dizzying, inexplicable heights.

“I don’t think there was a better centre-half in the world,” Doug Ellis once said about him.

It may sound like nothing more than ridiculous bias from a former Villa chairman but between 1992 and 1994 especially, McGrath was certainly part of the conversation.

Perhaps if he’d moved to Napoli in the late-1980s, the entire debate would seem less outlandish.

But, applying ifs and buts to Paul McGrath’s career is a wearying exercise. It’s probably more fruitful to just appreciate his greatness and celebrate it whenever we can.      

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Paul McGrath had a very cute reaction when his granddaughter told Ray D’Arcy he’s her favourite person in the world

‘You’re part of the club forever because you’ve worn that red shirt…it’s just magical’

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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