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'I was at a point of crisis in my life' - How Graham Taylor saved Paul McGrath's career

Former Aston Villa boss, who died today aged 72, had a huge impact on McGrath’s life and career.

McGrath made 253 appearances in seven seasons with Villa.
McGrath made 253 appearances in seven seasons with Villa.
Image: EMPICS Sport

WHEN PAUL MCGRATH left Manchester United in the summer of 1989, he was at his lowest ebb.

Having fallen out on numerous occasions, largely as a result of the player’s alcohol problems, then-manager Alex Ferguson reluctantly decided to let McGrath go.

United, perhaps wary of the talented defender coming back to haunt them with another club, tried to convince him to retire.

“I was only 29 and the PFA’s Gordon Taylor thrashed everything out with Alex Ferguson and the chairman Martin Edwards on my behalf,” McGrath later said in an interview with FourFourTwo.

“It was all agreed that I would retire and get a pay-off from United and a benefit game in Dublin.

“But I walked out of that meeting in pain — I thought ‘It can’t end like this’.

“I went away and spoke to Bryan Robson, Kevin [Moran] and Norman [Whiteside] and they said I shouldn’t accept it. They were right and deep in my heart I knew I didn’t want to do it, so I rang Gordon Taylor and told him he could tell them to forget it — I wanted to keep playing. They could throw me out of the club, but there was no way I was quitting the game.”

Despite having made well over 100 appearances for Man United as well as earning a 1985 FA Cup winners’ medal during his stint at the club, by the time his career at Old Trafford ended, McGrath was damaged goods in more ways than one.

A move to Napoli, considered the best side in Italy at the time with Diego Maradona their star, ultimately fell through, and many managers were wary about the prospect of signing McGrath. Taylor, however, was willing to take the gamble.

“All I wanted was to be on competitive wages with the reserves, not the first team,” McGrath told The Irish Examiner last year.

Graham Taylor said to me we will give you twice the amount Manchester United will give you. He actually stopped me and said I will try and get you more.”

The early signs following the transfer were far from positive. In McGrath’s autobiography, Back from the Brink, Taylor recalls getting a phone call from the Aston Villa physio Jim Walker explaining that McGrath had slashed his wrists.

“So now I’ve signed a player for £400,000 who, on his seventh game with the club, was drunk on the pitch,” Taylor said. “Then he goes missing on me and then he does this… I remember thinking, ‘Fuck’s sake, have I got a problem here!’”

Remarkably though, McGrath ultimately thrived at Villa. Following a spell on the sidelines spent dealing with his off-field issues, he returned and played in midfield, starring in a 6-0 win over Everton. Following that breakthrough, the London-born footballer subsequently played 35 straight league games.

In 1993, four years after the failed suicide attempt, McGrath was named PFA Player of the Year as Villa came just short of winning the inaugural Premier League. Supporters nicknamed him ‘God’ and he was voted the club’s Player of the Year in four of the seven seasons he spent there. In addition to winning two League Cups with Villa, he also starred in two World Cups for Ireland, putting in a legendary performance in the 1-0 victory over Italy at Giants Stadium in 1994.

Sadly, McGrath’s problems did not go away. Taylor’s successor at Villa, Ron Atkinson, once said of the Irish defender: “This is not possible. What McGrath is doing is just not possible with the amount of preparation that he’s had.”

When a 37-year-old McGrath was named man-of-the-match for Derby in a stunning win at Old Trafford, Ferguson remarked: “You have to wonder what a player Paul McGrath should have been.”

FOOTBALL SEASON 1989/90 Taylor is widely credited with resurrecting McGrath's career at Villa. Source: EMPICS Sport

Yet for all the unfulfilled potential, McGrath still reached incredible heights given his well-documented problems.

It seems unlikely that his career renaissance would have been possible were it not for the tireless guidance of Taylor, whom the Irish footballer credits with saving his career.

Taylor’s compassion was crucial in helping McGrath continue to be a force on the pitch. In an era before the widespread onset of sports psychologists, he displayed impeccable judgement in his handling of the troubled star.

“Once the wrist incident happened and we began to have those talks, I realised this fellow needed help,” he said in Back from the Brink. “He didn’t need hammering about it. He needed help. During this time, the thing that came across to me was that he desperately wanted to stop drinking.”

McGrath added of Taylor: “The thing that struck me above all else was that he was interested in me. I mean he had every reason to be furious. One of his big summer signings had turned out to be a walking mess. I couldn’t have argued if he was obnoxious, if he’d turned on me saying, ‘What the fuck are you like, you dozy twat?’

But he was open and caring, I always felt welcome in his office. He’d say to me, ‘Look, if you need something, come to me. We’re all here to help you.’ That was his attitude. He gave me his home number. I felt I could talk to him on a level I had probably never talked on with anyone else in football.

“He even said to me that if I ever felt things getting on top of me again, I would be welcome to come and stay with him and his wife, Rita. I don’t think I’m being melodramatic when I say that he literally rescued me from a bad, bad scene.

It wasn’t just a case of giving me the time of day. He was giving me time. I was getting a lot off my chest when I’d go see him. In many ways, I was at a point of crisis in my life and I needed someone to pull me back from it. My confidence was in ribbons. I felt intimidated by the smallest things.

“The early days in the Priory, I was just mortified. I wondered how I’d ever be able to show my face at Villa Park again. I imagined that everyone knew what I’d done, and by extension, knew how weak a man I was.

Under another manager, I suspect my career would have been over. But Graham Taylor’s sensitivity worked wonders. The more we talked, the more determined I became to repay him. I felt this urge inside. I wanted to play for this man. To win things.

“I remember vowing, “I’m going to prove something here.”

Taylor emerged with great credit from this difficult situation and his patience with McGrath paid dividends. As the manager later fittingly put it: “I thought to myself, ‘You might have problems, big man, but you sure as hell can play.”

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Paul Fennessy

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