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'They brought a priest in to give me the last rites, that's how bad it was'

The story of Limerick man John McGrath, who began his professional football career at Aston Villa.

TO BREAK UP the long journey from Yorkshire to Dorset, the three team-mates pulled into a service station in Northampton.

John McGrath stepped out of the car and followed the pathway into the shop. 

Thereafter, he was reliant on Lee Elam and Brian Dutton to fill in the gap in his memory. 

When the ambulance crew arrived, Elam and Dutton made contact with Fiona, McGrath’s wife, who was at home back in Doncaster.

Fiona strapped Jay, their two-year-old son, into his seat and pointed the car south. She made her way down the M1 towards Northampton General Hospital, unsure if her husband would still be alive when she arrived.

“They brought a priest in to give me the last rites, that’s how bad it was,” says McGrath. “I was hooked up to a load of machines that were beeping as I was slipping in and out of consciousness. I was in serious trouble.”

* * *

It was no slight on John McGrath’s ability that he wasn’t picked up by an English club until after his 19th birthday. Scouts just hadn’t cast their nets as far as the tiny Limerick village of Monagea.

Although he came from GAA stock, the mesmeric appeal of Eric Cantona, Roy Keane and Match of the Day gradually coaxed him away from hurling and Gaelic football.

His determination to explore the possibility of a career in professional football was manifested by the weekly commutes to Dublin that began when he was 16.

While playing for Corbally United in a tournament in the capital, McGrath had impressed the spectators in attendance, one of whom was the late Noel O’Reilly.

The Limerick youngster was subsequently invited to join Belvedere, a club where he enjoyed considerable underage success over the course of three seasons.

With the Leaving Cert in his back pocket, McGrath had his pick of top League of Ireland clubs. However, the favoured option was an offer that had been extended from across the Atlantic.

He was about to sign up for a four-year scholarship at St John’s University in Staten Island when Aston Villa made contact in July 1999 to gauge his interest in a trial.

Within a couple of weeks of McGrath’s arrival in Birmingham, the Premier League club had seen enough. Monagea lost a promising GAA star but gained a professional footballer.

PA-400207 McGrath joined Aston Villa ahead of the 1999-2000 season. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I would have been at home watching Aston Villa on Match of the Day in April or May, and then a few months later I was on the Villa team bus travelling to a pre-season game with guys like Gareth Southgate, Paul Merson and Dion Dublin,” he recalls. “Sometimes I look back on it now and I wonder how I coped with it.”

McGrath was immediately integrated into the first-team picture by John Gregory, who had steered Villa to a sixth-place finish in the Premier League the previous season.

“Going over when I was a bit older definitely gave me more of an appreciation for where I was, because at heart I was still a country bumpkin. The three years I had going up to Dublin and playing at a good level really stood to me. Going straight over to England as a 16-year-old from my team in Limerick, I wouldn’t have been ready.

“Being around those players in that environment was just an incredible thing for a young fella like me to experience. I have so many positive memories from that time – and a few funny ones too.

“Do you remember the Turkish defender, Alpay? He was late for training once because his car broke down on the M42. It turned out that he didn’t know how to put petrol in his car so he just kept driving until the tank was empty.” 

McGrath’s first season at Villa concluded with a trip to Wembley. He didn’t play in the last FA Cup final to be hosted by the old stadium, but he was included in the 20-man squad that travelled to London for a game that was settled by Roberto Di Matteo’s goal for Chelsea.

“I was one of the unlucky four players who had to keep the suit on that day, but I didn’t mind. Only a year earlier I was playing against St Kevin’s Boys and Cherry Orchard. It was crazy.” 

Chelsea were the opponents again when McGrath’s chance eventually came the following season. On New Year’s Day in 2001, the left-sided midfielder was given his Premier League debut as an 82nd-minute substitute. 

As he entered the pitch at Stamford Bridge and Steve Staunton made way, some of the visiting fans optimistically wondered aloud if the newcomer was a descendant of a club legend.

“My dad surprised me by coming over to watch the game. He was in the away end and he could hear people asking, ‘is this kid any relation to Paul McGrath?’, until it was pointed out that the difference in the skin colour made it fairly unlikely!” 

John McGrath was afforded first-team football twice more during the 2000-01 season, his next outing coming as a half-time replacement for David Ginola at home to Liverpool.

john-mcgrath-1312001 Under pressure from Liverpool's Danny Murphy. Source: Allsport/INPHO

At that stage, the signs were encouraging for a player who had also been capped by Don Givens at U21 level. However, a brief cameo at the end of an away game against Bradford City would transpire to be his final appearance for Villa.

When John Gregory resigned midway through the next campaign, Graham Taylor took charge. McGrath’s plans to make a positive first impression were scuppered by the broken ankle he suffered prior to the former England manager’s appointment.

Gregory, having been named manager at Derby County, expressed an interest in signing McGrath, but Villa had other plans for him. He spent the majority of the 2002-03 season accumulating some much-needed experience of competitive senior football with a loan spell at Conference club Dagenham & Redbridge.

At the end of the campaign, McGrath reached an agreement with Villa to move on. He joined newly-promoted Third Division [League Two] outfit Doncaster Rovers, who were swayed by his performance against them in the Conference play-off final.

“I was 23 when I left Villa. I had only played three games in the Premier League and about 25 or maybe 30 in the Conference with Dagenham & Redbridge. So I was four years into my career and I had only played about 30-odd games. I wanted to put some roots down somewhere and actually make an important contribution to a team every week.” 

He won a Third Division title at Doncaster, yet McGrath grew frustrated with the bit-part role that restricted him to just 11 appearances. There were moves to Shrewsbury Town and Kidderminster Harriers, before a brief stint at home with Limerick in the League of Ireland First Division. By then, his determination to persevere was beginning to erode.

With the intention of clawing his way back to the Football League, he returned to England in January 2006 to join a Weymouth side who were en route to winning the Conference South title. For McGrath, a move that was geared towards saving his professional football career was soon superseded by a battle to save his life. 

“I used to stay in a hotel down in Weymouth,” he explains. “One night before a game, I woke at about 4am in absolute agony. I was really struggling to breathe and I couldn’t lift my left side. I thought at first that I was having a heart attack.

“I rang the club physio and a doctor was sent straight out to me. They thought that I had strained a muscle in my chest by lifting a suitcase up onto the bed. But it didn’t feel like a muscular pain at all. 

“The manager rang me in the morning to see how I was. Me being me, I told him I’d be fine after taking some Ibuprofen. I went out and was able to play the 90 minutes and we ended up being given a few days off afterwards because we were flying at the top of the league.

soccer-nationwide-league-division-three-doncaster-rovers-v-carlisle-united Playing for Doncaster Rovers in 2004. Source: EMPICS Sport

“I was lying on the sofa at home up in Doncaster on the Sunday night and Fiona came in and said: ‘John, you don’t look well at all’. I had gotten through the game but I knew I wasn’t right after it. I was slowly deteriorating.

“I felt terrible but I had to go back down to Weymouth the next day. The manager said I’d have to come in and see the club doctor, so I went down with a couple of the lads who were travelling that way as well. We stopped off in Northampton and that was when I collapsed.”

McGrath, who was a few weeks shy of his 26th birthday, underwent tests which revealed a severe bout of pneumonia that confined him to a hospital bed for over two months. 

“The lung on my left side basically collapsed. It was full of fluid. It didn’t help that I played a full game the day after I first noticed the symptoms. I probably did myself more damage there just because I didn’t want to give in to something that I didn’t realise was so serious.

“I got Bell’s palsy then as well, so the left side of my face and neck was paralysed for a while. I couldn’t blink, I couldn’t smile, I couldn’t move my left shoulder. It was very tough.”

The administration of the last rites ultimately wasn’t necessary, but he was informed in no uncertain terms that the physical toll of the ordeal would prevent him from returning to professional football. 

“The doctors told me I’d never again be able to kick a football, and I believed them – of course I did. I mean, I nearly died. My fighting weight is about 11 and a half stone, but I dropped down to five and a half stone. I was very lucky to come through what I did.

“The recovery came over time but it was a very, very slow process, particularly because I couldn’t move a lot of the time with bed sores. Thankfully I was starting to feel a lot better after a really difficult few months.

“Fiona wanted us to go on holiday then and the doctor recommended that we go somewhere that I’d eat a lot of crappy food. I had to pile on the pounds because of all the weight I’d lost, so we went out to America because of the big portions. Normally I eat well and look after myself, but it was burgers and chips for that entire holiday.”

Upon his return, McGrath spent the summer attempting to rebuild himself as an athlete. The impact of his duel with a serious illness dwindled gradually with each gym session. He respected the medical expertise of those who reckoned his physical capabilities would be curtailed, but if this was to be the end for John McGrath as a footballer, he needed to find that out for himself.

With clubs viewing him as damaged goods, options were limited. As the start of the 2006-07 campaign approached, however, the benefit of the doubt came from Conference club Tamworth. Seven months after taking ill, McGrath returned to competitive football.

soccer-fa-cup-second-round-rushden-diamonds-v-tamworth-nene-park Celebrating scoring a goal shortly after returning to football with Tamworth. Source: Tony Marshall

He managed to play 42 games that season, and although it ended in relegation for his new club, McGrath’s form generated interest from the manager of a team whose attention was focused on the opposite end of the table.

After being brought to Burton Albion by Nigel Clough, McGrath – who was later appointed captain – was the club’s Player of the Year in 2008. Twelve months on, he played a key role in their promotion to the Football League for the first time. 

“Getting pneumonia was a major thing at the time, but I was able to get to a stage where I wanted to make sure it was only a minor setback in terms of where I wanted to go, which was back into the Football League.

“I never took anything for granted again after it. The whole experience is what drove me on from there. Going through that made me properly appreciate what came after it.

“Tamworth will forever be close to my heart because no club wanted to touch me then. They took a chance and they got the best out of me. I was earning a pittance but it didn’t matter because I was able to put my boots on and play again. They got a player who was willing to run through brick walls, and I think that’s what got the attention of Nigel Clough.”

McGrath spent four more seasons with Burton Albion following their ascension to League Two. After turning 33, and having endured a year that was hindered by a foot injury, he was released by the club in the summer of 2013.

Three years later, Burton reached the heights of the Championship thanks to back-to-back promotions. Amid the celebrations that followed the goalless draw with Doncaster Rovers that gave them the point they needed to get out of League One, Nigel Clough picked up the phone.

“I think it was just after six o’clock when he rang me, so the game wasn’t long over,” says McGrath. “Even though they were just after achieving something enormous, he went out of his way to thank the guys who were there when the journey started years earlier. That was a lovely gesture, I thought. It meant a lot to me.” 

* * *

One of John McGrath’s proudest sporting achievements can be traced back to an evening in Kilmallock in November 1997.

At the age of 17, he was a member of the Monagea side that defeated Ballybrown to win the Limerick Junior Hurling Championship for the first time in the club’s history. His father, John Senior, was one of his team-mates during the 2-8 to 0-9 win.

A game McGrath was involved in nine months ago evoked memories of that occasion. 

Since 2016, he has been in a full-time role as player/manager of Mickleover Sports of the Northern Premier League – the seventh tier of English football. His 17-year-old son, Jay, who’s attracting interest from Football League clubs, is a current member of his squad. 

“We were the first father and son to play in the same team in an FA Cup game,” McGrath says of Mickleover’s preliminary-round win against Coventry Sphinx back in August. “It was great that my dad was active enough in his mid-40s to still play hurling. I’ve just turned 40 now and to play in games with Jay was lovely.

“I’m still training all the time. He wants to go running every day so that’s keeping me fit and healthy. The only issues I’ve had since the pneumonia are football injuries. In terms of my overall health, I’m absolutely fine – touch wood.”

soccer-npower-football-league-two-burton-albion-v-oxford-united-pirelli-stadium McGrath had a six-year spell at Burton Albion. Source: EMPICS Sport

In summarising a playing career that still hasn’t officially come to an end, McGrath says: “I loved it at Villa. I played for the club in the Premier League and no one will ever take that away from me.

“But I think more about being a Burton Albion player for over 250 games and achieving what I did there. After staring death in the face, to go on and win the Conference with Burton and to captain the club in the Football League, that meant a lot more to me than playing a few games in the Premier League.

“For me, it was never about money, status or anything like that. It was just about making a career. I’m one of the few who was lucky enough to be paid to play football, which has allowed me to buy a house and raise three kids.

“I was able to go to work and do something that I absolutely loved. I don’t consider myself to have been a Premier League player or a non-league player. I’m a guy who had a football career that I was very pleased with. Simple as that.

“Don’t get me wrong though – when I coach our academy kids, all they want to talk about are the players I played with and against in the Premier League. It’s lovely to be able to say that I was on the same pitch as someone like Steven Gerrard. I still didn’t get near him though!”

Taking Mickleover Sports to the next level and managing in the Football League are among his aspirations. Like so many of us during the Covid-19 lockdown, his plans are on hold for now, yet McGrath appears unvexed in the face of the ongoing uncertainty.

That he’s around to make plans at all is something to be grateful for.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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