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'As he lay on a hospital bed with his leg in the cast, the letter arrived from Jack Charlton'

On the latest episode of Behind the Lines, Damian Lawlor tells the extraordinary rise, fall, and rise of Irish footballer Paul McGee.

Paul McGee playing for Wimbledon in 1990.
Paul McGee playing for Wimbledon in 1990.
Image: EMPICS Sport

Updated Nov 10th 2020, 3:13 PM

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN the shouting stops? 

That’s the subject of Damian Lawlor’s new book, When the World Stops Watching, in which Lawlor explores how 16 Irish athletes adapted to the second life of their retirements, and the book tells a host of different stories stretching across a vast spectrum of emotions. 

Damian is our guest on the latest episode of Behind the Lines, our sportswriting podcast exclusive to members of The42. 

(Each episode of Behind the Lines features a lengthy interview with a sportswriter about their career and their favourite pieces of writing, and to gain access to a 51-episode back catalogue, head over to members.the42.ie.

The thread linking the disparate stories told in the book is an almost instant loss of identity. Some deal with it better than others. 

Tommy Bowe, for example, slipped seamlessly into a television career that might yet prove to be even more successful than his rugby years, and Kevin Doyle moved back home and has hardly ever been happier.

Conversely, Niall Quinn retired and withdrew almost entirely from the game, marooning himself on the golf course and even once turning around at Dublin airport to avoid finding himself adjacent to the sport when first asked to do some punditry for Sky. 

The most affecting tale, however, is that of Paul McGee, a blindingly talented Premier League footballer who saw his career wrecked by appalling injury.

Few sports books have as bracing an opening line. 

“Most people shop at Woodie’s for homeware or garden furniture. Paul McGee went there for a rope to hang himself with.”

His suicide attempt was mercifully interrupted by a friend who sensed something was wrong, and as the book details, Paul recovered and is now in a much better place. 

McGee made his name in Ireland with EMFA – an early version of Kilkenny City – and then Bohemians, and rebuffed Terry Venables and Spurs’ overtures to sign for Colchester and the promise of game-time. The day he signed he told them he wasn’t planning to stick around for long, and so it proved: within seven weeks he was signed by Wimbledon, then the FA Cup holders after the Crazy Gang’s famous upset of Liverpool at Wembley in 1988. 

The day McGee would make his debut, manager Bobby Gould sidled up alongside him to tell him the good news. Gould unfortunately told him mid-act, and so needed to wipe down his shoes when McGee swung around to face him in awe. 

It was the day of his 21st birthday and he scored, which set the now famed-permutations of the season’s climax. Arsenal needed to go to Anfield and win by two goals to win the league, which, thanks to Michael Thomas, they ultimately did. 

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McGee star was rising too fast for Wimbledon, and he ultimately signed a £3 million deal with Coventry City. To give an idea as to how his talent was reflected in the fee: Manchester United paid only £750,000 more for Roy Keane. 

Damian takes up the story on the podcast. 

“He went back to the Plough Lane after the contract had been signed, and received a round of applause from his team-mates as he was very popular. He then decided he would join in a training game, as he knew the signing process meant he might not get another game for a week or so.

“During the session a high ball came in, Neil Sullivan collided with him and smashed his leg. It took a year-and-a-half, almost two years, to get it right. 

“And as he lay on the hospital bed with the leg in the cast, the letter arrived from Jack Charlton inviting him into the Irish set-up. He never made it in.

“He got back to playing at Premier League level but the speed was gone, he wasn’t happy there, and the club wanted to offload him as they couldn’t afford his wages, they were sinking.

“He went back to the Irish league and then the League of Ireland, and had spells with Linfield, Athlone and Bohemians but gradually the star faded. 

Then he just lost his way. But the night he was found by his friend was the turning point of his life. Now he goes to the gym every day and has improved his diet, but he says the most important thing he did was to get clinical help and treatment. He bounced back to the stage he played Ireland over-40s, masters level. He had an U21 cap but never got a senior cap. Ireland were short on the left wing as he was hitting the scene, they were playing Staunton there out of position. So he would have got a chance.

“He had all those demons playing on his mind that he could have done this, and he could have done that, but he has got back to such an extent now he loves talking about football on his job.” 

McGee is working as a courier now, and also works with Pieta House. 

“You won’t meet a more genuine guy”, says Damian, “and he’s glad the message is getting out there.” 

Listen to the full interview by subscribing at members.the42.ie. 

When the World Stops Watching by Damian Lawlor is published by Black and White Publishing and is available now. 

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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