Manchester United have been blessed with eminent defensive stalwarts in multiple generations since the inception of English football in the late nineteenth century.
From the fabled Bill Foulkes to Martin Buchan, Steve Bruce to Jaap Stam and Gary Pallister to Nemanja Vidic, several noteworthy names that have lined up at the back for the Red Devils form part of footballing royalty.
Another legendary United centre-half was recently celebrated in a beautifully drafted piece in Calciomercato, one that regales audiences with an old tale about a forgotten man whose contributions at Old Trafford are often overlooked.
Paul McGrath is to this day considered an enigma, a player so gifted that he did not require everyday training like other mere mortals, yet a man often haunted and let down by his worst demons.
The Irishman spent seven distinguished seasons at United, racking up over 200 appearances for the Red Devils, which included a man-of-the-match performance during the Red Devil’s FA Cup win against Everton under the stewardship of Ron Atkinson in 1985.
Despite being a top class defender and a leader in the dressing room, McGrath was struggling with persistent knee problems, which coupled with a severe drinking habit meant he was deemed a liability by Atkinson’s successor, a certain Scotsman by the name of Alex.
“It took me several years to overcome that disappointment. I couldn’t accept being shown the door like this” recalls McGrath himself.
“Then one day I finally realized that he was right. I was an alcoholic and a detriment to the club and my teammates.”
McGrath had endured an extremely difficult childhood, bouncing around between foster care and orphanages in Ireland.
Soon enough however, his prodigious talent was noticed by the great Billy Behan, the celebrated Manchester United scout who is also credited with the findings of Don Givens, Kevin Moran and Tony Dunne, among others.
McGrath would eventually be sold to Aston Villa for a fee of £400,000, a price-tag that would be dwarfed by his stellar performances at Villa Park for the upcoming several seasons.
He would win the PFA Players’ Player of the year for the 1992/93 season aged 34, a remarkable achievement that further highlighted how highly McGrath was held by his own peers.
The 85-capped-Irishman also added two League Cups to his trophy cabinet with the Villains, which included a 3-1 victory over Fergie’s United in 1993/94.
“Congratulations son, you really played a great game”, said Sir Alex to his former apprentice as he held out his hand after the game, and the two embraced each other.
It would be the first words exchanged between the pair in over half a decade.
“It was a wonderful time. I was at the top of my profession, loved and respected by teammates and opponents, by fans and insiders and with a wonderful family that I loved and loved me.
“The only one who didn’t love me was me”.
Often misunderstood, and constantly affected by the nightmare that is alcoholism, McGrath never managed to reach his full potential, which is remarkable considering how often he seemed to be the best defender plying his trade in the British Isles.
Ron Atkinson, the man who was able to get the most out of McGrath, summed it up best, saying:
“Paul, but without alcohol … what footballer would you have been?”