Vincent Hogan: ‘I’m trying to fight a winning battle but I’m nearly certain I’m not winning’
Published 06/10/2010 | 05:00
Paul McGrath peers out across his perfectly manicured lawn to the closed electric gates that, simultaneously, comfort and imprison him.
A high sun dusts Monageer in wan, honeyed light and the view from his living room is all sweeping fields and rippling foliage. We are maybe an hour into the interview and I have just asked him maybe the only pertinent question remaining in the story of a 50-year-old grandfather still running from himself.
Do you understand why people fear where this will end, Paul?
"I worry myself," he sighs quietly after a pause. "I think of Alex (Higgins) and, obviously, George (Best). I even think of Paul Gascoigne. Because I do wonder to myself how long more I'm going to get through this.
"When I close those gates, I sometimes think that I may as well be in prison. For me, it's like being trapped. But it's a trap I've set myself. Now I'm saying to myself: 'The amount of damage that you've done outside.'
"Then again, in other ways, I've loved closing those gates behind me ... "
A set of dumb-bells glistens on the table as a kind of vain, redemptive statement. Upstairs, there is a bench-press for the days he's not feeling ruined. Visually, he looks well but Paul's appearance can -- routinely -- be a lie. Just climbing the stairs, he says, thieves his breath now. Often in the interview, he talks of not having "the energy" of old.
His honesty reaches into deep recesses of chaos and dysfunction. Recently, he stood in court listening to the jigsaw of a black, drunken night being pieced together. The case resulted in him losing his driving licence for three years, a wholly compassionate penalty in the circumstances.
Only the kindness of a neighbour probably separated Paul from a custodial sentence. Two days after the incident, the 65-year-old victim had called to McGrath's house saying he would not press charges on the worst of what had occurred to him that evening.
Then he added something that cut Paul to the very core. "You know you were one of my heroes!"
Later this week, Paul will be in Dublin to launch a warts-and-all DVD of his story, 'Paul McGrath, My Life and Football'. There is a moment in it where he admits that he has been to "something like 13 or 14 rehabs" but that "a lot of times, within weeks, I'm drinking again".
And, ostensibly, it is hard to escape a sense of fecklessness in the alcoholic who lapses so habitually and easily. McGrath understands why people might think that way. Repetition eventually wears away all sympathy.
"Look, I've lost patience with myself," he sighs now. "Because I haven't really got the energy to do this anymore. I know people will say: 'Well just stop drinking! Don't pick it up. Hold your head high and do your walks.'
"Of course people are going to lose patience. But it just doesn't seem that easy for me. Even walking out that door now, I feel so self-conscious about some of the things that I've done. These people have really rallied round me, but I've tormented them up and down this road.
"I'm amazed they're still so supportive, but I could understand them thinking: 'Paul, enough is enough.' I basically knacker things up every time I come out."
He continues: "I know that I can't do too many more (rehabs). A lot of the fight is gone out of me. I seem forever drawn to this thing of 'I'll just get one last bottle from somewhere and that'll be it ... '
"Then I'll take one tablet too many or a drink on a tablet too many and I lose the plot. That's what's hurting me at the moment. Because I was told that this is what could happen. But I never thought I'd be up in front of a court for assaulting someone or taking a car.
"Drunk and disorderly maybe. But that? In all the scrapes I've had, I ended up on the floor most times. And when this man had the kindness to come up to my house and say the things he said, I just thought: 'This can't be right anymore ... '
"It's very tiring and I honestly don't know where it's going to end up. But that incident threw me completely. I can only thank God he was so decent about it. I'm sure a lot of people are judging me now, wondering how I could have turned into 'that thing'.
"People, I suppose, will either understand or they won't."
It is four years since we collaborated on his autobiography, 'Back from the Brink', a publication that would prove the most successful Irish sports book in history. Paul's candour astonished many at the time and, in the months immediately after its success, he would describe doing 'Back from the Brink' as a cathartic experience.
Yet there has been little resolution since to any of the issues that made the book such a remarkable read. If anything, McGrath's life continues to lurch and wheel with increasingly destructive force. And he doesn't much like what he sees himself becoming.
"Something snapped in me that night that led to the court case," he says. "And I'm very concerned about that. Very much so. I mean I've been warned so many times in rehab that this doesn't get better. It gets worse. And here I am now, knowing that it is getting worse.
"When I did the book, everything felt hunky dory. But the last two years probably, I haven't been great. I have felt that I'm slipping back into my old ways.
"I don't like the way I've been acting lately. I'm becoming a person that I don't like. I'm upsetting people. Someone offers you 'a swift one' and, suddenly, you're in a group for the night.
"You don't know them and, to be fair, they don't know the likely consequences. Maybe they get their photograph taken with you. They don't know what I've become. It's why I like to stay behind the gates now. You might notice the garden's looking okay!"
Eight weeks ago, the birth of Talia conferred grandparent status on McGrath. He describes the little daughter of his eldest boy, Chris, as "absolutely gorgeous" and is looking forward to their first visit. "I want to be around to see her growing up," he says. Yet an inevitable anxiety lingers over how she will come to know her Irish grandfather.
"I'm genuinely trying to fight a winning battle," he reflects, "but I'm nearly certain I'm not winning it. People ask me will I go for a game of golf and I'll always go: 'Yeah, yeah, Jesus, love to ... ' and I know for a fact that I won't go 'cos I think to myself, that's out among the public again.
"If I'm being honest about it, I've never been that comfortable in people's company. And that hasn't changed. If anything, it is escalating. Something is not computing too well in my brain, I feel.
"And I've been taking things for so long that my brain is so used to the chemicals, I feel I almost can't function without them. The problem I have, I suppose, is that 80pc of the time I can carry it off.
"People who are close to me will know immediately if I've taken something. But most people would look at me with the suit on and be thinking: 'He's not doing too bad ... '
"I'm getting fed up with that. But mostly I'm fed up of being sick. I mean, I never believed drinking was an illness. I always thought it was just a weak person who couldn't say no, who wanted the bottle rather than look after his kids. Who wanted it to help him get through a game.
"I never believed that I couldn't beat it at some stage. I always thought there'd be a certain point where I'd just say: 'That's it, I've had it with this!' because my body, obviously, has taken a hammering.
"But then, in my mind, it's like I'm taking on the challenge too. I've got this good angel, bad angel on the shoulder type of thing. Bad angel saying: 'You're still a strong lad, you can carry this off. Pop a pill, have a quick drink. You'll dress up nice and neat.
"That's all very well for the first hour or hour and a half. But then ... "
He once went 14 months clean with the help of the late Dr Patrick Nugent and recalls those months as "the best time of my life". Yet, he is loath to use Patrick's death as any glib justification for his recidivism since.
"Look, I've been given every opportunity to make a decent life for myself," he says, intolerant of the very thought. "And, to be fair, I have found one or two people since Patrick died who have been a huge help."
His last spell in rehab ended the week before his annual golf tournament in aid of Cystic Fibrosis last July. He was professionally advised to give the occasion a wide berth but felt his obligations to the event were simply too personal to retreat from it. So he immediately immersed himself back in the organisation and, true to form, lapsed.
Without access to a car now, he has considered the idea of moving back to Dublin, though he has no intention of selling the house in Wexford. He will be at the Aviva for Friday night's European Championship qualifier with Russia and continues to get sporadic coaching work from the FAI.
"They have been brilliant to me," he says. "The girls in the FAI often ring asking if I need anything. John Delaney has been different class."
Yet, Paul knows the only help that -- ultimately -- saves an addict is self-help. "I hate spoofing to people," he acknowledges. "When you're an alcoholic and you wake up after one of these benders, especially when you've taken other stuff as well, you feel absolutely rotten.
"It's bad. But I've been doing it now for 20-odd years. I get out of bed in the morning and I walk like an old man. And I'm saying to myself: 'You're not strong enough to do this anymore.'"
I finish the interview with a simple question. Where does Paul McGrath see himself at 60?
"Well the Chelsea job should be opened up by then!" he smiles a little weakly. "Ah no, seriously, I want to see myself sitting on this couch with my granddaughter, watching TV. I'd love to be just someone who potters around his garden, goes for walks, plays a bit of golf, has a few friends.
"I suppose I'd just love to be around, to be here. That would be a God-send. To be still around and for all my kids to be healthy."
- Paul will be signing copies of his DVD on Friday in HMV, Grafton Street (1.0) and on Saturday in Tesco, Clarehall (12.0) and Heatons, Blanchardstown (3.0).