Dion Fanning: I admire Paul McGrath (Footballer)
Published 29/04/2015 | 00:00
We used to count them all in when they arrived at Lansdowne Road. My brother and I would get to the ground early for Ireland's home games, a tradition that began during the Charlton era and finished shortly before the end of it when we found we had better things to do.
In 1990, we still covered the essentials, which always included watching the players wander into the dressing room after the team coaches parked behind the West Stand before we would conduct a pitch inspection. The Lansdowne Road turf was a great variable and while Jack liked it to be bumpy, as football men, we hoped for a pristine surface, something that was in keeping with Ireland's new status as one of the elite.
In the autumn of 1990, the pitch was on the up and there was a new hysteria about Ireland, so we were there early when Ireland played Turkey. Paul McGrath had been Ireland's outstanding player at the World Cup and while some of us felt that title would have been claimed by Ronnie Whelan if Charlton had selected him, there was no disputing McGrath's position.
Never has a man so vulnerable been so reliable. The love the nation had for McGrath might have flowered because of his weaknesses and his charm but it stemmed from his majesty. After the game against England in Cagliari, Eamon Dunphy showed a clip of McGrath smiling at the referee. "That's the difference between us and them," Dunphy said and if it was an outbreak of sentimentalism. Did England's players never smile? We were also prepared to believe it.
Even those of us who quite liked the England team knew the difference. They were hounded, trapped between the pincer jaws of their nation's demands and the destruction their supporters could bring to any European city. It turned out that 1990 would be different for them, thanks to another man with his own vulnerabilities, but that didn't matter as we cherished our own.
His were barely concealed from public view by the euphemism of 'Paul McGrath's knees' which was even more convenient because there was a truth to it.
On that day in 1990, everybody who watched the Irish team get off the coach knew the true story when Paul McGrath stayed in his seat. We watched the players walk in to the ground and then we realised that not all of them had. Soon Jack walked out under the West Stand and climbed back on to talk to Paul McGrath. In his autobiography, McGrath says that Charlton told him he would never play for Ireland again if he didn't get off the coach. Charlton had always handled McGrath kindly but this time he returned alone from the coach and McGrath left for the team hotel.
It seemed like an ending, a fracture that would be hard to heal but there were so many days to come, Wembley, Giants Stadium and points in between that signalled McGrath's majesty and his ongoing vulnerability.
In 1993, Ireland played Denmark at Lansdowne Road. In England, Paul McGrath had just been voted the PFA Player of the Year. For once, the award was a recognition of greatness.
Before the game, the Irish players walked into the dressing room through the people gathered behind the West Stand and Paul McGrath was among them. As he passed through the crowd, the applause started. It wasn't raucous, it wasn't a defiant match-day cheer and it was directed at only one man. It was an expression of gratitude and, perhaps, of love.
It was another moment in the presence of Paul McGrath when everything was all right.