'You keep thinking, 'that could have been me'' - The Ireland flanker who watched the World Cup from a Manchester prison
When Dylan O’Grady sat down to watch Ireland at the 1999 World Cup, one thought kept popping into his head again and again.
The Manchester-born flanker had been capped on an ill-fated trip to Italy five days before Christmas in 1997, and had hoped to make enough of an impression to eventually force his way into the squad for the marquee tournament two years later.
Fast-forward 22 months, and O’Grady is absorbing Ireland’s catastrophic World Cup campaign through a prism of regret.
Missing out on the competition was literally like a prison sentence for the then 28-year-old, and not in the way Jamie Redknapp uses the word - O’Grady watched the tournament as an inmate in Manchester’s Strangeways Prison.
A few months earlier he had been caught by undercover police officers and convicted for conspiracy to supply Class B drugs, ending his international career.
Televised rugby was meant to be a reward for prisoners who behaved well, but for O’Grady it was closer to a punishment. A reminder that despite all he had gone through since making his Ireland debut, with a couple of different decisions, it could have been him out there.
“A few of the wardens were rugby lads and they would be chatting to you about it, and there were a few sly digs about it, but that is what you have to put up with I suppose,” O’Grady says.
“You had people in there saying ‘that could have been you’ and that sort of thing but it was my decision to do what I did. We watched the World Cup there, if you worked you were allowed TV and we were allowed watch the rugby.
“I watched it and enjoyed it but you just keep thinking, ‘that could have been me’.”
Before we get to the series of events that led to O’Grady sitting in a cell while his professional rugby career lay a smouldering wreck in the outside world, it’s well worth exploring the backstory of one of Ireland’s most unlikely internationals.
Born in Manchester with Irish grandparents, O’Grady joined Sale in the dying embers of the amateur era. As the game crept into semi-pro territory and then transitioned into full professionalism, O’Grady maintained his regular job - although bouncing on the door of Friday’s nightclub just outside Manchester can hardly be described as regular.
During his first season as a professional player under future All Blacks coach John Mitchell, O’Grady – working alongside a cast of characters that included local tough guys and Olympic-style wrestlers – continued to moonlight as a bouncer, oftentimes meeting half of English rugby’s top flight during a night’s work.
“There were nights where I would have played and then went straight to work on the door,” he says.
“Sale would have come in, the team we played would have come in and London Irish was just up the road, so they would come in too.
“I didn’t drink. I’d tell the lads, ‘I’m off to work’ and they would have a few and then come see me later on.
“It was my livelihood before I started picking up money from rugby. I was having to work on the door ‘til half two at night and then be at Sale at 8 in the morning for training. When it first went professional I was still working on the door, and then when they went to renew the first contracts, John Mitchell got involved and said he rather I didn’t do it anymore. I got a renewed contract instead.”
No longer having to physically tax himself by tossing revellers out of a nightclub queue, O’Grady’s form caught the attention of the Ireland selectors after he opted to leave his nocturnal employment behind.
His brief career in green was a product of the Brian Ashton era of Irish rugby, which only lasted slightly longer than O’Grady’s one international cap. Ashton’s Bath side had cut a swathe through English rugby with a swashbuckling style so successful and enviable, the IRFU opted to lease it as part of an unprecedented six year contract given to the English coach.
There was one glaring problem with the expansive style Ashton tried to implement – Ireland didn’t really have anyone with the skill set required to play it. Upon discovering this, the new coach began to select certain English-based players instead.
O’Grady’s team-mate and fellow flanker David Erskine broke into the national team first, while John O’Driscoll put O’Grady on Ashton’s radar by getting him involved with the Irish Exiles.
A call-up followed for the end-of-year encounter with Italy in Bologna in December 1997, a game which, if played today, would be the perfect way to ease into international rugby with a few eye-catching carries against flagging opponents.
Unfortunately for O’Grady, this was a period when Ireland were routinely pulverised by the emerging Azzurri.
This game was no different - Italy won by 15 points and O’Grady didn’t know if his first cap would be his last.
“I think I played alright but it was a very tough game,” he says.
“They went out to play a really physical style and I think we went through three out-halves.
“I was disappointed that we lost the game and you always think that that could be the end of it. I’ve had my chance and blown it, that sort of thing.
“I don’t know if it was one step too many for me or a year too late.”
Legendary second row Malcolm O’Kelly has vivid memories of rooming with O’Grady on the trip, which give an insight into the path the Sale star was on at the time.
“He was a great ol’ storyteller,” O’Kelly said in the book, No Borders: Playing Rugby for Ireland.
“He was a likeable guy but had a chequered past to say the least. He had all these yarns about organised criminals in Manchester. He was privy to a lot of information. I was loving it. I was all set to go to Manchester for a look.”
O’Grady turned down an opportunity to play provincial rugby in Ireland shortly after the game, which all but scuppered any chance he had of establishing himself in the national team - and any lingering hope that he could claim a place in the World Cup squad was subsequently extinguished by his off-field judgement.
O’Grady didn’t want to leave Manchester to play in Ireland, ‘I’m a homeboy’, he says. Perhaps if he had left, he would have avoided what came next.
“It was an undercover police operation and I was arrested for conspiracy to supply class As and class Bs [drugs],” O’Grady says.
“I got the Class As dropped in court. I got 18 months and served just under a year.”
O’Grady is honest about his motivations when looking back on the choices he made almost 20 years ago.
“Gutted, I suppose,” he says with a rueful laugh when asked how it felt to discover he was dealing with undercover police officers.
“It was a way to make money, basically, when you didn’t have the income. A way to get by. There are things you start off doing and then it just gets bigger and bigger.
“You’re not going it into it blind, you know what you are getting into.
“The circle of friends I had, everybody was sort of that way inclined. You make your own decisions in life. I wish I had just concentrated on rugby full stop and kept away from those things but I did it, I made those decisions. You decide to do whatever you do and you pay the consequences.”
The consequences were severe for O’Grady. His contract with Sale was wound up and any small chance he had of returning to the national set-up, or to get a provincial contract, evaporated.
“It was over then,” O’Grady says of any aspirations he had to play for Ireland again.
“They [The IRFU] wouldn’t have wanted to associate themselves with what went on. Sale got rid of me, which you could understand. It’s the realities of life, isn’t it? It was tough to take, but there was only one person to blame.”
O’Grady wasn’t afraid of going to prison – ‘Not really, because I knew everyone there’ – but there were some aspects of losing his freedom that hurt more than others, most of them sport related.
There was its recreational absence from his life: “The big thing was that it was the treble year for Man United. I’m a massive United fan so I was missing that because I used to go all the time.”
And the professional one: "The toughest thing about it is that you can’t do what you want to do. There was nothing worse than on a Saturday and you would be sitting there thinking, ‘I should be playing rugby right now’.”
He did get one chance to get his rugby fix in Strangeways Prison. The notoriously tough institution was, for one day, turned into an oval ball homage to Mean Machine. No guards took part in the inmates’ game of touch rugby though, where regular rules were quickly replaced with their prison equivalent.
“One time they let us play touch rugby but they weren’t too happy,” O’Grady says.
“It was fun. A few lads were sticking their shoulders in and I showed them how to do it properly. I knew how to put my shoulder in a lot better than they did.”
Without rugby, there is every chance O’Grady would have resumed the life that landed him in prison in the first place. But during his time in Strangeways, he was visited by the coach of Fylde RFC and given a lifeline.
The prison yard battle provided adequate preparation for the immediate physicality of lower league rugby.
“I got out on a Thursday and played rugby on the Saturday,” O’Grady says.
“The coach of Fylde had come to see me in prison and asked me if I would play for them.
“A year later Sale asked me to come back in and train with them and I thought about going in, but then I thought, they didn’t show me any loyalty when the s**t hit the fan and Fylde did, so I wanted to show loyalty to them. Sale offered me three months. Maybe it was a mistake to say no but I wanted to show loyalty to Fylde.”
Dylan O'Grady (right) in action for Fylde RFC
And loyalty he showed, playing for the club for over ten years before retiring at close to 40 years old. Now, O’Grady lives a bit outside Manchester, where he installs utilities for a living and while he still keeps in touch with some characters from his previous life, he is more than happy to live a quieter, less tumultuous existence.
And he isn’t bitter or embarrassed that he never added to the caps column next to his name on the Irish rugby website either, preferring to look upon the achievement as an affirmation of his lifelong passion for the game, a passion that helped get his life in order after he had lost everything.
“Now I just go to work and live a happy life,” he says.
“I see a few mates from the old days but that is as far as it goes. I enjoy my job – it keeps me fit, keeps me outside and keeps me out of trouble.
“You get a few people calling you a one-cap wonder but I did it. No matter what anyone else says, I’ve done it. A lot of it is jealousy. It is usually the ones who haven’t got anything that will try to belittle you.
“If you want to look at my CV, it is down there in black and white. Nobody can take it away from you.”