Monday 19 August 2019

'I shouldn't have been anywhere near a football pitch that day' - Paul McGrath on his iconic World Cup display against Italy

Ireland's World Cup dream died in the Orlando heat 25 years ago, but one timeless performance will never be forgotten

Irish football legend Paul McGrath. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Irish football legend Paul McGrath. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

"As I walked out at Giants Stadium, I thought this is just ridiculous. I shouldn't be here and we all knew that."

What followed was one of the most iconic performances in the history of Irish sport, as Paul McGrath repelled the threat of Italy forwards Roberto Baggio and Giuseppe Signori with a display of brilliance made all the more remarkable as he should never have been on the pitch in the first place.

McGrath's seat among the legends of Irish sport was assured long before he elevated himself to a whole new level in the Big Apple 25 years ago and as he reflects on that moment in an exclusive interview with independent.ie, he does so with a sense a healthy degree of bemusement.

"I shouldn't have been anywhere near a football pitch that day and yet people still talk to me all these years later about my performance against Italy," recalls McGrath, who will host a charity golf day at Rathaspeck Manor golf course in Wexford on August 31st.

"As I look back now, I have to ask myself; how the hell did I do that? There was no way I felt I could get through the game and perform anywhere near my best given the condition I was in.

"To be blunt, I was not fit to play and we all knew that. Our manager Jack Charlton knew it, I knew it and if the Italian players had eyes, they would have worked it out very quickly as well as my left arm was hard to move.

"The lads were all laughing at me in training because I had this shoulder problem that was not resolved and it meant I could barely lift my left arm up. It was only Jack's assistant Mick Byrne and some of the coaching staff that convinced him and, to an extent me, to get out there and play against Italy, as I walked out at Giants Stadium, I thought this is just ridiculous. I shouldn't be here and we all knew that. My arm was swinging beside me and I'm trying to play a World Cup match against one of the tournament favourites.

"To be up against Baggio in his prime and a dangerous forward in Signori made the task all the more difficult, but somehow I got through it and somehow, we won."

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The Republic of Ireland team who defeated Italy at USA 94. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

McGrath's stewardship of the defensive line was instantly hailed as a masterclass from all who witnessed it, yet this humble legend insists the real hero of the day has not received the acclaim he is due.

"All I can say about that day at Giants Stadium was Phil Babb must have had the game of his life alongside me in the defence to make me look good," adds McGrath with a smile. "Phil was outstanding that afternoon and covered a lot of ground for me because when you are operating with on arm, it affects your movement on a number of levels.

"That was a fine Italy side and they proved it by getting to the final of the competition, but they didn't enjoy playing against that Ireland team and no one did to be fair. We were very good at what we did, Jack and the coaching team had us well drilled and we gave all the big nations problems when we played them.

"Thankfully it all fell into place for us that day in the biggest competition of them all. Ray Houghton's wonderful goal put is into a lead early on and I remember thinking then that we had a chance to get a draw in the game if we could hang on to the lead for a while.

"We got to half time ahead and as the minutes ticked down in the second half, you start to wonder if something incredible is going to happen and then we get to the end of the game and you have to convince yourself you have won.

"Twenty five years on and people have been coming up to me talking about that game and what we could have done in that World Cup and there is some frustration for me, especially in the way we went out against Holland in the last-16 game. We all made too many mistakes that day and made it easy for them, but the heat, my injury and so many more factors were working against us."

Paul McGrath spoke to Independent.ie ahead of his charity golf day at Rathaspeck Manor golf course in Wexford on August 31st.

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