'I was hoping Fergie would get sacked - I didn't say a word to him for five years after he threw me out of Man United'
IT was a rare moment when Paul McGrath allowed his composure to slip and provide the excuse Alex Ferguson needed to eject him from Manchester United.
McGrath’s presence in a United line-up assembled for a game that was built around the latest comeback effort for injury-prone skipper Bryan Robson in 1989 confirmed that he was no longer part of Ferguson’s plans, with his reaction to a dressing down from his manager sparking his annoyance.
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The scene at Altrincham saw McGrath urging Ferguson to stay quiet after he felt he had been unjustifiably picked out for criticism by his manager, with United later offering their 1985 FA Cup-winning centre-back a £100,000 pay-off to leave the club and retire.
At the age of 29, it was not a proposal he was ready to accept and after the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) got involved to inform United that McGrath wanted to continue his career, an exit from Old Trafford was the only option.
"There was plenty of resentment bubbling inside me when Ferguson showed me the exit door at Old Trafford back in 1989 and at the time, I remember thinking he would not be too far behind me in getting the boot from United," reflects McGrath on his red devil demise.
"If I’m being honest, I was hoping he would get the sack and I didn’t say a word to the man for the first five years after he threw me out of United, as I had a lot of animosity towards him for ending my career at the club – but you move on from that.
"To have a bit of success with United and then have it snatched away was tough to accept at the time.
"However, the years that followed have confirmed that I was hardly alone in being given the ruthless treatment by Fergie and all these years on, I can’t have anything but respect for the man.
"What was initially grudging admiration for Ferguson and the success he enjoyed in the mid-1990s has been replaced by respect for a manager whose record of success got more incredible with each passing year."
McGrath played 203 times for United, was a member of the 1985 FA Cup-winning team and secured hero status among the Old Trafford faithful, who appreciated his class during a period when his problems off the field often got in the way of his brilliance on it.
With his knees creaking and Ferguson among the football luminaries suggesting McGrath was finished as a top-level performer, this sporting giant was driven to prove the United manager had been hasty in his rush to judgement.
"I was the manager of Sheffield Wednesday when Paul’s time at United was coming to an end and I called Fergie to see if we could do a deal for him," reflects his former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson, as he looks back on how he was reunited with the player he initially introduced to the Old Trafford first team in the 1982/83 season.
"Then I got a phone call from Graham Taylor at Aston Villa asking me for my advice on big Paul and I probably should have said... steer clear, he’s trouble. That way, I could have got to sign him myself.
"Unfortunately, a few days later, he signed for Villa and then, in a bizarre twist of fate, I ended up at Villa Park as manager and Paul was back with me again."
McGrath reflects on his time at Villa as a love affair that flourished during seven memorable seasons, with managers Taylor, Jozef Venglos, Atkinson and Brian Little giving him a platform to produce some of his best football in the second chapter of his career in England.
Despite the knee problems that stopped him from training more often than not, his performances where it mattered most rarely faltered and the success he achieved at Villa arguably trumped his achievements at Manchester United.
PFA Player of the Year in the first season of the Premier League in 1992/93, (ironically, the first year Fergie won the title at United) his Villa story reached a crescendo as Atkinson’s side – featuring his fellow Ireland internationals Steve Staunton and Andy Townsend – won the League Cup against Ferguson’s United in March 1994.
Ferguson congratulated McGrath on the pitch at Wembley by thumping him in the chest after Villa’s 3-1 win and congratulating the giant who had helped to neutralise his first United dream team.
A second League Cup triumph arrived as Brian Little’s Villa beat Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds in the 1995/96 final, as the veteran McGrath marshalled a defensive line-up that included current England manager Gareth Southgate.
Remarkably, the player who was encouraged to retire by Ferguson and United chiefs in 1989 went on to play 323 games for Villa and also had a stint at Derby before his body finally gave up and his career ended with a dozen appearances for Sheffield United in the 1997/98 season.
His legend was secure long before a final match against Ipswich on November 9, 1997, just before his 38th birthday, with the adulation that has flowed his way in the two decades since confirming this is an Irish sporting legend in a league of his own.
To celebrate his 60th birthday on Wednesday, it's Paul McGrath week on Independent.ie.
Tomorrow: Vincent Hogan looks back on the career of the legendary Ireland centre back.
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