Wednesday 19 June 2019

'I'm still drinking a little bit. But not to half the extent I used to' - Vincent Hogan meets Paul McGrath

'I know my life isn't perfect but I honestly feel okay in my own skin'

Irish football legend Paul McGrath. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Irish football legend Paul McGrath. Photo: Naoise Culhane
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Six months short of his 60th birthday, Paul McGrath sits in the lobby of a northside hotel, sounding like an accidental tourist in someone else's story.

He's not nostalgic for the past, just faintly startled by it and what the years have spared him.

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Paul McGrath
Paul McGrath

McGrath doesn't tart up his life in Monageer today as any kind of idealised lie, but the dull rigmarole of it brings him contentment now. The sing-song repetition of TV news. Chats with self in an empty house. Some borderline OCD grass-cutting. Those routine ten-kilometre walks.

Even the occasional cliff-jumps into Twitter land.

He wears a ring in his left ear and those gentle eyes are drawn, regularly, towards the approach of strangers. People chasing thimbles of his time. Reciting blessings.

"Lovely to see you Paul..."

Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Picture credit; Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Picture credit; Ray McManus / Sportsfile

"Looking great..."

"Would you mind..."

Even in the shipwreck days, courtesy never left him. So, without fail, every hand that reaches out is met with warm engagement. With eye-contact and conversation. With time. The love for him is assiduous and he feels bound to meet it gracefully.

He knows that people worry.

Some weeks ago, interviewed on TV by Tommy Tiernan, he mentioned how, long ago, Irish people took him "under their wing". Visibly nonplussed, Tiernan sought an explanation. "Sure you're as Irish as I am," protested the host.

McGrath was aware of a kind reaction on social media afterwards.

"I read all the Tweets and they were lovely," he says. "A lot of people though were saying, 'Isn't this a shame, isn't that a shame...'

"But I honestly feel okay in my own skin. I know my life isn't perfect. When it shuts down, it's going to shut down. And people will say, 'He drank himself to this...' You know, 'He did this or he did that...'

"But I honestly am a happy person. I don't go around trying to harm anyone, though I've managed to do that sometimes over the years. I genuinely love my life. When people see me having a couple of pints, I can nearly hear what they're thinking. But maybe I'm getting past the stage where people even give a hoot.

"They're probably doing other things themselves. I think I'm living a really good life. I'm not racing back to my house just to get p***ed."

Thirteen years have passed since our collaboration on his book, 'Back From the Brink', a title chosen by the publisher. Those four words seemed almost breezily presumptuous back then given Paul's fluctuating health during a process that stretched to 18 months.

Being honest, it seemed to me that he was right on the brink at that time. That his story had yet to reach any point of resolution. But my suggestion, 'In Search of Me', found little traction in London. The big publishing houses don't trade in nuance.

'Back From the Brink' took Paul to hugely uncomfortable places, clawing at an emptiness sometimes that maybe words could barely touch. But he carries no regrets for doing so.

"No, I just think the way other voices were threaded through it, the way other people were asked, 'How did you see him? How did you manage to put up with him?' That gave it an honesty I was glad of," he reflects now.

"Like there were days before matches I could barely tie my bootlaces. The book didn't shy away from that. It gave other people's perspectives.

"Like it must have felt ridiculous sometimes walking out on a football pitch with me because my team-mates would know that I was just about able to make the bow with my laces.

"They'd see I was getting a large glass of whiskey from someone just to settle me.

"I'm not a deeply religious person, but I do believe in a higher power. I believe there is something that guides us around this wild, increasingly busy world we're living in now. Because I look back at some of the tapes and go, 'How did that happen? How was I able to jump?'

"I leaned hugely on the people around me, people like Shaun Teale and Kevin (Moran) and Stan (Steve Staunton). But it must have been a tremendous strain on Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu (RIP) too, and other players around me, because they had to be wondering, 'Well, what's he going to do today?' Seriously.

"At Villa, Jim Walker (physio) would take me out and get me to do this little run and the endorphins would just kick in. And I'd start thinking to myself, 'Yeah, I can do this today!' Then standing in the tunnel, you'd get this late surge of adrenaline. I loved testing myself against everyone.

"I mean to be able to say that you played against Dennis Bergkamp, against some of the best players in the world... that's the part of football I love."

He is a grandfather five times over now and, mercifully, connected again with the two children from his second marriage. After 12 years of silence, a minor family crisis brought all his boys together under one roof and he expresses pride in how the three sons (Christopher, Mitchell and Jordan) he had with Claire reconciled so naturally with the two (Paul and Ellis) he had with Caroline.

"It was lovely," he says now. "Just to realise that it didn't have to be the way that it became. Like the biggest kick I ever took was when my solicitor told me walking out of (divorce) court that if the mother (Caroline) didn't want me to see those kids again, I wouldn't see them.

"Like I think that should probably be the way every time being honest because I don't think children should be split up from their mother.

"But I got 12 years of silence and the boys just got dragged apart because of the parents. Listen, I don't harbour any grudges. How could I harbour grudges against either of my wives?

"They were victims of my faults."

Family anchors him now more than it has ever done and he is in regular contact too with a daughter, Danielle, from another relationship. McGrath still drinks occasionally, but seldom in that brutal, self-destructive way of old. The closing darkness he used associate with consumption of neat vodka is rarely revisited.

"No, I never drink vodka now," he says emphatically. "I'll be honest, in the last five years, I doubt there's been five times I drank it. And they would have been one-day episodes. Because I know what sets me mad.

"I usually end up going down to Courtown, putting money in slot machines. Then I get driven home and sleep it off. And the next morning I'd be saying, 'Why did I drink vodka? I don't want to drink vodka!'

"If I'm going to drink now, I'll just have beer in the house. I have really, really good friends from back in the day who are alcoholics and they say to me, 'Paul we cannot do that. If we drink, we're gone...'

"I'm not trying to be cocky when I say I can get over it... I'm basically saying... look I could play football drinking, don't tell me... So I'm still drinking a little bit. But not to half the extent I used to."

It isn't ideal, but alcohol's assault on his self-esteem has - to some extent - been slowed. He's stopped chasing that perfect day that doesn't exist. And the love he encounters daily, the routine of strangers communicating gentle kindnesses still seems - to him - mildly inexplicable.

You see, the orphanage that shaped McGrath's teenage years made him a young bully. It was, he says, a survival mechanism.

"Who would have expected that for a black kid who used hide from most of the other guys staying in the same building as him because he didn't want to get roughed up... like I didn't mind fighting even bigger guys than me on a one-to-one basis.

"But sometimes it got a little out of hand," McGrath reflects. "Sometimes I did the bullying. I hurt an awful lot of people. I broke a guy's arm. I hit a guy with a stick right between the eyes, luckily I didn't hit him in the eye. I tried to punch someone and bust my little finger because he turned his head and I missed, hitting the ground instead.

"I wasn't a nice person either. But there were worse people than me in that place. It was not a nice place to live."

McGrath found freedom with a ball at his feet but, even then, he became accustomed to opposition players threatening to break his leg if the opportunity presented itself.

Debilitating

To travel from there, through the calamitous, debilitating breakdown suffered in his late teens to the career he had in professional football, a career arcing with that PFA Player of the Year award in 1993, seems almost miraculous in hindsight.

The game may not have made him wealthy, but it gave him an identity and sense of kinship he treasures to this day.

On a whim, he still phones people simply to say thanks. Like Jim Walker, his most trusted friend at Villa. Like Mick Byrne, the old Irish physio. When McGrath was on international duty, Walker and Byrne always liaised to make sure he got there and returned safely home.

"They got me through an awful lot of messy times," he says flatly now. "They were real friends. Honestly, between them, they got me playing probably seven years longer than might have been. Which is really incredible."

Speaking to Byrne last week, he was startled to hear of imminent plans to climb Carrauntoohil.

"I went, 'Mick, what age are you?'" he says, laughing now. "I mean Mick had white hair when we were playing!"

Twitter is a friend and enemy now. He uses it sporadically, communicating a still urgent affection for Villa and his first love, Chelsea, not to mention growing anxiety for Manchester United. Occasionally, he uses it as a platform, like after Brighton's recent sacking of Chris Hughton.

"I make mistakes on it sometimes," he admits. "It's a bit of a trap. Like I love arguing on it with people when they're not malicious, when they're not going to call you something. Mostly, I've had just good rows with people, where you end up saying thanks to one another.

"But you can waste your life with it too. I think a lot of people do. Like I might use my phone seven times a day, but I don't tend to be the one who initiates anything. But I'm glad to have access to it when something happens like Chris getting sacked.

"I was shocked, just thought it was a disgrace. One of the few people in football everybody loves. He kept Brighton up and still got the chop. I think you'd have to be an ignoramus not to be troubled by that."

McGrath has kept, largely, out of any interaction on the FAI's woes, though he does, now, articulate a mildly alternative view to the consensus.

"Look," he says. "I don't really know enough about what's gone on and John Delaney obviously has big questions to answer.

"But this is just an honest opinion. A few years ago, I was up in Monaghan with him for about five days. We watched blind people playing football, people in wheelchairs playing football. Everything we went to see, he gave a speech after and, honestly, I've never seen anybody work harder."

He expresses delight at his old team-mate, Mick McCarthy's, return to the helm of the national team, reflecting: "I always loved Mick as a player and a person. He gave us that Barnsley steel when he was playing, like a lunatic on the pitch, shouting, heading everything.

"Mick McCarthy, for me, was always a great leader. I'm a fan again now because I see he might make things happen."

As to next Saturday's Champions League final in Madrid, he says he hopes to see Liverpool win the Cup. Why? Simply because of what they've been this year.

"Just losing out on the Premier League the way they did to a Man City team being so relentless towards the end..." McGrath sighs.

"Like I've got mates who are Spurs supporters and they'll kill me for saying this. But I really like Klopp.

"That said, you know something? I really like Pochettino too. They have a lot of class about them."

Few men better qualified to see it.

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