Monday 9 December 2019

John Aldridge: 'What Ian Rush told me so often about Paul McGrath sums the man up'

Paul McGrath in action for Manchester United
Paul McGrath in action for Manchester United

John Aldridge

BIG Paul, as that's what I always call him, likes to remind me that I had a pretty decent record against his teams, but there is a good reason for that - I stayed as far away from him as possible! 

So while he is right to point out that I scored a few goals in games against Manchester United and Aston Villa when he was playing for them, that was only because I was a clever bugger and went and attached myself to Paul's centre-back partner, who tended to be half the player he was.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

My former Liverpool team-mate Ian Rush has often said down the years that Paul was his toughest opponent and the only time he scored against United was when the big man left and joined Aston Villa.

Rushie's goal-scoring record against every team in English football was sensational, but McGrath is the one player who had a solution to his scoring brilliance and that says all you need to know about him.

I'd compare him to Virgil van Dijk in many ways - composed on the ball, never looks rattled and can distribute great passes from the back with an incredible ease that only the best display.

He had it all as a footballer and I certainly don't class him as just a defender.

I remember him doing a fine job for Ireland in a full-back role on occasion and our manager Jack Charlton used him as a holding midfielder on a regular basis, as he was so good on the ball and read the game better than anyone.

Passing

His passing was also under-rated - every time I watched him play it amazed me how much time he had on the ball. That is the sign of a class player and that's certainly what Paul was.

We all know Paul had his trials and tribulations off the pitch and there were some amazing stories we could tell about him during his days in the Ireland squad, but the reality was he did incredibly well to achieve what he did in his career and you have to take your hat off to him for reaching the top.

We all had hurdles to clear during our professional career, but Paul had more to navigate than most, as his upbringing was challenging.

However, he grasped his chance at Manchester United and when I joined up with the Ireland squad, it didn't take me long to appreciate the respect everyone had for this giant of a footballer.

Jack loved the fella, and it was hard not to share that sentiment, even if he was a Manchester United man!

He was shy, very quiet, but he was such a lovely guy and we all knew that having him on our side meant we had a much better chance of beating any team in the world.

People often talk about the 1994 World Cup performance against Italy and rightly so, as it was something else, a masterclass in defending from first to last.

Read more here:

Paul had some injury problems in the build-up to that game and probably should never have played, but there he was, up against Roberto Baggio in his prime and he barely gave him a sniff. Phil Babb, Ireland's other centre-half on the day, deserves a lot of credit for his role at Giants Stadium as the Italians were kept quiet and I was fortunate enough to get a perfect view of McGrath's performance from my seat on the Ireland bench.

Don't get me wrong, I would much rather have been watching that game unfold on the pitch rather than as a substitute, but I look back on that afternoon and smile because big Paul was in a league of his own.

I've told a lot of kids down the years that if they want an example of a perfect defensive performance, they need to get hold of footage from that Italy game in 1994 and look at the way Paul managed everything.

He glided around the pitch, stamped out anything the Italians threw at him and as the final whistle sounded, he strolled back into the dressing room as if it was just another day at the office.

For a reserved guy, he had a lot of confidence when he stepped onto a football pitch and that's probably because he rarely had a day when he was up against someone who had his number.

I was with big Paul for the Ireland v Denmark game a couple of weeks back and he was in great form, chatting with the fans and still loving his football, and while we are all feeling a little old when that 60th birthday rolls around, Paul looks to be in great health at the moment and seems to be happy in his life, so long may that continue.

I'm honoured to call him a friend and a former team-mate and it's a great privilege to share the pages of the Sunday World with him every week.

To celebrate his 60th birthday on Wednesday, it's Paul McGrath week on independent.ie.

Tomorrow: 'I was hoping Fergie would get the sack - I didn't say a word to the man for the first five years after he threw me out of United'

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Online Editors

The Left Wing: The problem with the Champions Cup, the Stephen Larkham effect and trouble in Welsh rugby

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport