Tuesday 15 October 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Paul McGrath - that beloved porcelain soul, is among the very best of us'

Paul McGrath
Paul McGrath

Roy Curtis

EVEN if his kindhearted, vulnerable and delicately sensitive soul was constructed entirely from porcelain, we could hardly handle Paul McGrath with any greater care. 

McGrath is the most fragile and humane of national treasures.

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A superior athlete, a footballer of extraordinary poise, yet, as a human being, as breakable as a crystal chandelier.

At times, it feels like Paul and his manifest insecurities were put on this planet to cajole into service the better side of our nature:  He coaxes the caring, paternal/maternal, protective and benevolent side from an audience so often cruel, vicious and spiteful.

Here is a man who could fill the Aviva with all his demons:  A complex story of identity, colour, introversion and fear.

An Irish icon who would bring astonishing beauty and elegance and bravery to the battlefield; then, feeling worthless and afraid, retreat to his own private darkness, a place so grim that drinking detergent felt like an upgrade.

A man loved by so many, yet who struggled desperately to ever love himself.

A creature so brilliantly skilled with a football, yet so impotent and powerless in the game of life.

Paul McGrath against Italy in USA 94
Paul McGrath against Italy in USA 94

Reading Vincent Hogan's majestic interview with McGrath last weekend transported this observer back in time.

To twenty five years ago next week – one third of a lifetime dissolved in the pitiless waters of the rapidly accelerating days – and Paul soaring to achieve something imperishable.

In the Giants Stadium, with one arm a useless, semi-paralysed twig, with both knees reduced to powder, McGrath gracefully decommissioned the peerless Roberto Baggio.

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The Divine Ponytail, a forward to whom the game ordinarily seemed so blissfully simple, was initially perplexed and confused, then, long before the end, bewildered.  Thrashing uselessly about, like a man trying to decipher a crossword where the clues were presented in a foreign tongue.

McGrath had utterly enfeebled maybe the greatest footballer on the planet, reduced him to a wildly gesticulating non-entity.

It was a performance of coruscating refinement, one so complete that the great Franco Baresi – one of the finest defenders Association Football has known – approached the hero of the hour afterwards like a nervy schoolboy, hoping that the Irishman might agree to swap shirts.

That night, as we made our way back to the watering holes of Manhattan marvelling at how his skyscraping class dwarfed even the Gotham landscape, we gave thanks that Paul was one of us.

Roy Keane rations his compliments as if he was crossing the Sahara and praise was the last droplet in his water can.

Yet even he was mesmerised by the brushstrokes of defiant genius McGrath dappled on the World Cup canvass that extraordinary USA '94 afternoon. Here's how Keane, a man loathe to stray into the treacly territory of sentiment, recalls that day of days in his autobiography.

"For (Paul) the word big is appropriate.  Known for his poise, his ability on the ball, his unique gift for reading the game, Paul displayed these qualities on this day.

"One other huge asset was his courage.  When the Italians did get sight of the goal, Paul presented a final insurmountable obstacle.  Paul inspired us as much as in the end he demoralised Roberto Baggio and the other Italian players."

Over the years, it was my blessing to get to know the reluctant hero.

I will always remember one July afternoon when we met, by arrangement, in an Enniscorthy hotel. 

He had endured some difficult times and was patently apprehensive as he joined me in a quiet corner off the lobby.

When I assured him I had no interest in any salacious details, that I simply hoped to write a dispatch about his days and dreams, the tension fled from his features.

And he did something I will never, ever forget.  This introverted, reticent, beautiful man gave me a hug.  He wrapped me in the embrace of his relief.

It was an astonishingly moving moment.

It was a cutting, humbling insight into how utterly defenceless this wondrous defender was against the slings and arrows of everyday life.  It felt grotesque that one of the greatest Irishmen to have walked the planet should feel grateful that the figure sitting opposite him had not arrived to shovel shit in his face.

We sat then for, maybe, 90 minutes.  He spoke in that rich whisper of how his life was.  The conversation was peppered with the fear and wisdom and insight of a man who had watched the movie of his life unfold from the most wretched camera angles, yet who had somehow located the backbone to just keep on going.

To just keep on going:  That has been the greatest triumph of this lovely man's life.

Roy Keane talked about his friend's courage.  Along with his humility, humanity and vulnerability, a towering kind of bravery is his calling card.

Just another reason why Paul McGrath, that beloved porcelain soul, is among the very best of us. 

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