Sunday 8 December 2019

Vincent Hogan on Paul McGrath at 60: 'He still has his dark days but they seem less stark now, less bruising'

Sixty today, McGrath's demons remain but grandkids have added depth and joy to his life

Paul McGrath in relaxed mood in Wexford. Photo: Owen Breslin
Paul McGrath in relaxed mood in Wexford. Photo: Owen Breslin
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

'The past is unchangeable. It's time to stop looking behind!"

Everything you need to understand about Paul McGrath at 60 is maybe written in those 10 words.

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Those final two sentences of 'One Day at a Time', the closing chapter of his 2006 book, 'Back from the Brink', were inserted - I can admit - with little real conviction on my part.

Because for much of our time together on that project, Paul seemed hopelessly tangled up in a familiar cycle of chaos and remorse.

Of recklessness followed by the most profound episodes of self-loathing.

So I argued against the publishers' title choice, given that it implied arrival at some point of resolution in his life when - in reality - the journey was still ongoing and routinely traumatic.

Paul McGrath is pictured during the World Cup qualifying draw at Windsor Park back in 1993. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Paul McGrath is pictured during the World Cup qualifying draw at Windsor Park back in 1993. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

The people in London were polite towards my suggestion, 'In Search of Me', yet utterly dismissive of its potential to move books off shelves.

So maybe nature's great practical joke is to make a man - who I then considered to be still right on the brink - look and sound far healthier today than most of a similar vintage, even those of us who have enjoyed lives of relatively little tumult.

From the beginning, it always struck me that Paul's story was no place for such a gentle man. His resilience became, undeniably, a double-edged virtue, a reason for many in football to turn a blind eye on the basis that, even with alcohol or tranquilisers in his system, he could play the game to an extraordinarily high standard.

As Frank Stapleton put it: "People tolerated what Paul did only because they were getting something out of him. Maybe the problem was that he was too good a player."

Paul McGrath with Vincent Hogan after his book ‘Back from the Brink’ won the 2006 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Paul McGrath with Vincent Hogan after his book ‘Back from the Brink’ won the 2006 William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

And yet, 22 years on from his last game as a professional footballer, I'm not sure there's a more adored Irish public figure, never mind sportsperson.

This isn't explained simply by what he achieved on a football field, remarkable as that was.

McGrath is coveted not for what he did but for who he is. A man whose childhood was saturated in isolation and confusion; who was orphaned and bullied in an Ireland of institutionalised ignorance, racism and paranoia.

Yet someone who came through that dark world with a grace that, even at the worst of times, has always been incredibly resilient.

Paul McGrath at Manchester United’s 1987/88 pre-season photo call. Photo: Rusty Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive
Paul McGrath at Manchester United’s 1987/88 pre-season photo call. Photo: Rusty Cheyne/Allsport/Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Paul has never held himself up as anyone's role model, acknowledging the pain inflicted almost habitually on loved ones, the reflex deceit, the almost casual irresponsibility of a life in which redemption was always accessible on the football field.

Back in '06, it seemed to me that every dry day Paul achieved just felt like the cranking of a catapult.

Yet, one thing that always surprised me about him was the element of control he could communicate in terms of a likely timeline on that sobriety.

Roughly 10 years earlier, I had been putting together the programme for his international testimonial game and arranged to fly over for a Saturday morning meeting at his home in Manchester.

On arrival, it instantly became clear that Paul was under the weather having availed of the fact that Caroline - his second wife - was in Portugal with the children.

Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland's Paul McGrath. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

This presented me with more than one problem.

Firstly, in this condition, his attention was inclined to drift in a way that would hopelessly compromise any work we could get done. Secondly, I knew for sure that - almost as soon as I got home - I'd be getting a phone call checking on his condition.

To justify my lie, I needed to know that Caroline wouldn't be returning home to a scene of chaos the following Tuesday. Paul's assurance was absolute. He would stop drinking 24 hours before their return.

And he did.

Maybe that kind of tableau merely created an illusion of control, but Paul could do that. Certainly in all the time I've known him, I never once heard him talk about sobriety as any kind of permanent commitment. There was always a notional timeline. Three months. Six months. A year.

Always the understanding that he would wake some morning and make - in his eyes - the entirely rational decision to drink that day. No matter how often we discussed that thought process, I could never understand it. Still can't now.

But here he is, 60 today and finding a way to make his life work.

He still drinks, but less ruinously it seems. Still has dark days, when he pulls those curtains and settles down with the comfort of only his own company.

But they seem less stark now, less bruising. You still get glimpses of physical corrosion when it happens, his eyes narrow and tired, his concentration slip-sliding away. But Paul McGrath has changed too. It's as if that promise made back in 2006, to "stop looking behind", has finally been honoured somehow.

Personally, I suspect that the arrival of grandchildren into his life has given Paul's sense of self an entirely different depth. When I meet him now, I am always reminded of the words of one of his greatest friends, the late Dr Patrick Nugent.

A Limerick GP, Patrick was introduced to Paul by Christy Moore just as he'd begun wrestling (and struggling) with the realities of retirement for a famous professional footballer. A straight-talker, he seldom indulged excuses whenever McGrath sought that kind of refuge.

Yet, as Paul himself has put it, chatting to Nugent was like having his "brain massaged".

Previously treated by some enormously eminent counsellors, he found greatest comfort in long walks with Nugent or, on occasion, even just an extended telephone conversation.

One night in November of 1998, Paul was drinking tea with Patrick and his wife, Sybilla, in their Powerscourt home when the doctor remarked that McGrath reminded him of someone. Someone that he couldn't quite place. Who should have had an abundance of courage but just couldn't locate it when most needed.

Then, suddenly, Nugent realised who it was he was talking about.

"I know who you remind me of," he said. "You remind me of that lion in 'The Wizard of Oz'. Remember? Cowardly Lion!"

The bravest player imaginable on a football field, Paul was still chronically shy off it - Ron Atkinson once recalled how Aston Villa couldn't persuade him even to present medals to a junior school team, when his only obligation would have been to shake hands while repeating the words "well done".

That was always the paradox of his life. Articulate and authoritative on the field; off it paralysed with reticence. He'd even resist the communal dining area when on international duty, regularly choosing the solitude of room service instead.

Paul's relationship with Nugent was so strong that Patrick and Sybilla would become godparents to his son, Ellis, born in the spring of '99. Yet, soon after, the doctor was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that took his life just months later.

"I couldn't believe it," Paul recalled in the book. "I felt cut adrift…"

And yet, two decades on, that lion is - palpably - no longer a coward.

Nugent, I don't doubt, would be extremely proud of the 60-year-old McGrath, someone who seems far more comfortable in his skin than he ever did when dominating some of the best centre-forwards seen in world football.

For Heaven's sake, even the TV cameras don't spook him now when, 13 years ago, no end of beseeching correspondence from RTÉ could persuade him to plug his book on the 'Late Late Show'.

He's still not someone to knowingly call attention to himself, but I sense Paul no longer hates that reflection he sees in the mirror. True, he'll probably never see the hero you and I see when Paul McGrath walks into a room.

But his head doesn't seem filled with self-doubt and anguish anymore. The greatest footballer to have played for this mixed-up little country finally looks and sounds at home here.

A loving son, father and grandad; still sane and armed with that long-life gentility and grace. Long may he thrive.

Happy birthday, big man.

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