It almost 20 years since Paul McGrath left Aston Villa, yet the terrace chant of ‘Paul McGrath, my Lord’ is the loudest and most frequently sung of all songs at Villa Park.
In an area steeped in football history with stars like Billy Wright and Trevor Francis adored by locals, the Irish defender has been taken to the Brummie hearts even though he has no local connections and joined the club under a cloud after being moved on from Manchester United with dodgy knees to the midlands where he was expected to fail.
The ‘Black Pearl of Inchicore’ ended up playing his best football at Villa and was an important part of an Ireland team rewriting the record books.
I caught up with Paul this week at the Birmingham Irish Centre where 300 fans gathered for one of three sold out ‘Audiences with Paul McGrath’.
He often jokes about the way he was treated at Manchester United, but you do not have to be a psychologist to tell he was deeply hurt when Alex Ferguson moved him on.
Matt Busby had watched him play in Ireland and befriended him, giving him the encouragement needed whenFerguson hounded him.
“He was like a God to me,” said McGrath. “I didn’t know he was coming to watch me. He came to watch a real good striker and I was thinking why would you be watching him when you could watch me.
“To have somebody like Sir Matt Busby watching a game like that was phenomenal. The wonderful thing was I grew to know Matt and his wife. Myself and Lauren lived down the road from Matt.
“We used to go up and have tea with them. I couldn’t believe I was sitting having tea with them.”
The defender was taken in by the ‘old guard’: “Paddy Crerand, Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and especially George Best — you meet those people on a regular basis, they were such gentlemen and gave you such good advice.
“Sir Alex would say to me ‘you are out of this club this week’ and then Sir Matt Busby would stop me and say: ‘Son, just keep playing like you’re playing, just keep playing like you are playing.’
“I thought, which one do I listen to? Seriously, they were both brilliant managers.”
Graham Taylor signed McGrath for Villa in 1989 after checking with Ron Atkinson who was also trying to sign him for Sheffield Wednesday and who would later manage Paul again at Villa.
It proved to be an inspired deal and over the years Villa’s medical staff made sure he did the minimum in training to prolong his playing career.
Surprisingly, the deal was lucrative.
“The former St Pat’s player said: When I was asked to leave Manchester United Sir Alex didn’t want me at the club. He wanted to get the troublemakers out of the club and I was a troublemaker.
“All I wanted was to be on competitive wages with the reserves, not the first team.
“Graham Taylor said to me we will give you twice the amount Manchester United will give you. He actually stopped me and said I will try and get you more.”
Playing for United, Villa, Derby and Sheffield United, McGrath won trophies and received the adulation of fans but nothing compares to his time spent playing for Ireland.
“Italia 90 will always be the greatest,” he said. “The Irish people went ballistic. It was a lovely time to be Irish and I am Irish through and through. I loved the fact that Ireland could hold their own.
“We do everything above our weight — not just football. There is something about the Irish.
“I didn’t aspire to be anything but a footballer, but the Irish people give me an opportunity to be someone I wanted to be. They don’t discriminate. They gave me the chance to express myself on the world stage.”
McGrath jokes that he wishes he was 20 years younger and could face Bosnia and Herzegovina next week in the crucial Euro 2016 play-off games.
He added: “I wouldn’t have believed we could have beaten Germany — if we got a draw I would have been thrilled. Martin (O’Neill) is a shrewd guy. Martin and Roy (Keane) make a good team and they have made a side who are a good team and play for each other. If you can beat the world champions and take another point from them you should be proud of yourselves.”
Without question McGrath was a class defender who read the game like few others, but you do not hear the 55-year-old griping ‘it was better in my day’.
“Football has got much quicker,” he said. “When you look back now it is in slow motion. They are in a different class, they close down quicker and score quicker. I was watching Real Madrid this week, they are lovely to watch but at the same time there is too much percentage football. With Louis van Gaal it is percentage football. They keep the ball for 70% of the time and think it is a win, but you can still lose 2-0.”
McGrath agrees that modern footballers are a totally different species now.
He said: “We used to have to walk through the supporters to get to our car. There was something special walking up with the supporters and they would get photographs, autographs and we would give shirts away. Footballers are a little bit detached now.”