So how’s the one and only Paul McGrath getting on these days?
“The same as everybody else in these strange times,” comes the affable reply from his home in Wexford, just across the county border from Wicklow. Living alone, as he does, is “not too bad”, he insists. “I feel for everybody else because I’m a little more used to it, to be fair.”
Alone maybe, but not cut off. He relishes his daily phone contact with his kids, “trying to reassure them that the world is going to be fine if we all do the right thing.”
And that’s a message he is only too happy to promote beyond his immediate circle of family and close friends.
“I don’t think it will be too far off before we can all communicate properly again,” he says, “but, for as long as it lasts, I’m sticking to whatever I’m told to do. Because I think the people who don’t are going to cause problems for the people who are on the frontline. The nurses and doctors are the most important people we should be thinking about at this moment.
“I’ve always said that. Even back when I was going up to Crumlin Hospital with my mum when she had to go there regularly. Those people put themselves on the line every day and now, with this virus, they’re doing an even harder job. I’d like to highlight what they do for us and hope people get the point of staying safe to keep everyone else safe.”
It’s a tonic to renew old acquaintance with Paul, and all the more reassuring when you find him in good spirits, and determined to accentuate the positive, at a time when we need all the encouraging words we can get.
The specific reason for our conversation is that it was 22 years ago today — on April 17, 1998 — that he announced his retirement from football, bringing to a close a career which had seen him become a world-renowned figure in the game, an icon at Manchester United and Aston Villa (among other clubs) and, on the back of his immense contribution to the glories of the Jack Charlton era, one of Ireland’s most beloved sporting heroes.
But all good things come to an end, and the man himself knew that moment had arrived when he endured what was, by his own estimation, a stinker for Sheffield United against Ipswich Town the previous November.
“I had just the most horrendous game of my life where I was passing the ball to their forwards and then trying to negate whatever they were doing coming at us,” he recalls. “After that game, my then wife Caroline said, ‘What the hell were you trying to do today?’ And once I heard that I thought, ‘ah jaysus, if the wife starts criticising me, my time is definitely up’ (laughs). I didn’t need to hear it from a manager or anyone else that I was crap that day. I knew myself because I had such a shocking game.”
And he simply wasn’t prepared to risk another one.
“I honestly didn’t want to take the mick out of Sheffield United because they’d been so good to me. I didn’t want to short-change them so I just said, ‘you don’t need to pay me another thing because that’s going to be my last game’. I couldn’t physically do it anymore. And they were great about it, to be fair.”
He did still have one more appearance to make on the pitch, mind — a cameo in his international testimonial game at Lansdowne Road the following May, as two star-studded teams, managed by Mick McCarthy and Jack Charlton, assembled to pay tribute to their fellow pro and a crowd of 39,000 turned up to bid farewell to a favourite son.
“It was a hard day to handle but it was just a wonderful day as well,” he says now. “Not too many people get an Irish testimonial and to have my kids there made it special. It was emotional but you had to try and keep some sort of semblance of ‘I’m cool as a cucumber’ as you strolled out.
“They were insistent that I went on for the last 10 or 15 minutes or so even though I hadn’t got a knee left to my name. And then Dean Saunders (a former team mate at Villa) clipped me on the ankle when he scored their winning goal to make it 3-2. And I’m thinking, ‘you sod, what have you done that for?’ (laughs). But, no, it was a fantastic day, something that will stick with me for the rest of my life.”
While there is no mistaking the sincerity in Paul McGrath’s voice when he says he “loved every minute that I was in an Irish jersey”, there are a couple of games that stand out in his memory as enduring highlights. One was the 1987 friendly against Brazil at Lansdowne Road when Liam Brady wrong-footed the visitors’ entire defence to score the goal which gave the home side a cherished 1-0 win.
Putting that victory into context, Paul observes: “Brazil were always everyone’s favourite second team. It was a combination of the shirts, the flamboyance, the ease with which they played the game. For me, the 1970 team — with Pele, Rivelino, Tostao, Jairzinho, you could name every one of them — the way they played was a revelation. To see so many good players in one team — that’s the way football can be and should be played. That’s what made them so magical.”
Some 17 years later, and here he was coming face to face with those famous canary yellow and cobalt blue colours. And, even if the occupants of those shirts in 1987 would have been no match for the stellar side of 1970, they were still, well, Brazil.
“I never saw a team that could run past us as quick as they could,” he says. “The game was passing us by and yet we were still in it. Somehow. Packie, probably. And then Liam scored that brilliant goal. That was one of those times you walk off a football pitch, thinking ‘this is a nice feeling’. And you have that accolade forever in your history book — you’ve actually beaten the Brazilians.”
Curiously, one of his most abiding memories of the occasion was not of the game itself or its aftermath — when he swapped shirts with rising star Muller — but of being hypnotised by Brazil’s singularly samba warm-up routine.
“They actually did this thing where they all bounced along in rhythm, like a dance. I’m on the pitch and I’m thinking: how lucky am I to be on a football pitch watching the Brazilians doing this dance that is actually a training drill they have. I mean, we were doing sprints just before the match but then, when the game got going, I found myself struggling to keep up with them. I was thinking that maybe we must be doing the wrong thing. Maybe we should be having a disco before games (laughs). I wouldn’t have said it to Jack though. I know what I would have got.”
While Paul reckons that nothing he experienced in the green shirt quite compares with the totality of Ireland’s Italia 90 — “Dave O’ Leary’s penalty against Romania and then going onto Rome, the romance of it all” — he acknowledges that victory over Italy in Giants Stadium four years later was another one for the ages.
“We felt we owed them something for Italia 90,” he admits. “I hate mentioning referees but I genuinely don’t think we were ever going to get anything out of a quarter-final against Italy in Rome. So to come up against them again in the first game of the next World Cup and then to beat them — with Ray (Houghton) as the mainman again — was special.
“I thought it was a great way for us to say: you might be technically a better team than us but we’re going to show you a different way of winning. And that was Jack’s philosophy — we don’t have to be as good as them in their way but we can still beat them our way.
“I think beforehand some of us did think that if we kept putting it behind them they were probably good enough to come back through us and score the goals they needed. But, on the day, I think one or two of their backs got a little bit nervous. So, instead, we got the goal — and then we had to hang onto it. That was the problem. That was when I started sweating.”
Not that it showed, McGrath closing down Roberto Baggio and repelling everything else the Azzurri could throw at him in a career-defining performance that was all the more remarkable because, unbeknownst to most, a virus was severely restricting the movement in his left arm.
“Yeah, I had it in my shoulder and it made it hard for me even to tie my laces,” he reveals. “And it took me a while to get into my running stride as well. That was mostly what I was worried about, that I wouldn’t be able to track some of these players. But it turned out to be a great day.”
Modest to a fault, Paul will always insist on stressing the collective nature of that famous Irish victory but, after a bit of gentle persuasion, finally concedes that it has to rank as a personal high point too.
“I think when you weigh everything up, I’d have to say yeah. I think I played better in certain games, simply because I might have scored a goal or I might have been involved more in the game.
“But for what happened to me before the game — thinking I might not even be able to play — and then for it to have gone so well, yeah, it does stand out. And also because it was in Giants Stadium. I loved playing in such a huge setting and the fact that you could only see Irish flags and shirts in the stands.
“Yeah, I just felt on cloud nine that day.”