Paul McGrath has just hammered the living daylights out of himself in an interview. Just like he used to hammer the living daylights out of the best strikers in the world. Afterwards, he is standing, diet drink in hand, in the bar of a Dublin hotel when a grey-haired fella of a certain age breezes in.
'Ah Paul,' he says. 'How are you? Great to see you. Are you keeping well? Are you OK?' McGrath, who has already been accosted by half a dozen supporters eager to relive the glory days, is clearly embarrassed. And the man's face looks vaguely familiar. 'That was Bertie Ahern, ' says the former Manchester United and Aston Villalegend about Ireland's deposed Taioseach, who eventually wanders off after paying homage like the rest of them. The equivalent, on this side of the Irish Sea, would be Tony Blair greeting Gazza.
Still punchy: McGrath is a legend in Ireland, for whom he won 83 caps between 1985 and 1997
Genius on the pitch and troubled off it. Those who saw McGrath play would find it hard to disagree with his former boss at Manchester United and Villa, Ron Atkinson, that he was 'better than John Terry and Tony Adams combined'. But to describe McGrath'soff-field life as 'troubled' is putting it kindly. Like saying Tiger Woods has a thing for blondes.
McGrath was black in a country where the only other black stuff was brewed. He grew up in orphanages after being handed over to the authorities by his mother. He suffered physical abuse, never knew his father and his only sister died. That was before drink,prescription drugs and two suicide attempts. His book, Back from the Brink, is the most harrowing literature of its genre ever written. Actually, it is beyond harrowing.
For all his demons off the pitch, McGrath was something special on it. Gareth Southgate was asked, when he arrived at Aston Villa, how he coped with the prospect of facing Michael Owen, Shearer and all the rest in the Premier League after stepping up a level from Crystal Palace.
'Easy,' said Southgate. 'I look across the dressing room and I see Paul McGrath.'
The man himself is now 50. Trim and still able to turn out in charity matches, in which he demands to play up front, his gentle demeanour gives no clue as to his issues. Or his iron will. As a player, McGrath was not nasty. Just physically tough, despite a knee problem that dogged his career.
He grew up a Chelsea fan. Other than that, the two clubs where he is still revered meet in the Carling Cup final on Sunday. Time to find out why his life careered towards chaos.
'I hadn't tasted drink until I was 18,' he said. 'The minute I did, I felt comfortable.
'I used it as a way of being able to communicate with people, believe it or not. And then, because of it, you won't be surprised to learn that I couldn't communicate with them.
'I was always very shy because of my upbringing in orphanages. It was a case of just wanting to slide into the background of things. If you weren't heard too much, then people would leave you alone.
'But if you caught people's attention, then it wasn't good. You'd normally have to fight your way out of trouble.
'I hadn't seen too many black faces in Ireland. It was a case of landing in Manchester and finding that I wasn't alone, after all.
Bitter sweet: McGrath at the seaside with mother Betty (left) before he was placed in an orphanage and met his pal, Danny McGuire
'And I was happy in Ireland. Playing football part-time and working. Honestly, if it hadn't been Manchester United, I'm not sure I would have bothered. It had to be somethingspecial to drag me away.
'When I first arrived, I saw the likes of Bryan Robson and Gordon McQueen floating around the place. You'd bump into John Gidman and Norman Whiteside. I'd just seen them on television.
'The next thing I know, I'm in the side and I just used to be able to drink. But I wasn't in the First Division of drinkers back then. No way. I was fit, young and able to train.
'The problem was that myself and Norman Whiteside would be injured for such a length of time. We'd be in the gym or in the treatment room watching the other lads play and for us it was a case of, 'What shall we be doing this afternoon?' Obviously, we could have been laid up in bed recuperating. But we would sort of look at each other and the conversation would develop along the lines of, 'No, we can't. We can't. We can't, can we? Ah, go on. Let's go for one or two.' Eventually, we would be sat there all afternoon, drinking. We had serious injuries together at the same time which compounded the problems.
A bygone age: McGrath lines up for United
'But we are talking about a different era here. I'm not making excuses. It's a bit late for that now. But there was an unofficial league table of which drinkers were the best.
'We met up with the Everton boys, the Liverpool lads, Nottingham Forest. you'd have a laugh with them, it was a lot more relaxed.
'By the time I finished in 1997 it was a case of, 'Jeez, I'm going to have to be half-right if I want this to continue'. People were stepping away from it.
'We had the mentality that if you win a game then you would go out. The food was changing, they were bringing in psychologists. Not that it would have done much good with me.
'They could have locked me in a room with six or seven of them and, no doubt about it, they'd all have left first. I'd have screwed the lot of them up.'
But not the man generally accepted as the greatest managerial psychologist of them all. Alex Ferguson replaced Ron Atkinson and, as McGrath now accepts, it was the beginning of the end. Now, he is staggered he lasted two years.
His 'cozy world' was shattered. But off the pitch, there was always solace in the bottle. By the time Ferguson pitched up at Old Trafford the warning signs were there.
Patience was wearing thin on and off the pitch because of McGrath's drinking and the state of his knees.
'The minute he walked in, I thought, 'I'm not going to like this and do you know what. that's the way it worked out. I was going to flannel my way around it, but that was the truth of the matter.
'But there's no doubt that if I'd have been in his position, there's no way I'd have put up with it for as long as he did. I gave him some horrendous times.
'I crashed a car when I'd been out drinking. He came to see me. After a short period of abstinence, I carried on as if nothing had happened.'
Knees up: Former Manchester United team-mates McGrath and Kevin Moran curtail Gary Lineker during the Republic's 1-0 win over England in Euro 88
By this stage, Ferguson was determined to smash the drinking culture that dominated at Old Trafford.
Despite the fact that McGrath was turning in some flawless performances on the pitch, his boozing was becoming as much of a problem as his knees. He was eventually sold to Aston Villa for £400,000 in 1989.
'Graham Taylor was brilliant to me in more ways than one,' said McGrath. 'He made sure I was OK on the pitch. But he didn't just want that. He wanted me to feel good about myself off it.
'He wasn't one of those managers who just left it up to the physios. He did his homework. I wanted to pay him back. I played as well as I could that year.
'I was sorry to see Graham leave for England. When Ron Atkinson came in as his replacement at Villa, my initial thought was, 'More fines are on the way!' It could have been a lot worse. I was secretly delighted.
'We didn't have psychologists. We had the physios. And Jim Walker'srole in my life was pretty well established at that point. He was myguardian angel. I can't begin to tell you about the scrapes he got meout of. He'd devised this method of training for me which involved,basically, me not training.
'I did go on the bike, do myweights. I loved that. I'd go behind the goals and pick up the ballsfor the lads doing shooting practice. I wanted the lads to see I wasthere.
'But I was in a mess on occasions. I'd go on to thepitch having had a few drinks. On one particularly bad time, I fellover the ball while taking a free-kick during a pre-season game.
'Despite this, Villa's supporters took to me. Even the mischievous elements of my personality went over well with them.
Part of the furniture: McGrath became a firm favourite at Villa Park
'WhenI'd come back from a jaunt, I'd think, 'Look Paul, you have to playwell today.' That wasn't like me, but there were certain friends in theteam that I would have to rely on to keep everything quiet.
'Idon't cringe now at the thought that I went on to the pitch sometimeshaving had a few drinks. Believe it or not, having those drinks helpedme.
'One or three times I went on having been on a jaunt.One was when I played against Everton. I had just come back fromIreland and I clearly still had some alcohol actually a fair bit inmy system.
'Duncan Ferguson had just boxed the ears off some lad who had tried to rob his house and I won the first header against him.
'Hewas stomping around the place, pointing at me and saying, 'You will notwin another header against me.' Repeating it over and over.
'Ijust looked back at him and said, 'We'll see'. I hate to say it, but Iwas determined to win everything against him from then on. And I nearlydid.
'The thing is, if he hadn't said it, if he hadn't donethat, I'd have looked at him and thought, 'Jeez, he's a big lad. On yougo.' A friend of mine who had travelled back with me from Irelandcouldn't believe it. He had been out with me and said, 'What have youjust done out there?' Actually, I don't want to sound boastful but itwas one of my bettergames. Basically all I could think of afterwards was, 'Thank the Lord it has gone well.'.'
Domestically,the highlight of McGrath's career, Villa's 3-1 victory over MancheterUnited in the 1994 League Cup final that stopped an historic domestictreble, was not without its controversy, either.
'I wantedto play in that one,' he said. 'I'd been fined £8,500 following aninterview I had given saying Alex Ferguson should lighten up and have afew drinks! I hadn't spoken to him in five years since leaving. We'dbeen in the same corridor as each other on numerous occasions but justlooked the other way.
Highlight: McGrath and Mark Hughes tangle during the 1994 Coca-Cola Cup final
'And my big day didn't start in an ideal fashion. I woke up at 3am on the morning of the game, I'd never felt pain like it. I had a searing pain like someone was holding a poker inside my shoulder.
'I went in to see Jim but he couldn't really help. I just had no sleep. I just had injections in the back of my neck, my back, my shoulder. Even my head was numb by kick-off.
'We played well and won 3-1. And then I saw Alex. It's the strangest feeling. I knew he was a decent human being but he was the bigger man, he came up and said, 'Well played, big man.' He gave me a friendly punch in the stomach that was a bit hard actually for a friendly punch!
'What people didn't see is that for about 10 nights after the final, I sat up in bed most nights, crying in pain.'
It gives a flavour of the man. But the madness of his drinking bouts has not left him. The days are more infrequent. But the demons remain. Just like the memories.
He said: 'You don't think to yourself now, 'Weren't they great days' when you are walking around a supermarket. You do still have in the back of your mind that they were. In fact, some of them were too good, if you get my drift.'
It had to be something special to get Paul McGrath to Manchester United but there is no doubt that, for all his faults, once on a football pitch he was something special.
And just think how good he would have been with perfect knees.
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