Why McGrath deserves utmost respect
The term 'Rolls-Royce footballer' could have been invented for Paul McGrath.
On the 40-year anniversary of his transfer, we pay tribute to the former Republic of Ireland international who was a colossus for club and country before going on to win the PFA Players' Player of the Year award at Aston Villa in 1993.
He was to emerge as a key performer for Jack Charlton's boys in green and produced some memorable performances at the 1990 and 1994 World Cup finals.
The defender tells the harrowing story of his off-field life in the outstanding autobiography Back from the Brink, which contains some revelations which stick with you years after reading them.
However, it is his majestic performances in the red shirt that deserve to have more light shone on them here because, make no mistake, McGrath was an exceptional player and one of the top defenders around for some time. It is no coincidence that he was chosen to play for the Football League XI against the Rest of the World at Wembley in 1987 – I game I saw at the famous old stadium.
Bryan Robson (2) and Norman Whiteside scored the goals but McGrath was excellent at the back in stifling Gary Lineker and Diego Maradona.
I first recall the first time he came across my radar was when he was breaking into the team as a midfielder during Ron Atkinson's reign as boss. As I was unable to attend games back in those days, when he scored twice against Luton Town, his first goals for the club, in a 3-0 win, and then again at Notts County, at the end of his breakthrough season (1982/83), I must admit I had very different views in my head of the player he may become.
As time progressed, it became obvious his defensive qualities were going to outweigh his goalscoring capabilities. Although capable of anchoring the midfield, as he did with great success at times with Republic of Ireland, he developed into an outstanding centre-back. Pace, power and composure were all key attributes and he would purr through matches, dominating opposing centre-forwards.
McGrath missed out on featuring in the 1983 FA Cup final victory over Brighton & Hove Albion but was outstanding, two years later, when the 10-man Reds overcame champions Everton 1-0. A Man-of-the-Match display on the big stage cemented his reputation as a fine centre-back, unflappable no matter what the occasion or situation.
For no obvious reason, one match away at Charlton Athletic sticks in my memory, when I marvelled at his ability and was in awe of a performance he produced. It was probably one of many for him that season alone but it came in Sir Alex Ferguson's era, in 1987. What struck me was the fact that not only would he win every ball launched towards goal but he also had the skill to direct it to a team-mate.
No matter what angle it came to him, or the pressure being applied by the home side, he would clear it and set us off on a counter-attack.
Unfortunately, things fizzled out for this exceptional centre-back under Ferguson, and he actually lost in four of his last five appearances as the 1988/89 season drew to a disappointing close, just before the Sir Alex era would begin its incredible story of success a year later.
There was great sadness among the support, from me included, when both McGrath and Whiteside were sold in the summer. Sir Alex wanted to change the culture of the club and was proved right, of course, but the defender still showed his quality after departing for Aston Villa. Indeed, not only did he win that personal award but he also lifted two League Cups with the Midlanders, one at the expense of the Reds, in 1994, which cost us a clean sweep of domestic trophies that year.
Such fine form at Villa under Atkinson, when he had been largely written off, has maybe helped dictate a narrative that he should be remembered more for his work with them. Perhaps the fact it was obviously more recent plays a part in this.
Yet, make no mistake, McGrath was one of the classiest centre-halves United have had. I was delighted to be able to speak to him for some time when he was launching his book in London many years ago and still think it was one of the most enjoyable interviews – well, chats – that I have had with a player. He was so modest and unassuming that he seemed genuinely taken aback when I told him how much I loved his performances for United. Even if he must surely have heard it a million times!
So, 40 years on from his arrival, there should definitely be time to pay tribute to the wonderful Paul McGrath.
The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.