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McGrath out of the darkness

IT WAS getting late in the evening and the silence was hurtful. High up in the Lansdowne Road stands, the players’ voices could be heard, a sure sign the game had long since ceased to mean anything. Sadly, but predictably, several of Ireland’s friendly internationals, especially under Giovanni Trapattoni’s regime, had turned out this way. And so, television directors, desperate for an angle, searched among the spectators for someone, or something, of interest. That was when they saw Paul McGrath, when they focused their cameras on his face and posted it on the stadium screen.

The crowd’s response was remarkable. Immediately they broke into a chorus of ‘Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath’ and continued their chant for five minutes. At football games, five minutes of the same song seems like a lifetime. This was August 2009. Ever since — match after match — McGrath’s name gets an airing.

The wonder of this is not just that 14 years have passed since McGrath retired — or 18 years have elapsed from his last, great game for Ireland. The wonder is why he, not Giles, Brady, Keane or Big Jack, is the name from history the fans have stuck their badge on.

“Part of it is because his best days were with Ireland, not with his club,” said one seasoned Ireland follower. “But the bigger part is because he seems so vulnerable.”

That vulnerability has never been disguised. Years ago, his managers — Ron Atkinson and Jack Charlton — used his dodgy knees as a cover, and metaphor, for his problems with alcohol. When McGrath wasn’t training, the knees were at him, reporters were told. With a nod and a wink, they said they understood.

Yet no one really did. Only after the publication of his autobiography, Back from the Brink, did we get a true picture of the hell he has endured. And even then, we were only guessing.

Yet on this warm spring day, there is no sign of hell, just of a 52-year-old man inhabiting a young man’s body. Impeccably dressed, in a tailor-cut black suit, the possession of a gold, studded ear-ring is his token gesture to youth. He smiles warmly at everyone, patiently posing for photographs with kids who weren’t even born when he was in his prime, stopping to chat with older men who ask his opinion on how Ireland will do this summer.

“Capable of getting out of the group,” he suggests. “It’s a big summer for all of us.”

And it’s a particularly big one for McGrath. Though not poor, he is not comfortably rich, either. Ambassadorial jobs for the FAI, punditry gigs for radio stations and newspapers form the bulk of his present-day income. And with Ireland appearing in their first finals in a decade, it is quids-in.

Of course it helps that McGrath is healthy enough to carry out his duties. Sober for 18 months now, his last days on the drink ended with an arrest for stealing and then drink-driving a car. With a jail term beckoning, McGrath got scared first, then sober second.

He’s been that way since, filling his days with long walks in the country, games of golf, an occasional game of football and a grandfatherly visit to see the first child of his eldest son, Chris.

“I’m doing great,” he says. “All is well.”

There is no reason to disbelieve him. These days Paul McGrath lives in Wexford, in a rural hideaway half-way between Enniscorthy and Ferns, a house he selected because he wanted to be far away from Dublin’s temptations but close enough to avail of its work opportunities.

While the events of 2010 resulted in a heavy fine and two-years off the road, a neighbour discreetly and patiently acts as his driver. The same neighbour called into his house day after day for two years in 2009 and 2010 when McGrath’s return to alcoholism reached its peak.

At that point, friends feared for him. Joey — who is best described as McGrath’s saviour — made the 200-mile round trip from Dublin to Wexford every week, tidying his house, cooking him meals, taking him away from one scrape or another and just sitting there as company.

It’s been that way since 1981 when Charlie Walker, then the St Patrick’s Athletic manager, brought a young, shy, unproven Paul McGrath into his dressing room, sat him down beside Malone and said, “Joey, you’re the captain. Look after this boy”.

“Ever since, I’ve just felt I should see it through,” says Malone.

Yet it hasn’t been easy. During McGrath’s career, Malone’s use was limited. After all, he was in Ireland and McGrath in England. When McGrath appeared on Ireland duty, Joey would sit with him in his hotel room because the defender who was fearless in front of thousands at Old Trafford or Lansdowne Road, couldn’t bear to be in the company of strangers in the lobby of a hotel.

Then, when the team went out on the town, Joey hung around in the background, staying up until five or six in the morning before driving McGrath back to base camp, before returning to his own family and his own job.

“It was a lasting friendship,” says Malone. “You wouldn’t meet a nicer man, a gentler man.”

The test of that friendship came later. While others have stayed true to him, too — Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Roy Keane and John Giles being among the better ones — Malone, and a few others, have always been positioned better geographically to deal with his troubles.

“Despite his problems, you wouldn’t believe the amount of goodwill out there for Paul,” says Joey. “People adore him. Grandmothers come up to him, hug him and then introduce him to their daughters and granddaughters and say: ‘This is my Paul’. He has that effect. Call it charisma, call it what you want.”

A picture of the charm and the likeability comes when McGrath sits and chats to reporters half his age and picks holes in Manchester City’s title challenge and gently teases Alex Ferguson’s managerial policies. “He is the master of sealing the deal and winning trophies,” says McGrath. “Even if he is complimenting someone, it is a backhanded compliment. He just has this way of making everyone else feel inferior to him and his club.”

In stark contrast is McGrath, this adored player and person, who effortlessly makes people feel at ease in his presence.

Malone enjoys his company more than ever. Yet because they both have their separate lives, he doesn’t see McGrath as often as he used to. “We check in with one another regularly,” Malone says. “But there’s no need for me to be pestering him.”

Malone’s need normally comes when problems occur. “At times, especially in 2009 and 2010, it was stressful,” he admits. “But fair play to him, he has turned his life around and that’s down to him and him alone. He has his demons, and of course those of us who care for him hope there are no more setbacks. Yet because of the type of disease it is, it means we can never take anything for granted.”

Yet on this warm day, the fifth in a row where temperatures have stayed above 20 degrees, there seems no need to worry. McGrath is genuinely relaxed and comfortable within his own skin. As we sit in the shade, he positions himself under the sun and smiles. Everyone in Ireland is enjoying this prolonged dry spell.

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