One of the finest centre backs of his generation, Paul McGrath was a defender's defender. A Rolls-Royce on the pitch, McGrath seemed to cruise through games effortlessly. Never blessed with great speed, he relied on an almost telepathic reading of the game as well as his natural strength.
This approach allowed him to prolong his career for 18 years despite chronic knee problems. For long periods of time McGrath would not train in the week but still manage to turn in world-class performances come the weekend. Never was this better illustrated than in the game that was perhaps McGrath's finest hour, playing for the Republic of Ireland.
Many remember Ray Houghton's lofted goal which led to a famous upset for the Irish against Italy in the 1994 World Cup, but those who watched the game will never forget McGrath's performance either. Almost single-handedly he thwarted the Italian team which would go on to reach the final. Time and again, he put his body on the line to thwart Roberto Baggio in particular and all while playing through excruciating knee pain.
The extraordinary thing about McGrath's career is that he almost turned down professional football. Happy playing part-time for St Patrick's Athletic in the League of Ireland, it was only when Manchester United came knocking on the door that he seriously considered football as his entire career.
Fans of Manchester United and Aston Villa alike are glad he made that choice. In seven seasons at each club he became a legendary figure. Even among his managers. Ron Atkinson, who managed McGrath at both Old Trafford and Villa Park later said he was: “better than John Terry and Tony Adams, combined.” For United, he was named man-of-the-match in the 1985 FA Cup Final win over Everton, which was to be his only honour at Old Trafford.
Dogged by drinking problems off the field, McGrath did not fit the grand scheme Alex Ferguson had in mind for the Red Devils. Despite his admiration for the player, Ferguson shipped him out to Aston Villa, where he flourished. Nicknamed 'God' by the Villa fans, he had a revenge of sorts over his former boss as he again starred in Villa's 1994 League Cup Final win over United.
At the age of 39, McGrath's knees could take no more, and he hung up his boots and retired from the game. He left behind him not just a legacy as a superb centre-half but also the mystery of just how good he could have been but for injury and alcohol.