PAUL McGRATH: A NATIONAL TREASURE VISITS LETTERKENNY.
Jonathan Foley speaks exclusively with Ireland legend and hero, Paul McGrath.
Interview took place on Saturday 11 November 2017.
Hundreds of Republic of Ireland fans, young and old, gathered at the Old Orchard Inn last week as Paul McGrath came to visit. An iconic figure within Irish sport, McGrath was celebrated as a most welcome guest owing to his valiant services to the national team during his time as a player in the eighties and nighties. What’s more, he joined us at The Leader for an exclusive interview.
By Jonathan Foley
“It’s absolutely wonderful to come here to Letterkenny. Donegal is a very beautiful part of the world in general and I love getting the chance to travel around and to see new things and meet new people. Everyone up here seems very easy-going and friendly and I can see where my old team-mate Packie Bonner gets his relaxed nature and quick wit from” McGrath told jokingly.
Paul McGrath was capped 83 times for his country, scoring eight goals in the process as well as making almost 600 club appearances for the likes of St Patrick’s Athletic, Manchester United, Aston Villa, Derby County amongst a few others during his career’s twilight years in the mid-to-late nineties. His career and indeed his life in general is that of something that would resemble a piece of fictional narrative.
The son of an Irish mother and a Nigerian father, McGrath was raised in a series of orphanages around Dublin as it was deemed socially unacceptable in Ireland back then to raise a child who was both ‘illegitimate’ and ‘coloured.’
Football was his release and despite issues in life with racism, alcohol addiction, failed marriages and crippling injuries, McGrath remains a positive and inspirational force. He’s abstained from drinking for almost a year, has good relationships with his children and is looking stronger, fitter and sharper than ever and of course, is still keeping a close eye on the Ireland team.
“It’s an important time, as it always is, for Irish football and the people of Donegal have every right to feel a part of it. For me, Séamus Coleman is quite simply a fantastic player and people up here should be very proud of him; as I know they are. He’s come a long way in a short time and he looks as though he is only going to get better and better” told McGrath.
“It was very unfortunate for him to get the injury that he did at such a crucial time in the season for both his club and his country. He seems like a great lad though and I’m sure he’ll be doing the right things in his recovery – I have heard through the grapevine that it’s going well for him – so please God, we’ll see him back in a green jersey again very soon” he added.
Following his discussion about the former Killybegs GAA and St Catherine’s clubman, McGrath was then questioned about his fellow centre-half, Shane Duffy; son of local man Brian Duffy who moved to Derry in the late eighties.
Brian is often affectionately known as the ‘Burmah Apache’ to those who know him from in and around the town.
“I know that Shane Duffy is officially a Derry-man but, fear not, the locals up here have me well informed already that he’s something of an honorary Letterkenny man because his family are all from here. I also heard on the way here that his grandmother lives nearby and that she has the flag up outside the house in her support of him and that was lovely to hear” McGrath told.
“Shane’s a fantastic player. It’s always good to have guys on the Ireland team playing Premiership football for the experience that he’ll get from playing at that level. He’s playing well for Brighton and Hove Albion and I thought he was absolutely fantastic against Wales in Cardiff last month.”
“He plays a similar role in the centre of defence to what I used to and, I must say, I’m just glad I wasn’t playing at the same time as him. If he and I were competing in training for the same spot on the first team, I’d be pretty confident that he’d be putting me out of the job” joked a modest McGrath.
He was then asked about his feelings on how the northwestern counties in general have represented Ireland in the recent era.
“Yeah the northwest is a very big part of the team now. We’ve spoken about the Donegal lads, but we can’t forget that Martin O’Neill and James McClean are from places that are certainly not a million miles away from here. In fact, they’re only just up the road really,” McGrath pointed out.
“O’Neill has done well to get us to the playoffs. He has his critics, as all managers do, but with the greatest of respect, it’s not the youngest of Ireland teams we’ve seen in recent years and many of them don’t play top-flight football for their clubs but he’s an intelligent man who has done it before, so good on him” he told.
“James McClean is a player I do like a lot. He cares and he gets himself about with great passion and drive, and I have to be careful how I say this, but I sometimes think he’s too eager and gets carried away with the occasion. He’s only about 24 I think, but he could do with staying more composed, conserving his energy more and playing the game with a bit more cool” he added.
“A very talented player nonetheless and I think that maybe in another two or three years, he’ll mature and become even better again” he added. And what of past players and descendants of Donegal who’ve done their bit for Boys in Green?
“I was lucky enough to have played in teams with Ray Houghton and Packie Bonner. Ray’s a Glasgow man by birth of course, but I know he’s a kind of local hero up here and sure with his goals against England in Stuttgart and against Italy in America, how could anyone not love having a guy like that in your team?” he fondly recalled.
“Playing with Packie was, for me, still the best part of my career. As a defender and him as a goalkeeper, we’d communicate a lot during games and he could keep things right and see things before we did. My fondest memory of him was playing in that match against England in Euro’88. We were under big pressure to hold that lead and he saved everything that they threw at him that day. Gary Lineker and the likes couldn’t get past him at all. A great man” he told.
The game which stands out for most supporters when they think of Paul McGrath is his stellar and uncompromising defensive performance for Ireland against huge-favourites Italy at the Giants Stadium in New Jersey during the World Cup in 1994.
He was marking the formidable attacking force of Roberto Baggio and with an array of well-timed tackles, high-rising headers and the bravest of defensive blocks – one with his face – the pony-tailed Italian striker could openly state after the match that the “Irish are anything but an easy opponent and Paul McGrath is the best defender I ever played against.”
When we at The Leader asked Paul if he was sitting comfortably because he still had Baggio and Signori in his back-pocket, his response was a warm-hearted “Ara, go on out of that now” he said with a quiet smile and a bit of a blush.