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Modern football is a demanding business, with players required to be at peak physical fitness in order to deliver their best performances on the field. Sometimes, however, there’s a player who bucks that trend. Someone who, despite chronic injuries and an almost non-existent training regime, still manages to produce outstanding performances week in, week out. At such times players rise above the ordinary and achieve legendary status with their club. Such a player was Paul McGrath at Aston Villa.
McGrath had been part of the Manchester United set up since 1982, joining from St Patrick’s Athletic in Dublin. His time with the Red Devils would, however, be blighted by injury and an adverse reputation for off the field activities, and despite outstanding displays such as the 1985 FA Cup Final when he was named Man of the Match as United beat Everton, overall it was a less than fulfilling period in his career.
With rivalry for places in the team increasingly hot as Alex Ferguson took over from the sacked Ron Atkinson and sought to rebuild the squad, the new man at the helm saw little future for McGrath, and after a shade more than 203 appearances for the club, he was sold to Aston Villa in the summer of 1989. The fee of some £425,000 whilst worthy enough, also indicated that there were doubts whether McGrath’s career as a professional footballer had much further to run.
The move however would see McGrath confound such arbitrary opinions, defy expectations and become, in the words of the Aston Villa website, “the most revered Villa star of the modern era.” Whereas his time at Old Trafford saw him averaging around 27 games per season across all competitions – a figure often attributed less to any questionable ability, and more to persistent knee injuries, and alcohol abuse. At Villa Park, that number rose to 46, and never fell below 40. It’s not only the numbers that are impressive, McGrath enjoyed a renaissance at Villa Park that saw him turn the hardy toil of defending into a work of art, and earned himself legendary status with the club’s fervent support on the Holte End of Villa Park.
If Alex Ferguson was probably the wrong manager at the wrong time for Paul McGrath, in Villa manager, Graham Taylor, he found the sort of empathetic coach who could coax the genius from those damaged joints and abused body. Initially, Taylor’s gamble appeared to be doomed to failure as McGrath’s early games in claret and blue followed a similar pattern to the those of the dog days at Old Trafford. Off the field, activities prevented any consistency, but Taylor was canny enough to see the unpolished gem and, where Ferguson had, arguably, bailed on the player, Taylor persisted. By the end of that first season, his reward was being reaped.
Deployed in a three-man central defensive unit with Denmark international Kent Nielson and Derek Mountfield, the resolute backline boosted Villa to second place in the league, and a place in the UEFA Cup, as English clubs returned to the fray following the post-Heysel ban. How influential was McGrath in this success? Suffice to say that he won the club’s player of the year award, and would monopolise that honour across the following years, achieving his fourth such successive distinction in 1993, as once again, Villa finished in second position.
As is often the case such success comes with a cost, and Taylor was snaffled away to take over as England manager. Controversially, Villa reached out to Eastern Europe for the replacement, giving the manager’s role to Josef Venglos for the 1990-91 season. From the second-place position, Villa’s fortunes tumbled under the new man, despite the continuing excellence of McGrath’s play, and a fight against relegation saw the club ultimately survive, but change was inevitable.
Ron Atkinson, McGrath’s former coach at Old Trafford replaced the unlamented Venglos, and Villa began to climb back up the league. By the end of the 1992-93 season, Atkinson had guided the club to second place once more, as English football entered the Premier League era. Incredibly, the chronically suffering McGrath would appear in all 42 league encounters that term, and play in 50 games across all competitions. His titanic contribution to the Villa cause was recognised as his fellow professionals voted him PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
The following term, the reunited player and coach would go on to secure Villa’s first silverware for more than a decade, when they lifted the League Cup in 1994. There would have been a nice little added spice to the triumph as it was the club that had pointed both Atkinson and McGrath to the door, who were overcome in the final, as Villa defeated Manchester United 3-1. It’s worth mentioning that over and above his normal catalogue of longstanding injuries, McGrath had also sustained a frozen shoulder ahead of the game, and needed painkilling injections to get him onto the pitch. His performance however, as was now becoming very much the normal way of things, hardly betrayed the matter.
Two years later, now with former Villa ace Brian Little in charge, the club would return to Wembley for another League Cup triumph, with McGrath again a key man in the 3-0 victory over Leeds United. After more than 300 appearances in claret and blue, McGrath would eventually leave Villa Park in 1996, playing out his career in largely unexceptional spells at Derby County and then Sheffield United.
During his time at Villa Park, Paul McGrath was one of the outstanding defensive players plying his trade in English football, and despite a more than reasonably successful time with Manchester United, there’s surely little doubt that he will be best remembered for his time in the Midlands, playing at Villa Park. A career that had seemed blighted and doomed when he left Old Trafford, blossomed into full flower in Birmingham to earn him the sort of acclaim as stated on the Aston Villa website. There remains one nagging question. Just how good could Paul McGrath have been without the injuries that he carried for so long?