Villa's Greatest Heroes: Paul McGrath

Paul McGrath will always hold a place in my claret and blue heart for one simple reason.

Watching him effortlessly intercept a through-ball one Saturday afternoon at the start of the 1990s, I genuinely believed, for the only time in my life, that I was sitting in the Holte End watching the world's best player in his position play for Aston Villa.

Not nearly the best. Not one of the best. The best.

It's an idea that must be utterly incomprehensible to the generation or two of Villans too young to remember McGrath. And it's an opinion many would argue with - after all, Franco Baresi was still in his prime, straddling the San Siro like a colossus.

Jack Charlton, though, had no doubts. "Paul McGrath is one of the all-time greats," the Republic of Ireland manager once said of his star player. "Someone to compare with Bobby Moore."

Charlton is not a man given to hyperbole or bluster. And, having partnered Moore in a World Cup final, few are more qualified than he to offer such an opinion.

Moore and Baresi are heady company to be in; too heady, McGrath himself would no doubt proclaim. But his own modesty - out of place in a man dubbed the Black Pearl of Inchicore by his nation's fans and simply 'God' by the Holte - should not distract from the truth. Whether or not McGrath thinks he is worthy to be named with such men, there are few other men worthy to be named with McGrath.

Part of me has never forgiven Sir Alex Ferguson for a throwaway comment in 1997. A 37-year-old McGrath, playing for Derby County in one of the 36 games he managed to tease out of those knees after leaving Villa Park, had just been announced as man of the match. Ferguson turned to Brian Kidd and said, "You have to wonder what a player Paul McGrath should have been."

Paul McGrath for Aston Villa

There may be truth in it, but it does McGrath an injustice. What a player he might have been? No. What a player he was. As with George Best - a man to whom Ferguson compares McGrath - there is a tendency to speculate, and overlook the pure brilliance of what was before your eyes.

For that reason, this article is concerned with McGrath the footballer, not McGrath the man. Enough words have been written on that. The best of them come from the pen of the man himself; his autobiography offers more of an insight into the human soul than the works of Shakespeare and Freud combined, and I am not a good enough writer to do it justice.

And with McGrath the footballer, three things redeem Ferguson in my eyes. The first is McGrath's recollection of the moments after Aston Villa's victory over Manchester United in the 1994 League Cup final. "For five years, whenever Villa played United, we walked past each other in the corridor," the Irishman told The Guardian newspaper years later. "And then we beat United in the League Cup final and, afterwards, Alex put his hand out and said, 'Well done, big man.' It made me wish I had gone up to him first."

The second is more simple. In two decades of listening to Ferguson's pre-match, post-match and public comments during his tenure at United, I can count the admissions of his own mistakes on the fingers of one hand. Pride of place is given to his admittance that he should have hung on to McGrath, have tried to help him more - that he would have done if he had come across him ten years later, and was more secure in his own position.

The third reason, though, is a purely selfish gratitude. "When he let me go to Villa something welled up in me and I wanted to prove I could really play," remembers McGrath. Boy, did he ever.

A late starter in professional football after a childhood you could write five books about, McGrath was 22 when he made the move to Old Trafford. Seven injury-ravaged years later, after United had failed to achieve the league title their fans demanded, Ferguson came in, and McGrath was on his way out.

That's all many remember about the period, which is unfair. McGrath put in 163 league appearances for United - for comparison, that's just 19 less than Peter Withe's total for Aston Villa - and was named man of the match in the victorious 1985 FA Cup final.

In that game, McGrath truly stepped up to the plate and demonstrated just how good he could be, pulling together a defence handicapped after Kevin Moran became the first man to be sent off in the Cup final. He would hold that organisational, inspirational role at Villa Park for seven years.

For that was his destination when, frustrated with the injuries and the off-field problems, Ferguson allowed him to leave in 1989. Perhaps genuinely believing McGrath was finished, and perhaps knowing what an asset he could be to other clubs, United offered him £100,000 and a testimonial to retire. Graham Taylor had other ideas, offering United double that amount to take him to Villa Park.

Taylor never did a shrewder bit of business, nor could McGrath have had a better match as manager. Here was a man prepared to both put an arm around him and build a defence around him; to let him lead, but do his best to shield an intensely shy man from the world around him.

It paid off, and not just in terms of performances. There were times he missed games, and there were whole seasons where he couldn't train between matches, but McGrath did not undergo one single knee operation in his seven years at Villa Park. He played nearly 300 games in claret and blue before departing for a brief swansong at Derby and an even shorter stay at Bramall Lane.

Taylor had departed for the England job long before then, of course, and there were tough times under Jo Venglos. But then came McGrath's brightest time in a Villa shirt. The first season of the new Premier League ended in bitter disappointment, when the team faltered at the last and finished second to none other than Manchester United; Ferguson finally delivering the league title the Stretford End had been demanding all those years before.

So had Ferguson been proved right? On a team level, yes. On an individual level, McGrath - 35 years old, and four years after United offered him retirement - was voted the PFA Player Of The Year; one of only four defenders to be given the award in its 37-year history. The "well done," from Ferguson at Wembley a year later was for more than that cup final.

McGrath and Villa would win another League Cup in 1996, easily handling anything Leeds United could throw at them in that memorable 3-0 win. But between the two Wembley dates came the Dublin boy's finest moment in a football shirt - the match that inspired that moment of ultimate flattery from Charlton.

New York has, in its time, been dominated by both the Irish and the Italians. So there was no more fitting place than the Giants Stadium for the two countries to meet in the 1994 World Cup. No more fitting place, thought the Italian residents, to put one over easily on their neighbours. It didn't work out that way.

The game was won, in terms of goals, by another Villan; Ray Houghton scoring the goal of his life. But the man of the match, the man who defended that lead body and soul, was McGrath, whose performance was summed up by two moments.

The first saw McGrath, half-fit as so often, chasing 40 yards for the ball with Giuseppe Signori before throwing himself through the air and toe-poking it back to Bonner in the Ireland goal, beating the Italian predator by mere inches.

The second moment ended in another block from Signori, but not before McGrath, in the space of five seconds, dispossessed Roberto Baggio, somehow got up to win the following cross ahead of the world's greatest striker, and then threw himself in Signori's way - the ball hitting McGrath full in the face before bouncing away to safety. Baresi, stood at the other end of the pitch, joined in the applause that deafened the stadium.

27 words sum up Paul McGrath the footballer for me. The first 23 were written in the Daily Telegraph, and read as follows: 'Like Bobby Moore, Paul McGrath played football as though he was wearing a silk smoking jacket with a crystal glass in his hand.'

The final four, though, are the only ones any Aston Villa fan needs to remember. Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath.