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Thread: Paul McGrath

  1. #1
    Sep 2004
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    Paul McGrath

    He's just started a weekly column with the Irish Times. I really hope it works out, a giant of a man.

    A born fighter who needed to be reborn
    Tom Humphries

    Paul McGrath is currently battling on two fronts. He tells Tom Humphries about his drinking problem and his battle against it, and his kids and his love for them.

    He drank. When the grounds emptied, when the cheering stopped, when the boots were hung up, that was the thing that people remembered. He drank. They called him a god, they called him 'Ooh-aah', they called him a sad case. He drank. He drank when other people stopped drinking. He drank until drink wiped out everything else. He drank.

    He wasn't the only one. They all drank. You knew that. Norman Whiteside and Robbo and Kevin Moran. You could imagine it. Big Jack's lads on the loose in happier days. In Limerick. In the Blackthorn. In triumph. In defeat. They drank too.

    You could imagine that also. Paul McGrath drank for different reasons, though. To erase. To obliterate. To self-destruct. He really, really drank.

    The man who really drank sits in a café in Dún Laoghaire and wraps his massive hands around a cup of hot coffee. Outside the sleet is being scurried along the harbour and the trees are being bent in the wind. He's done a little walking on the treadmill. This afternoon he'll go back and do some weights. Tonight he'll meet a friend for a bit of dinner.

    His life has unfolded itself so far in three acts. Growing up in foster homes and orphanages. Living in front of a million eyes as a professional footballer. And now this third act, where he is on the stage alone. Being Paul McGrath.

    Jesus. The loneliness of the long distance drinker. You can't imagine that. A few weeks ago Chelsea were on the television. On one of those pay channels which he hasn't got in the flat. His love affair with Chelsea precedes his relationship with either drink or professional soccer.

    He wanted to go and watch Chelsea on the television. He called a friend in Ballybrack, wondering if he was up for it. Drew a blank. So he thought about it and thought about it. Finally, he stayed in. Alone.

    "The game was being shown in a pub. I knew I wasn't going to go and drink, but I had this thing in my head. I'd walk in get a water, sit down and people would be looking at me thinking, 'Jaysus, that's sad. Look at him, over there on his own'."

    His life is like that. Punctuated by panic attacks and dark places which prod him to worse places. Sometimes, he does gigs down the country and on the way back he'll feel the need to get a cup of coffee and the prospect of it will just play on his mind for miles and miles of road. He'll be driving and thinking that he'll stop at the next town and, just when he's going to pull over, he'll lose the nerve and drive on. So it goes 'till he begins thinking that no, he won't stop, why should he with so much road behind him now.

    "Or maybe I'll stop at a garage. Nip in and out. I don't know why it is. I just want a cup of coffee, but I build something into my own mind. I don't worry so much about everyone else normally, I actually like meeting people, but I want a cup of coffee and I'm thinking people will be looking at me feeling sorry for me. Maybe it's just ego, but it makes me panic. Walking in for a coffee gets to be a big agony. "

    He is aware of the warm place he has in the national bosom. Beloved. People would pay higher taxes if it meant seeing him well and happy and better. He knows it. He feels it. People are good. They walk up to him in pubs and they clap him on the back and they say, 'fair play, Paul'.

    Even though they'll be the worse for wear, they'll dander up and they'll say 'sorry Paul, do ya mind me askin', are ya takin' a drink these days, cos if y' are I'd like to buy you one, if you're not, well, fair play to ya bud, fair play to ya'. And they'll look him in the eye. He drank. It's the thing they know. He doesn't mind.

    When football finished he woke up one morning and found that the sun hadn't risen and that there was nobody to look after him. He'd had his three millionth knee operation and now it was all over. He had nowhere to go and no calls to take. They might as well have hung one of those sappy posters over his bed. This is the first day of the rest of your life.

    "You wake up and you say, 'well who's looking after me now. When do the cheques arrive?' Suddenly you are earning nothing and you are doing nothing. Yeah, it's a shock."

    It was vaguely familiar, this place called The Real World. For two decades at airports he'd handed his passport and his bags to somebody and walked away whistling, looking at the shops, watching for when the other guys ambled towards the gate. At hotels the bagman or an official miraculously had all their tickets and their bags would materialise in their rooms, and meal-times were decided on.

    Suddenly, there were luggage carousels and check-in desks and hotel registrations and this huge chunk of his life still left to live.

    "You say, 'well, what the hell can I do now? What was I doing before this? I don't want to go back to putting slates on people's roofs'. It can be very tough to adjust."

    And the adulation. Everyone pretends they don't need it. Everyone gets carried a way a little by it. Cold turkey is hard for everyone.

    "I love people coming up to me and talking to me. That's always been a bonus for me. Other lads say it's a price to be paid, but I think it's great. Jesus, somebody comes up and asks for your autograph, I think they are very brave. When you finish in football and it all goes quiet I think a lot of lads actually miss it."

    Fewer people looked for autographs. There was no ooh-aah chants trailing him. Lots of people, though, had lots of ideas about what he should do. Well, not lots of ideas. Mainly the same idea. "People would say, 'why don't you describe a match on TV? You could go and you'd get paid for it'."

    And he would nod. He had a phobia. Still has. At one stage it was so bad he was almost physically frightened even of tape recorders. A hack would bear down on him wearing one of those expressions, I've got a tape recorder and I'm going to us it baby, and Paul McGrath would panic. People kept suggesting TV, though. He has the face for it and the voice and, when it isn't frozen, the brain. He kept nodding. 'Yeah. TV'.

    "After a while you start to think maybe it is back to slating or to security work for you. Only so many people can talk on TV. Some of the lads are so keen they're in the studio before they have their boots off at the end of their careers. You have this sense that people expect you to do something. I'm myself, but people expect you to be Paul McGrath."

    So he dabbled. He dodged the panic attacks as best he could. Sometimes he'd have a drink or two to help the dodging. People would see him on TV. See, they'd say, you're dead relaxed.

    "I'd made myself relaxed. I've done TV sober as a judge, though, and it hasn't been as bad as I'd feared, but again I'd let it build up in my brain. I wouldn't go into a studio too often because I'd be up for nights worrying about it."

    Panic. He did a couple of RTÉ games with Johnny Giles. He remembers the producer's voice in his earpiece. Paul, take the goals. The video was running. Grand. Grand. Stay cool. He took the first goal. Ah. Relaxed back into the chair after the slo-mo. The tape was still running though. Now the voice was in his ear again. Paul, what about the other goal. Paul you've got the other goal, Paul, Paul. And the tape is running on. He is frozen. Couldn't catch up with the action even if he wanted to. He sits there and sweats in the dead air.

    Another evening he felt the panic lying in wait for him around the next corner. The game finished. Commercials. Waiting and panicking. After the break Bill O'Herlihy was coming to him to ask about Kevin Campbell. He realised there was nothing on earth he could say about Kevin Campbell. Nothing that sounded right. Nothing that a TV company would pay him for saying. Nothing. So, he turned to Johnny Giles. 'Sorry Johnny, what can I say about Kevin Campbell?' Giles saw the sheer panic in those eyes.

    "So Johnny leaned over and said, 'why don't you just say that since he came back from Turkey he's looking very lean, he's playing well and he's very fit - it's obviously done him good'." Thanks Johnny.

    A minute later O'Herlihy makes the throw. Paul McGrath catches. "Well Bill, since Kevin has come back from Turkey, he's looking really fit and he's shed a few pounds. He's playing well and obviously it's done him some good." Bill nods. Looks to Giles.

    "I'd have to agree with what Paul has just said there, Bill. He looks magnificent."

  2. #2
    Sep 2004
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    Part 2

    PAUL McGRATH smiles at the memory. "How generous is that?" he asks. "Here's me a young upstart in the other chair. He gives me the line and then agrees with me to make me look good. He's brilliant at what he does. A really lovely man."

    It's not a very big jump from that happy rescue to the scene where Paul McGrath is waking in a hotel room in Tokyo with the phone ringing. The scene where Niall Sloane from the BBC is on the other end asking about the flight out to Narita airport. The one where Niall Sloane is saying, 'Paul, I'm sorry, but you've let yourself down. We'll have to send you home.' You can imagine it. That waking horror? That sudden shame? No, you can't. It was a relief.

    "I was punching the air as he spoke. My head was saying, 'thank God, thank God'. I was thrilled to be getting on a plane and going back. I was escaping. I know there's hundreds of ex-footballers around England and Ireland who would have killed to be doing the World Cup for the BBC. From the day I agreed to do it, though, I knew it would be the catalyst. It was months of sheer panic. It was such a relief when it was actually happening. I was being sent home. That's how it was meant to play itself out."

    Sheer panic. You can't imagine it. The choking hell of it. He'd been off the drink for a year and four months. He'd had a six-week stay in the Rutland Centre in the autumn of 2000 and they'd sent him out into the world as a different person. That year and four months were the happiest times. Ever.

    "After six weeks they send you out as some kind of human being again. That time was the best period of my life. My confidence was back. Things were simple. Me, Caroline and the kids. I was doing bits and pieces, getting a lot of time at home. I loved it."

    He did Football Focus and then he did a game - Aston Villa v Manchester United with Gary Lineker and Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen and everyone was so easy-going and Lawro was so good to him that he got through it even though the producer behind the cameras kept mouthing to him to 'speak louder, Paul, speak louder'.

    The kids loved their new confident father, enjoyed his recharged celebrity. And the BBC liked what they saw too. Niall Sloane came to Dublin and everybody chatted and everybody got excited in that media people way.

    Paul could feel that his wife was especially pleased. He would be doing something. There would be profile and money and success and more good times. So he sat and nodded and smiled and in his alcoholic's brain he knew there was a slow train coming but his alcoholic's brain could manipulate the truth with a sweet first touch. He knew and he didn't know.

    "I was flattered. It was lovely to be asked. At the time, the person who I was involved with (his wife Caroline) would have liked the prestige that went with it. I know enough to know that after football you've just got your face. I know it has to be kept out there.

    "In two years time it's 'Paul Who'? Even my own ego was telling me to do it. In some way it will generate something. And people are telling you you can do it. It's not that tough, it's just talk. In the back of my mind I knew.

    "Months before I was due to go out, though, I knew in my heart it would be the catalyst. I lied to myself about it, but I still knew. I was due a fall. It was a horrendous time, so all over the place, so messy."

    Alone with his thoughts it would crowd in on him. Television. The World Cup. ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND? The scale of it was too big to absorb. His brain would tell him not to look down. OH SWEET JESUS! He had to look down.

    The tumble was quick. As the interest in his World Cup work increased, sponsorship and endorsement deals came in. Suddenly, he was carrying a lot on his shoulders. He looked down. Had to. Drink crooked its finger to him one evening in Manchester. He got dizzy and obeyed.

    Same old, same old. Drink to forget. Wake with guilt. Drink for the guilt. Wake with more guilt. He got some help. Not enough help.

    By the time the plane for Japan took off he knew he was in personal tailspin. The Irish team were in Izumo. His friend Roy Keane was home already. His wife Caroline was on holiday in Florida with Keane's wife Theresa. He remembers very little of the journey.

    "I hardly remember it. I know I pestered a few people. I tried to stand Roy's position up. Know I would have put it across strongly and wrongly in the state I was in. I know people said I was talking to Niall's missus Gillian.

    "I know I was embarrassing myself. A couple of lads had drink with them, stuff they'd brought on board themselves. I remember having a few swigs with them, I was gone already

    by that stage. I wish I'd fallen asleep. I know I was acting the goat.

    "When I landed somebody met me from the BBC. We had to go and get accreditation. I could hardly see the poor man who met me. We're driving from this place to that place. I feel like I'm going into a coma. They were lovely people. I think they were hoping I'd just snap out of it."

    When the call came he knew there was avalanche of shame and guilt coming after it, but the immediate reaction was relief. "That morning I was thrilled when it went the way it did. When they asked me I should have been strong enough to say that I didn't want to do it. That I wasn't able. I wish I had been. It would have saved everybody. I needed to say that it was too much too soon for me.

    "Maybe in a couple of years when I've done a few more things. I should have said I'm not good enough or strong enough to get through it. I was sorry I caused everyone a lot of upset. The outlay they did.

    "In my heart, I knew that the choice was just say no in the beginning or to make a holy show of yourself and let everyone down. I chose the difficult way as usual and, in the end, I was relieved.

    "That's how your mind goes. You'd rather the shame of the drink than the idea of making a show of yourself on TV during the World Cup. The BBC were magnificent about it in making sure I got home safely."

    They sent him home by express post. One night in Tokyo. He came awake in a haze. Phone ringing. A man from the BBC helped him to the airport. That morning was an endless succession of trains and stations, dragging a large suitcase and a heart heavy with shame, trying to keep a conversation going with the nice man from the BBC.

    He flew home. Landed. Crashed. Burned. Buried himself in the Keadeen Hotel in Newbridge with a mountain of bottles to explore the inside of. Dipped through nine circles of hell before he checked out. Faced Caroline and the boys eventually. Drank some more. Sank lower than the drink had ever taken him. You think you can imagine. You can't.

  3. #3
    Sep 2004
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    Part 3

    A WEEK or two ago he went to the Olympia to see I, Keano. He loved it. A few years on perhaps the best way to bury the Irish World Cup misadventure of 2002 was with a few laughs. His two friends Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy have moved on. Everyone has. Paul McGrath, whose own disgrace was just a footnote at the time, has paid the highest price though. Still pays.

    It took him the longest time to get his head back. His own shame was compounded by knowing he'd let so many people down. He lists the names, shaking his head.

    He and Caroline began arguing and didn't stop till they'd tumbled right out of love. They'd lived together happily for so long, Paul's three sons from his first marriage - Christopher, Jordan and Mitchell - bonding tight with the two boys from his second marriage, Paul and Ellis. Divorce snipped everything in two. His three eldest boys went back to Claire, their mother. Paul and Ellis were given into Caroline's custody. It's been almost two years since he has seen them.

    "My two younger boys are nine and six now. That's such a sore point not having seen them in so long. I'm doing it the right way, through the courts, I've waited and waited. I've gone through the agency. I went by everything they've said and now it's almost two years later. Two years this June. If I'd slapped the kids around, if I'd ever hurt them I'd say yes it's right. Adults fall out of love, though, and children suffer.

    "I understand why people climb up on buildings and protest. When it happens to you people assume you must be some kind of monster. I hold my hand up where the drink is concerned, but I refuse to say that I'm a terrible father. I wasn't. I love my kids just as much as Caroline loves them, but for the moment the law says I can't see them. I'll be back in court at the end of this year.

    "You're not a criminal if you've just fallen out of love. I've been drinking for 20 years. I'm not a violent person. If there was a good thing about my drinking it was that a lot of it was done here in Ireland. I came here for certain things that were a bit overwhelming for me and drink was the thing to do. The kids wouldn't have seen as much as you would fear. Obviously, though, they saw too much, far too much. That hurts me. They are recovering.

    "This is what happens to fathers. Paul and Ellis have lost their brothers. And their Dad. I understand why men are out climbing buildings and chaining themselves to things. I've a lot of respect for those lads. Putting themselves on the line. Hopefully, they'll keep doing it. I wouldn't mind getting involved in something like that. It's such an injustice, such a hurt."

    He has offered to just sit in a room with anybody Caroline likes present if his two boys could just be brought in and allowed hear him explain his sudden banishment from their lives. He'd explain and say he was sorry and tell them how much he loved them and missed them. Just so they'd know. He has offered. It hasn't happened.

    Meanwhile, he grows closer to his three older boys. They live with Claire now and come to Dublin for every holiday and break. He travels to Manchester as often as he can between times.

    "The hardest thing is the kids. Not seeing Paul and Ellis. The way the others are concerned. Even now, they expect me to trip up. They're so happy when everything is going so well. I think they know that this time there is something slightly different, though. I haven't the pressure."

    It's been four months since he drank. Not a lot of time really, but this time he lifted himself out of the hole. He'd always had people reaching their hands in to pull him out, to stand him up and pat him down and get him well.

    "There are people who have helped me, but this time I wanted to get myself out of the ****hole my life was in. I dragged myself up. I have a few close friends who have been unbelievable. I'm going to kick on and keep well. This last period was the worst."

    A stint with Waterford last season ended imperfectly, but he still counts Alan Reynolds and Ger O'Brien as friends. "I hit a bad patch there and they were excellent, they couldn't have helped me anymore than they did. Even the young lads at the club were so caring."

    He sits and thinks. No self-pity. You add the days to the days and try to make a life. "It can be lonely. Waking up realising you've messed up. Guilt kicks in. More drink. You're on the same vicious circle again. The panic kicks in, the depression. "You do feel that you are on your own. After all this time I feel quite comfortable on my own. I have a couple of close friends and I'm happy in their company."

    The AA meetings are an anchor. The counsellor he sees weekly helps too. He has people around him who raise the alarm if they sense him straying a little bit. "I don't wallow anymore. No more 'poor me' stuff. I feel better for picking up a phone rather than a bottle."

    HE HAS A house picked in the south- east of the country, somewhere quiet. In a little while he'd like to try telly again, but this time it would be different. Perhaps if he could come into studio for a few weeks, get used to everyone and everything, it would settle him. People still tell him he'd be a natural. Mostly, though, it's simpler things. "I'd like to be happy in my own skin. I want the kids to be happy. They've been through a tough old time watching me and having me as a Dad. When they come over I make a huge fuss of them. I want to do the same for Paul and Ellis too."

    He meets old childhood pals around Sallynoggin and Ballybrack and Dalkey and Monkstown and is amazed at how quickly the thread of friendship can be picked up. The warmth of home overwhelms and comforts him.

    He ran into Niall Quinn recently and in two seconds they had put their differences over Saipan behind them. He's patching a life back together again, getting to a happy place. People, he feels, are good. Life can be good too.

    You'd pay higher taxes if it got him there, wouldn't you? You'd give him some of your own happiness in thanks for all the happiness he gave you. You'd get it back in dividend to see him just be Paul McGrath, the hero who used to drink.

    Act three. Day added to day. Four months and counting.

    © The Irish Times

  4. #4
    International Prospect NeilMcD's Avatar
    Sep 2003
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    Oooh Ahh, Paul Mc Grath
    In Trap we trust

  5. #5
    Reserves dynamo kerry's Avatar
    May 2004
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    Quote Originally Posted by NeilMcD
    Oooh Ahh, Paul Mc Grath
    you said it squire

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