Paul McGrathNew York Giant (Small)
Paul McGrath was born in Ealing, London, UK (1959). At the age of four weeks old he was given up for adoption. Enduring a tough childhood, he grew up behind closed doors in a number of Church run orphanages in 1960s Dublin.
His first professional football club was St Patricks Athletic, Ireland, where he drew the attention of several English clubs and earned the nickname "The Black Pearl of Inchicore". He would go on to become a football legend at Manchester United and Aston Villa.
The boy orphan from Dublin went on to win 83 caps (8 goals) for his country and became the first black man to captain the Republic of Ireland. His legendary status in Ireland is such that on Nelson Mandela’s visit to Dublin in the 1990s, he was greeted with the chants of ‘Ooh-Ah Paul McGrath's Da’.
During the 1994 FIFA World Cup (USA), McGrath put on his most astonishing defensive performance, often described as perhaps the finest display by any Irish player. It was Ireland’s opening game against Italy on June 18 at Giants Stadium, home to the New York Giants. It was expected to be like a home match for the Italians, with the great Italian community of New Jersey coming out to support their team. Instead the stadium was filled to the brim with Irish supporters. McGrath inspired his Irish team mates to a1–0 shock victory over the Italians.
Italy, were one of the tournament favorites with players like Roberto Baggio, Beppe Signori, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi in their squad. Baggio was the cornerstone of the Italian team and arguably the best player in the world at the time (winner of the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year in 1993).
Baggio, considered by many to be one of the finest footballers of his generation, soon knew that McGrath had the better of him on this occasion. Though he tried to keep his distance, he could not find a way to influence game, he would later admit that he had never met a better centre half than Paul McGrath.
It’s difficult to comprehend, but McGrath was not even fully fit for this game. He suffered from long term recurrent knee problems and had been hit by a painful shoulder virus which severely limited the movement in his left arm.
As with many of the greats, he was touched by demons and for Paul there were many dark moments in his life; mental health problems and his all too public struggle with alcoholism. Though, when he stepped out on to the pitch he was an absolute giant. He played for both club and country with a style and grace that only the truly great possess.
‘Big Paul showed all the qualities demanded of us for half an hour in Giants Stadium that day. For him the word big is appropriate. Known for his poise, his ability on the ball, his unique gift for reading the game, Paul displayed all these qualities that day. One other huge asset was his courage. When the Italians did get sight of the goal, Paul presented a final, unsurmountable obstacle. He inspired us as in the end he demoralised Roberto Baggio and the other Italian players.’
‘He was an exceptionally skilful and stylish defender, with marvelous innate athleticism...a man whose abilities stood comparison with those of any central defender in the game.’
Sir Alex Ferguson