Paul McGrath’s most remarkable performance came 25 years ago when Ireland shocked Italy at the World Cup.
Once again, Packie Bonner ordered the Republic of Ireland players up the pitch and deeper into the Italian half. Tommy Coyne braced himself to win the header and backed into Franco Baresi. Roy Keane and John Sheridan pushed up and got ready to claim the knockdown.
This was Ireland v Italy in the 1994 World Cup in Meadowlands, New Jersey, and despite the scorching, punishing heat, Jack Charlton wasn’t about to change the tactics that brought him such great success. Ireland were going long, again.
Bonner’s missile was accurate but was intercepted by Baresi 25 yards from the Italy goal. The AC Milan defender prodded the ball into midfield, where the bounce deceived Keane and Sheridan and possession fell to Roberto Baggio – the best footballer in the world at the time.
The Juventus forward played a deft, first-time reverse pass over Phil Babb and into the acres of space in the Irish half. Beppe Signori sprang into life and galloped after the bouncing ball, he just needed one touch and he would have been clear through on Bonner’s goal.
However, Paul McGrath was also there and his tackle was timed to perfection.
He may have been 34-years-old, with knees in such poor condition that he couldn’t train and well-documented personal problems, but McGrath was first to that and so many other balls that day. “He had the pace when it matters,” George Hamilton said on commentary for RTÉ and he was right. When it mattered, McGrath was there, despite having countless reasons not to be.
In 34 degree heat, against some of the best footballers in the world, half fit and with a left arm rendered “useless” due to a virus, the Dubliner was the best player on the pitch during Ireland’s greatest victory at a World Cup.
They were the only team to beat runners-up Italy in normal time at the tournament, and McGrath taught some of the greatest defenders of all time a lesson in the art of keeping the ball out of the net.
He was remarkable in so many different ways, producing a masterclass of timing and positioning.
In his autobiography, McGrath said he was playing on “instinct” and that is evident from watching the game 25-years later.
With the Italian players buzzing all around him, dropping deep, passing it through the lines and coming in off the wings, he repelled almost everything that came his way.
At times, it looked easy for him. If the Italians attempted to play through Ireland, McGrath was there.
If they went direct, he was there.
Ray Houghton’s goal after 11-minutes won the game…
But McGrath’s defending made that moment possible.
There were so many battles on the day – the northern Europeans versus the unrelenting American sun being the most the one-sided. But it was McGrath v Baggio that would ultimately decide the tie.
The Italian forward was one of the most gifted players of his generation. He was the reigning Ballon d’Or and Fifa World Player of the Year winner going into the competition in the United States and lit up the World Cup with five goals. This was his tournament. It was his goals that got Italy to the final and his miss in the penalty shoot-out against Brazil that ended the Azzurri’s campaign.
But, against McGrath and a stubborn Irish defence, Baggio wasn’t allowed to weave his magic.
Even the American cameraman detected that this was the defining battle of the game.
McGrath’s body may have been in a delicate condition during the contest and at this stage of his career, but his mind was as sharp as ever. This was a cerebral battle as much as a physical one. Baggio dropped deep, drifted between the lines, made clever runs off his teammates and was a constant threat. But McGrath wouldn’t be beaten.
Even when Italy significantly increased the tempo of the match after Ireland’s goal, McGrath did not wilt. This passage of play, in particular, was incredible. The Aston Villa defender was equal to everything Italy threw at him.
And did it with a touch of class.
“On the really good days, football could be like that. Child’s play,” he said in his autobiography.
“The effort wasn’t conscious. I could play at an independent pace, bossing the striker with my ability to read things, to anticipate. On the really good days, you see, football was never physical. It was a mind game.”
However, lurking alongside this knowledge that he was a match for any striker in the game, was an insecurity that laced McGrath’s career. A little voice that attempted to bring him back down and reign in his genius.
“I needed about five paces simply to find my stride. Against the likes of Giuseppe Signori and Roberto Baggio, that made for a pretty nerve-wracking ordeal. If you look at the photographs of that game, my arm may as well be in a sling. It’s hanging limp down by my side, like a snapped branch on a tree.”
But this was one day when the physical ailments, the insecurity and demons wouldn’t win. McGrath improved as the match progressed. The scorching sun, the best player in the world and the voices that looked to drag him down combined couldn’t lay a glove on the Irish defender.
“The longer the game went on, the more confident I became,” he said.
“There’s a chemistry that kicks in between defender and striker. One eventually knows that he is being manipulated by the other. That day, Baggio was no longer inclined to move in my direction. Signori had been substituted. It was over.”
The Irish supporters in the Giants Stadium vastly outnumbered the Italians.
And in the enormous bowl, it was difficult to make out any of their chants – bar one about McGrath mid-way through the second half when the possibility of an Irish win began to come into view.
McGrath’s display was the base for several excellent performances from the Irish team. Denis Irwin was brilliant at right-back. Babb more than held his own alongside McGrath in central defence. Andy Townsend and Keane made their mark in central midfield and Coyne kept the Italian central defenders busy with his selfless running up front.
Ireland had some accomplished footballers, one or two world-class operators. But it all came back to Irish number five, who was there at the death to deny Italy for a final time and earn victory over football aristocrats.
In stoppage time, tracked a run and timed his tackle to prevent a cross into the penalty area.
The Irish players trudged back, breathless and exhausted, melting under the June sun as everyone in green around them screamed for the Dutch referee to blow for full-time.
Italy took the corner short and lofted the ball into the penalty area. “And that was when it happened,” McGrath said.
“That was the moment somebody turned down the sound and everything slowed. The moment I felt unbreakable. I knew it no longer mattered where I stood. The ball would find me.”
“Whatever about the reputation of the Italians, the giants today have been wearing green,” Hamilton said on commentary at the final whistle. McGrath was the biggest green giant of them all.
“It was incredible that he could play to the level he played at, given what was going on in his life,” Alex Ferguson said about McGrath. The former Manchester United manager pushed him out of Old Trafford, taking a zero-tolerance approach with the Irishman. However, Ferguson never lost his respect or admiration for the defender and understood more than most why so many held him in such high esteem.
“It’s the George Best thing again,” he said.
“People like flawed geniuses, because they see something of themselves… Because they’re them. They’re the ordinary people who did become great. They’re reflecting the lives that ordinary people lead.”
Like the ordinary person watching at home or in New Jersey, and even more so, McGrath was flawed and vulnerable. He wore his insecurities, his shyness and shortcomings for all to see and Irish fans loved him for it.
Yet, for an afternoon, on the greatest stage in the sport, he stood above everyone else on the pitch and the demons were kept at bay. This was McGrath at his best. This was Irish football at its best.
Following the match, as the rest of the players celebrated with the fans, McGrath sat alone in complete darkness on the team bus. “No one could see me sitting there. It was heaven,” he said. “What did I fell? Euphoria? Not really. My abiding feeling was simply that I was sober and in a good place. I was safe.”
Ireland’s World Cup campaign effectively ended that day, as the team stumbled through the rest of the group before being convincingly beaten by the Netherlands in the last-16. But, ultimately, it didn’t matter. For one game at the Giants Stadium, they shocked the world and McGrath produced a performance of incredible skill and courage when there were a million reasons for him to not even be on the pitch.