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The League Of Ireland’s Greatest Graduates: Paul McGrath

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In part one of a series celebrating Irish football’s most successful League of Ireland graduates, we take an in-depth look at the role the LOI had to play in the early years of Republic of Ireland legend Paul McGrath’s career.

From George Best and Bobby Charlton to John Giles, from Dixie Dean and Jimmy Johnson to Damien Duff, many of the great names of world football have taken to the field in the League of Ireland.

This, however, is not a series about those great players. Here we are not interested in those who had already made their names overseas – the players for which the LOI was a retirement home of sorts. No, this series is not about them.

Here we will pick a squad of the best graduates from the League of Ireland, players for whom the league was a stepping stone to a successful professional career overseas. Players whose involvement in LOI football, however fleeting, was their first experience of a senior national league.

As such, the squad will also serve as support for the growing view that in all but the most exceptional of cases it is more appropriate for a young Irish boy to stay at home until he has tasted senior football in the LOI (and perhaps completed his leaving certificate) before going overseas to pursue a professional football career, particularly so in today’s much more globalised game.

For our Greatest Graduates squad we have stuck to the following criteria:

  1. Players will only be selected from the 1970s onwards (we are aware that many great players will be omitted because of this limitation).
  2. Player must have at least one league appearance in the League of Ireland, Premier or First Division.
  3. The best 16 players will be selected to include a first XI along with five substitutes.


Our first pick, is Ooh, ahh…

Paul McGrath

The ‘Black Pearl of Inchicore’ will be well known to footballing people on these shores. A few legendary Italian footballers will know about him too. In any conversation about Ireland’s greatest ever player, Paul McGrath – modest, gentle, kind and flawed as he might be off the pitch – will be mentioned. His incredibly difficult childhood, as outlined in his critically acclaimed autobiography Back From The Brink is another reason to cherish Paul McGrath.

His is the archetypal story of triumph over adversity – Irish style.

The very early days of Paul’s life, according to his book, go something like this: his mother Betty, on falling pregnant out of wedlock in the Ireland of the late 1950s, shunned by Paul’s biological father and too afraid to tell her own dad, took the boat to England where she was treated ‘like dirt’ by the nuns with whom she took refuge.

A few weeks after giving birth she was forced by those nuns to turn the baby over to foster care back in Dublin. She would take the boat home and be met at the pier in Dublin.

“The instructions were simple. Wait until everyone else was off the boat. Then they would take my child.”

Thus the early life of McGrath would not look out of place within a Greek tragedy, or in some mythological tale. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning of a very turbulent upbringing.

McGrath’s difficulty in living in an orphanage, in being branded as different in school, the mental and physical abuse suffered by him in various institutions providing ‘care’ to orphans at the time, before his eventual breakdown on leaving the care system, are all documented with brutal honesty in his book.

Waterford United 14/2/2004 Director of Football Paul McGrath Mandatory Credit©INPHO/Andrew Paton
Mandatory Credit©INPHO/Andrew Paton.


It is most remarkable that within these incredibly difficult circumstances, football was his saviour.

“Throughout all of this, football was the one thing that gave me confidence. Even at that young age, it brought out something in me. It overrode the awful insecurity, the low-esteem… Football alone, gave me the opportunity for expression… It was the one thing that gave me wings.”

With all due respect to those who work in the FAI, it is the belief of the writers of this series that these words should be at the front and centre of every publication produced by the FAI – or at least on every underage publication.

Paul is speaking of his time playing football in Ireland as a child – long before any move to Manchester United was in the offing. There is an importance to these words that run deeper than soccer in Ireland, they are about overcoming oppression through sport or through some sort of activity – that fosters confidence and self-respect in a child.

While Paul was finding confidence in playing football, it was not long before he was impressing at local side Pearse Rovers, where he enjoyed playing with his friends rather than joining the more celebrated Joey’s (St. Joseph’s), a club that were winning everything at his level underage.

“At one point, Jimmy Whelan tried to get me to make the move across (to Joey’s) but it would have felt like a betrayal. I was playing football with my mates. That’s all I wanted.”


The importance of the social and personal development of a person playing underage football in Ireland, rather than merely playing to win, can be seen through Paul’s story and again has much to teach the parents, coaches and underage players in Ireland today.

But as Paul’s life progressed, so did his football, and he ended up moving, along with most of his friends, to play with Dalkey United in 1978. It was here where fate played its card as Billy Behan, the legendary Manchester United scout, was involved with Dalkey United.

Behan was soon sending messages to Manchester about a kid named McGrath and the hierarchy at United were interested.

“Alerted by Billy Behan to the fact that I seemed to have all the raw materials for a career in professional football, Matt Busby had taken a discreet interest.

“He suggested to Behan that a season in the League of Ireland would answer most lingering questions about my toughness, both physical and mental.”

Mandatory Credit: Clive Mason/ALLSPORT.


You heard that right, folks! The League of Ireland. That’s where Matt Busby was sending Paul McGrath to see if he could make it at Manchester United. This was the League of Ireland in 1979 – a mostly amateur and underappreciated league – and yet Matt Busby saw the merit in it.

Again this is something that does have relevance today and will remain a theme throughout this series – that is the role played by the league of Ireland as a testing ground or a maturing period for a player on entering the adult world of football with a view to professional football overseas at a later point.

However, after unappealing tryouts with Home Farm and Bohemians, and having been seemingly rebuffed by Shamrock Rovers, McGrath was finding it difficult to break into the League of Ireland.

But St. Pat’s chairman Paddy Becton opened his club’s doors and welcomed McGrath into the club. So what did McGrath, albeit initially while playing out of position as a striker, think of the League of Ireland?

“The pace of the football, the skill and savvy touches of the players all took me by surprise. I was hardly getting a touch in games.”

Not such a bad standard then? Maybe Matt Busby knew what he was doing.



Paul McGrath Career Profile:

LOI club: St. Patrick’s Athletic

Period in LOI: 1981-1982

Age when playing in LOI: 21-22

UEFA co-efficient ranking of LOI during this Period: 23rd

Status of LOI club at time: amateur/semi-professional

Club games played: 31

League games played: 26

Awards during time in LOI: PFAI Players’ Player of the Year

Clubs after LOI: Manchester United, Aston Villa, Derby, Sheffield United.

Transfer fee: £30,000

Ireland caps: 83

World Cups: 2 (1990 & 1994)

European Championships: 1 (1988)

European club appearances: 10

Team honours: FA Cup (1984/85, Manchester United); League Cup (1993/94 & 1995/96, Aston Villa)

Individual honours: FAI Senior International Player of the Year (1990 & 1991); Football League First Division/Premier League PFA Team of the Year (1986 & 1993); PFA Players’ Player of the Year: 1993

Publishers suggestions: Statue outside Richmond Park.

Place in our squad: No. 4 and centre-back, solid as a rock.


Part Two of the Paul McGrath section in this series will be published at a later date.

In the meantime be sure to check out our next edition where we will reveal our side’s number 6.


This article was written as a collaboration between Rob Lyons (Pundit Arena) & Neal Horgan (Sportsproview) 

Neal Horgan, a practicing solicitor, was one of Cork City Football Club’s longest-serving players, winning the Premier Division, First Division, Setanta Cup and FAI Cup in his time with the Leesiders. Neal is also the author of ‘Death of a Football Club?, The Story Of Cork City FC: Season 2008’ – a first hand account of one of the club’s most turbulent years.

His newest publication ‘Second City’ focuses on the 2009 Cork City season in which Neal provides another first-hand account of the financial turmoil plaguing the club and its players.

Neal’s books can be purchased at

Rob Lyons is Manager of Quality Control at Pundit Arena and is also a weekly columnist for the Evening Echo.

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