We talk to Paul Mcgrath
WHEN PEOPLE sit down to compile lists of Irish heroes, for a small nation we have produced our fair share of courageous and passionate people who have served their country proudly.
The likes of Michael Collins and Pádraig Pearse are always going to make a list of Irish heroes, but ask any Irish football fan and Paul Mcgrath is definitely there too. Through the glory days of the Irish team, Germany in '88, Italia '90 and USA '94, the ever-present and perhaps the most vital ingredient in this small nation's success was Mcgrath.
In fact the only time that the Irish team has gone on to achieve a level of success against the odds since was 2002, and at the age of 43, Paul Mcgrath probably still could have done a job at the centre of defence!
Last Thursday I was buzzing. Not only were Ireland going to take on the Spaniards in a major tournament, seeking revenge for how they cruelly dumped us out of the World Cup in 2002 on penalties, but I'd be getting the opinions of one of the greatest player ever to pull on the green jersey. Paul Mcgrath was appearing at Whites Hotel, Wexford, as part of a fundraiser for North End Football Club and I seized my opportunity to have a chat with him.
Since he moved to Monageer, Paul has become a familiar face around Wexford an d we've more or less claimed him as one of our own. With kick off in the big game drawing ever close, I dived straight in and started where it all began for Irish football, Euro '88.
Not unlike Euro 2012, in 1988, Ireland were complete underdogs. Going into the all-important opening game against England, nobody gave us a hope. Certain corners of the English media even poked fun at the Irish team branding them 'England rejects' on the basis that Jack Charlton had been turned down for the England job and some of the players such as John Aldridge and Tony Cascarino were born in England.
However according to Paul, it's something that the team didn't pay too much attention to.
'We all felt Irish, even the lads who had just come on board,' Paul said. 'It never really entered into it. We were a close knit group and we enjoyed each other's company... maybe a bit too much at times! I'm sure you've heard the stories!'
Ireland certainly stunned the critics when Ray Houghton headed home a flick on from John Aldridge to put Ireland 1-0 up early on. From then on England attacked, and while Ireland had a few chances of their own, it was a backs-to-the-wall job with Packie Bonner making some fantastic saves. 'For me Packie was man of the match,' Paul said. 'I think maybe Jack had a go at him at times but he was fantastic in that game. There was great banter between the Ireland and England teams and we were just delighted to have beaten them. It felt great to get one over on the 'auld enemy'.'
Ireland gave a good account of themselves at Euro '88 with the win against England, a draw with the USSR and then a narrow defeat to eventual winners, the Netherlands. Ireland weren't outclassed by the talented Dutch side though, and it could have been very different had Paul's header managed to make it over the line when he hit the post early on.
'I saw the ball all the way over,' he said. 'I thought there was no way I could've missed it. Really I should've scored it. Then I think Aldo gave away a
free for trying to kick the man over the line as well as the ball and that was the end of the attack!'
With kick-off drawing ever closer I had to skip on to what has gone down as one of the greatest defensive displays ever, Ireland v Italy at the Giants Stadium, New York in 1994. Going into the game, Paul was suffering with a shoulder virus and was in quite a bit of pain.
However in a display that was typical of his commitment and dedication to the cause, he played through the pain and gave everything he had to prevent the Italians from scoring.
However Paul is, as always, the embodiment of modesty when talking about the game.
'For me, I suppose it was vengeance for Italia '90. Phil Babb, who was only a young lad at the time, played very well and Denis Irwin was as dependable as always.'
For a lot of Irish fans, one tackle in particular stands out in that game. When the Italians lumped the ball up the field, Signori was almost through on goal. All he had to do was beat an injured Paul McGrath who was dragging a heavy, injured shoulder behind him, in a race to the ball.
'To be honest it was very lucky. Signori is a quick player. I had two or three yards on him to start but it felt like I was dragging a weight behind me with my shoulder. I knew I had to try and get the ball back to Packie so I just threw myself in the air in the hope that I would get some kind of clean connection with the ball and it would make it back to him...and thankfully, it paid off!'
Though he's not too quick to build up his own achievements, Paul was honoured for his contribution to sport recently when he carried the Olympic torch through the streets of Dublin. 'It was a great day with Jedward!' he said with a cheeky grin. 'Ah really though they're great lads and it was great fun.'
With just a few minutes before kick off in the make or break Euro 2012 game for Ireland, Paul was optimistic enough, and despite some controversial decisions, backed Trapattoni 100%.
'I'm a huge fan of Trapattoni,' he said. 'He's got such an impressive CV that you can never really doubt him. Whatever we do tonight, I think he should keep his job. Tonight we have to prove we can play football. We've two big games ahead of us and we can get two results. It's what Irish football does isn't it?'
He was disappointed to see that Wexford man Kevin Doyle had been left out of the team for the evening's game however. 'I thought Kevin warranted another shot at it. In the last game he was doing a lot of the work and chasing people around and maybe we could use that again.'
Alas, Paul's optimism was short lived and as Spain outplayed and outclassed Ireland to win 4-0. After the game, he was as disappointed as the rest of us.
'Well, I thought they'd do much better than that, but that's the way it goes. Spain are a fantastic team and it was always going to be very tough for us.'