'Oh my God, I'm in the team!' - Paul McGrath on how he nearly missed his greatest game
"I was thrilled when he picked me - 'Oh my God, I'm in the team!'"
Paul McGrath played one of the games of his life for Ireland, at the World Cup in 1994, but don't lavish him with too much praise about it.
At Italia 90, Ireland faced off against the likes of England, Romania and The Netherlands on their way to the quarter finals.
Captured brilliantly by the 'Finding Jack Charlton' documentary, the bond the Irish team shared with fans and their backroom staff was clear as, come 5am on the day after their exit, they sat out at the team hotel and sang songs together.
"You weren't celebrating the loss, or anything like that," says McGrath. "It was the whole competition. That's just the Irish - you don't get all glum and think, 'we were shocking tonight'.
"To me it was, 'We were beaten, we were beaten by the better team, but let's still celebrate. This is the World Cup. We got to the last eight of the World Cup. Let's celebrate how far we've come'."
Four years after Italy knocked Ireland out of the World Cup, fate would have it that both sides would face each other in their USA 94 opener. The game would take place at Giants Stadium in New Jersey and attracted massive local interest from the Irish and Italian communities.
Paul McGrath on facing Roberto Baggio & Co.
"I'd been to Italy a few times, for visits and games, and I just loved the place," says McGrath, "and I love the Italians. I think a lot of them are born to play football, because they do really well."
Jack Charlton's side were up against and Italian side that contained the world-class likes of Roberto Baggio, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, the Serie A sharpshooter Giuseppe Signori and a host of Milan's crack European side of the late 1980s and early 90s.
As they famously did against England at Euro 88, Ireland hit the front, early, through Ray Houghton and held on for the ensuing white-knuckle ride. On this occasion, they were not completely on the rack and John Sheridan should have settled it in the second half, only for his shot to cannon off the crossbar.
The former Aston Villa and Manchester United defender reveals he almost did not make it to line out at the start.
"I was under the weather, to be honest, because my left shoulder had totally said 'goodbye' to me," he recalls.
"I had said it to Jack about four months before the World Cup. But Jack, Mick Byrne and Charlie O'Leary were all trying to get my left shoulder to work. But it was horrific for me. I was actually doing extra work, every single day, with Mick Byrne. I was going for runs and we were trying to get this thing rolling.
"I remember Ronnie Whelan, when we were doing this shoulder rolling [to warm-up] in training, laughing at me. I was saying, 'This isn't funny!' I was really getting worked up about it, as it really was not working properly.
"So, I was thrilled when he picked me in the team - Oh my God, I'm in the team!"
The McGrath masterclass
McGrath and Phil Babb had phenomenal performances as they repelled everything that Italy could throw at them. Milan striker Daniele Massaro joined Signori up front for the second half but was also left frustrated by the Irish defenders.
Typical of McGrath, and his humble nature, he deflects a lot of the praise [like Italian through-balls] that comes his way.
"People say I had a good game," he says, "but, if you look closely at it, Packie Bonner saved about three shots where I let people by.
"Phil Babb saved me on one occasion when he slid in and Denis Irwin did exactly the same. Those kids - and they were only young kids at the time - really put themselves about. And Terry Phelan was another one. He was sprinting up and down the line like nobody's business."
There are certain days, McGrath explains, where you just get a sense that history is on your side. June 18th 1994 was one of those days.
"When you were walking out and you see that crowd. The stadium just went up, up into the sky. And I reckon, 80% of it was Irish, if not higher. We all looked around at each other and said - 'Oh my God, this is the one, isn't it? We can't afford to lose.'
"And when you say that, the lads know exactly what you mean. The older ones start walking out and say, 'This is the one day we can't afford to lose'. And suddenly you realise that something has to go right for us, because we're not going to lose against this lot'. And that's how it went."
McGrath on the one jersey swap he regrets not asking for
Following the game, as the Ireland players soaked in the victory and the scenes of celebration up in the stands, a quick thought crossed the mind of Paul McGrath.
"I never normally ran around trying to get people's jerseys," he comments.
"There were certain players that I just loved, and some of them knew I loved them as when I was walking out to play, I'd have stars in my eyes looking up at them.
"I would never ask for someone's jersey unless someone was close to me at the end of a game, and asked me. I was thinking of asking Franco Baresi for his, as he was someone I admired and I thought I may not see him again.
"But I think he was a bit upset that day, so he wasn't hanging around. But that's okay."
McGrath is reminded of Roy Keane saying, earlier this year, that he regretted asking Matthias Sammer for his jersey after Ireland beat Germany in a pre-USA 94 friendly. The midfielder had refused Keane's request and walked on by. Keane, looking back, could understand why.
"I bet Roy didn't forget that," jokes McGrath. "He would have got him back for that!"
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