October 09, 2010

Paul McGrath

I started watching football just as a set of players finished their careers. Players like Stuart Pearce, Gary Linekar, even say Paul Gascoigne and managers like Clough and Kendall were finishing their careers as I started to watch the game. Of that generation of players some like Linekar seem to have managed their retirement well- others like Gascoigne seem to have fallen apart in public and more have faded away into obscurity. Amongst the players that I remember hearing of but never really watched was Paul McGrath, of Manchester United and then (and for me during the only period I saw him play) of Aston Villa. McGrath was a very good centre half for club and country but struggled with drink and drugs during his time in football. For whatever reason, he became addicted to the former and was unable to cope- and published a memoir a couple of years ago (which I haven't read) about the experience of being addicted. He's been interviewed by the Irish Independent about what his experiences since then have been, and he has fallen back into addiction, back into drinking.

I don't think there is anything positive about having an addiction. I'm lucky enough not to have one- lucky enough to have been through school and university without acquiring the need to get hammered or to take drugs. McGrath's situation is terrible. By any objective criteria, he achieved about as much in his chosen career as you can achieve, he played for two of the greatest clubs in the world and was capped several times by his national team, yet reading the article you cannot but sense he regards himself as a failure. To some extent he seems to believe that he will lose his battle with alcohol, that where strikers like Rush and Hughes, Linekar and Sheringham failed, the demon drink will succeed. I don't know the man at all- I pity him from afar but cannot and would not know how to help. What it reminds me of though is the utter destruction that having an addiction can wreak on someone: McGrath will have had all the help that money could buy, presumably he has a vast store of goodwill to draw on and yet even he hasn't succeeded. Perhaps as well the real signal of the fact he hasn't succeeded is the fact that he seems to believe that he can't succeed.

I don't think there is anything unique here to football or to class or anything else: there are plenty of middle class and upper class people in professional jobs who have similar addictions. The reasons people get addicted vary. The reason people lose hope and give up on life vary. I'm not sure what answers there are and I'm sure there are psychological blogs out there who do offer answers. All I'm sure of is the sense of destruction that McGrath's account brings home to me: the sense of waste. Ultimately I wonder how many lives in the UK every year are ruined by addiction, how many people die early because of it and how many die lonely because of it. Paul McGrath hopefully has more chances yet, but his story brings home to me at least how addiction can strike and destroy any life whatsoever.