Back from the Brink: Paul McGrath
As we go down into the darkness, sinking towards the depths of Paul McGrath's harrowing story, everything slows and tilts until it seems as if we are looking out at the world through the bottom of an empty bottle. Even the name of the swish hotel in Birmingham, where the battered old Irish footballer talks so movingly of his lost life, reminds us of his demons. In the bar of the Hotel du Vin, among elegant decor punctuated by row upon row of green and black bottles, all uncorked and drained of champagne and wine, the 46-year-old alcoholic licks his lips and asks for a sparkling water.
McGrath looks what he is - a man trying to stay "dry" in a place of pitiless temptation, a man who uses the word "well" time after time to nail the life-saving need for him to stay sober. The big defender cackles softly when I suggest that the publishers of his gripping book, Back From The Brink, might have opted for a more sensitive venue for this interview. His unflinching autobiography, after all, is more concerned with a life ruined by alcoholism than celebrating his once dazzling football career. "I did notice all the bottles when I came in," McGrath says, "but drink is everywhere now. If you tried to hide from it when you're feeling well I don't think you'd be solving anything."
His story is as complex as it is moving, as vulnerable as it is brutal. For a while, even though he is by far the most thoughtful and likeable footballer I have ever met, we seem unsure where to begin. But this mutual shyness helps, allowing McGrath to ease himself into talking deeply rather than rattling through a list of questions which want him to explain glibly how an illustrious career, culminating in two World Cup finals tournaments for the Republic of Ireland and the 1993 PFA Player of the Year award, was framed by alcoholism, two divorces and four attempts to end his life.
The first of those failed suicides came in 1989, soon after he and Sir Alex Ferguson had fallen out for the last time and Manchester United sold him to Aston Villa. "I was in trouble with the club," McGrath says. "I'm drunk and ashamed, on the edge of my bed, and reaching for the knife. I remember the blood pouring across the floor and the screaming of the nanny looking after our boys."
His first wife, Claire, the mother of his three eldest sons, rushed home before the ambulance arrived. She knelt in front of her sobbing husband and tried to ask him what was wrong. It was the first time she had seen him cry, and the sounds falling from his mouth spoke of a new horror.
With a surreal ability to mask the depth of his problems, McGrath soon returned to football. Graham Taylor, the sympathetic Villa manager in whom he confided, played him in midfield against an Everton side featuring McGrath's former Old Trafford drinking partner, Norman Whiteside. McGrath wore wristbands to hide his wounds and inspired Villa to a 6-0 lead. While their defence missed his uncanny gift in reading opposition attacks and conceded two late goals, that victory prompted a run of 35 straight league games for McGrath. Villa nearly won the championship and McGrath was voted the supporters' player of the year.
His respect for Taylor, who would soon move on to manage England, is in marked contrast to his muted appraisal of Steve McClaren. Professing himself to be "amazed" at the rise of England's current coach from the anonymity of being No2 at Derby County, another of McGrath's former clubs, the Irishman warns that, "You have to have so many gifts as an international manager. Fair play to [McClaren] being nominated for the job, let alone getting it. But it looks a step too far . . .
"From obscurity he was suddenly picked as Sir Alex Ferguson's No2. If he hadn't been given that break at Manchester United it would never have happened."
McGrath, however, now steps back from the feud with Ferguson which resulted in his transfer to Villa. "We were on a collision course, me and Alex, because he was out to seize control of the club by barking at everyone. He had me and Norman in the office all the time, shouting and fining us, but it didn't work. We were injured a lot of the time and we'd be at a loss after rehabilitation work in the morning, so inevitably we'd end up on a bar-stool in the afternoon saying, 'Aw, let's just go for it.'
"I'd had lots of knee operations by then and Alex thought, 'Hang on, this is a drinker with rotten knees . . . ' He was right and, if I'd been him, I'd have kicked me and Norman out a long time before then. He saved me in a way. When he let me go to Villa something welled up in me and I wanted to prove I could really play. The next five years, whenever Villa played United, we walked past each other in the corridor. And then we beat United in the  League Cup final and, afterwards, Alex put his hand out and said, 'Well done, big man.' It made me wish I had gone up to him first."
Three years later an ageing McGrath, almost crippled in the knees and by the drink, was voted man of the match at Old Trafford during a shock victory for Jim Smith and McClaren's Derby County over a title-chasing United. Ferguson remembers turning to his assistant, Brian Kidd, and saying: "You have to wonder what a player McGrath should have been." He also believes that "Paul had similar problems to George Best [but] he was without doubt the most natural athlete in football you could imagine".
When McGrath talks about Best, he could be describing himself. "I met George on and off down the years and you couldn't meet a lovelier person. He was quite shy and he had a gentle way when he wasn't on the drink. We were often at functions when the drink was flowing but I never really went on the tear with him."
It will be 11 months tomorrow since Best died and McGrath says: "I always hated hearing George was back on the drink. And when he died all the people who love me said: 'This is where your path also ends.' But I'm a Jekyll and Hyde character and when I drink I become a pest. I get loud and end up hating myself in the morning. It's just a chronic lack of self-esteem - thinking you're going to be better with a skinful."
The reasons for McGrath's turmoil are plain. Born to a white Dublin girl, Betty McGrath, and a Nigerian father who disappeared soon after his conception, Paul was given up by his traumatised mother when he was only four weeks old. She had travelled in secret to London to have her illegitimate child - terrified that her father would find out she had become pregnant or, even worse, that she had slept with a black man. His mother would eventually track him down again, but McGrath - then called Paul Nwobilo - was still shunted from one orphanage to another.
"I would be the only black child in my class and when it came to history and they started to talk about Africa I would just shrink. I'd pray it would go as quick as possible - and that seems such a shame because I'm so interested in history these days. I'm close to my mum now, and she is a real witty old Dublin woman, but I guess when you look back there are reasons for my troubles."
His subsequent drinking never really stopped and was eventually joined by another addiction - to tranquillisers. They were used for another suicide attempt, in 1997, and yet little can prepare us for his further revelation that "towards the end of my second marriage I was so desperate for a drink that, when the cupboards were empty, I filled a pint glass with Domestos. I drank it in one and went upstairs and waited - for oblivion or death."
McGrath was suddenly filled with terror and spent the next hour drinking water in an effort to drench the terrible burning. He managed to get himself to hospital, where it was found that, miraculously, his internal organs had been relatively unscathed.
In a Manchester prison cell for the night McGrath "hit a new low. But then the shutter on the door slid back and this police officer says 'Paul, I used to watch you on the Stretford End. You were a hero of mine. I hope you get well'. Even in my quivering state, I knew someone was again trying to be decent."
For all the grisly details, I also find something irreducibly decent in Paul McGrath. He only wavers briefly when asked how long it's been since he stopped drinking. "A few months now," he says. "It might not sound that long - but it is to me." Yet I had heard that earlier this month he had checked himself into a clinic in Wexford, in Ireland, where he now lives.
"Well," McGrath hesitates, "I haven't really said to anyone where I've been. To be honest I don't want people to have to answer questions about me but, yes, I did go in somewhere and I got a lot of great help. There are special people around me in Ireland. I turn to them when I need support."
An hour earlier McGrath had introduced me to his eldest son, the 21-year-old Christopher, who had travelled down from Manchester to be with him in Birmingham. Chris put his hand on his father's shoulder when they parted and we wheeled away to talk. Remembering that moment I ask McGrath if he can imagine himself a year from now in a sober place, somewhere he might describe as "good and safe", with his family and free from drink.
"I can," he says. "I had 16 months when I was really well and it was my prize for staying sober. But then I fell and it was hardest for my boys, because all their hopes had been built up. I'm not a very confident person but I'm trying again. I know that prize is still there if I stay dry. But talking about it is one thing. I have to really prove it now."
Back From The Brink: the autobiography of Paul McGrath, is published by Century at £18.99.