Roy Keane V Paul McGrath
International Irish Football

Keane V McGrath: Who is the greatest Irish legend?

Roy Keane and Paul McGrath were two of the most naturally gifted footballers ever to pull on a green shirt. McGrath still holds a special place in the hearts of Irish fans for his performances for his country. His defensive effort against Italy at USA 94’ was one of the greatest of all time. Keane on the other hand was a more divisive presence but nobody can argue with his talent. There were numerous man of the match performances down the years with his one-man show against the Netherlands coming to mind. Today we’re asking the question: Keane V McGrath: Who’s the greatest Irish legend?

McGrath v Denmark

Keane V McGrath: Making the case for Paul McGrath

“Ooh Aah Paul McGrath, I said Ooh Aah Paul McGrath” being sung by 30,000 Irish fans at Landsdowne Road was a feature of the early 1990’s. Ireland, managed by Jack Charlton, were on the football journey of a lifetime. The team had talent and their high pressurized game, an early form of Gegenpressing, gave them a chance against the top sides in the world. However, such was Paul McGrath’s natural talent, he would have been an instant success in nearly any side on the planet.

“Paul was probably the best player I ever played with … He made it all look so bloody easy”.  Mick McCarthy, the former Irish player and manager, knew like many others that McGrath was incredibly gifted with a ball at his feet. McCarthy would often line-up in green alongside McGrath in the centre of the Irish defence. While Big Mick had a reputation for kicking lumps out of centre forwards, McGrath had incredible awareness and positioning, which combined with his defending ability, ensured he could take the ball without the man.


McGrath would win 83 caps for Ireland.  When you consider his ongoing struggles with injury and personal issues off the field, it’s a testament to the man that he turned out so often in green. Making his debut in 1985, McGrath was then part of the Irish team for Euro 1988. He also played in the 1-0 win over England, which pretty much assured him a cult-like status for the rest of his life in Ireland.

“So Paul became vital to us at that time. He was the player we came to rely on. There was nobody else who could do the job I was asking him to do. He was fantastic. I felt I could have played him centre-forward, outside left, midfield, at the back anywhere … and he’d have done the job for me in that position.”

Jack Charlton realised that he had a world-class player in his squad. Injuries on the pitch combined with alcoholism off it really should have resulted in McGrath’s career prematurely ending. It really is a measure of the man that he could battle with his demons while playing so admirably for Ireland. The World Cup in 1990 has a special place in Irish folklore.


The whole country came to a standstill as Ireland reached the quarter finals of its first ever World Cup. McGrath played every minute of every game. The team came home as heroes and none more than Ireland’s number 5.             Four years later, McGrath would inspire Ireland to victory over one of the favourites for the whole tournament, Italy. Ray Houghton’s sublime early strike meant that Irish fans had a nervous 80 plus minutes to endure. McGrath, at the age of 34, with knees of someone 10 years older than that, nearly single-handedly kept the Italians at bay. Throwing himself in front of the ball repeatedly, McGrath blocked shots that day with nearly every part of his body that day, including one from Roberto Baggio in the face. It also transpired that McGrath not only had a knee injury at the time, but was also suffering from a shoulder virus.

“Big Paul McGrath showed all the qualities demanded of us for half an hour in Giants Stadium that day. For him the word big is appropriate. Known for his poise, his ability on the ball, his unique gift for reading the game, Paul displayed these qualities on this day. One other huge asset was his courage. When the Italians did get sight of the goal, Paul presented a final, insurmountable obstacle. Paul inspired us as much as in the end he demoralised Roberto Baggio and the other Italian players “

Roy Keane on Paul McGrath’s performance against Italy. Keane played with McGrath at the 1994 World Cup and was clearly impressed by the man 12 years his senior. McGrath would play his last international game at the age of 37. A debilitating knee injury and years of alcohol abuse never dampened McGrath’s desire to pull on a green shirt. For those reasons, plus his once-in-a-million ability to play football, he must surely be considered the greatest legend in Irish football history.

Roy Keane V Holland
Image: Inpho

Keane V McGrath: Making the case for Roy Keane

Has there ever been a more committed player than Roy Keane? Whether he was running out at Old Trafford or Lansdowne Road, Keane would end up leaving everything on the pitch. Nobody can forget his crunching early tackle on Overmars that set the tone for one of Ireland’s most famous victories. The only criticism that can be directed at Keane was that he perhaps expected too much from the incompetent FAI.

Keane made his debut for Ireland in 1991.  While he disliked the way the FAI was run, and disapproved of Jack Charlton’s simplistic football tactics, he was always willing to pull on a green jersey. The 20 year old was soon established in the starting line up, which was no small achievement considering the midfield talent Charlton had at his disposal. While Ireland appeared to be performing minor miracles by competing with the big boys of international football, some pundits (primarily Dunphy) believed the creative players were being made redundant by the use of the long ball.

“I said earlier that we could have been stronger in one or two positions for the ’90 finals in Italy, and one of the people that we could have done with out there was Roy Keane. Unfortunately, he was still in youth football. So many superlatives have been used to describe the lad, that it’s difficult to know where to start. He’s strong; he reads the game well for one so young; and even at 21 he’s a manager’s dream inasmuch as he can fill three or four different roles”   -Jack Charlton

While Keane was often vocal about his negative opinions of the Irish setup, Charlton couldn’t afford to keep the Cork man out of his team. Ireland qualified for USA ’94 and Keane would play every minute of Ireland’s four matches. Some of the players were coming to the end of their illustrious careers. None more so than Paul McGrath, who was still keeping the defence solid at the age of 34. Ireland were knocked out by the Netherlands at the round of 16. While many rejoiced in the ‘tremendous’ achievement of ‘little’ Ireland to make it so far, Keane felt that there was nothing to celebrate.


This drive to improve, the need to win, was integral to Keane’s mindset. Unfortunately it didn’t extend to the rest of the team, or for that matter, the bumbling FAI. While players like McGrath, Townsend and Staunton were slowly disappearing from the international scene, players of a significantly lower quality took their place. Who knows what Roy Keane could have achieved if he had been born ten years earlier. He was left with a midfield pairing of Matty Holland or Mark Kinsella. Neither was more than a solid, yet limited player.

While Keane would run out each week with Paul Scholes beside him and a host of stars all over the pitch for United, things were very different when he turned up for international duty. After Ireland were beaten by the Netherlands in a play-off match to qualify for the 1996 Euros, Jack Charlton announced his retirement. Mick McCarthy took over as Irish coach and would endure more play-off heartbreak two years later. Belgium this time bettered Ireland to qualify for the 1998 World Cup.  Keane’s absence from many of the qualifying games was considered a major reason for Ireland’s failure to advance.

McCarthy understood that Keane was the best and most inspirational player in his squad. During the nineties, while other international sides like France and Spain started to considerably improve, Ireland regressed. The players simply weren’t there. Turkey completed the heartbreak hat-trick when they advance to the 2000 Euros when beating Ireland in play-off qualifier.


It looked like Roy Keane would never qualify for another major tournament. The midfielder was considered one of the very best players in the world when qualifying got under way for the 2002 World Cup. At the age of 29, Keane had reached his prime years and his performances formed the foundations for Ireland’s successful qualifying campaign. People talk about Gareth Bale singlehandidly bringing Wales to the last summer’s European Championships. Keane was perhaps even more influential to Ireland during 2000-2001.

Ireland’s decline over the previous years meant that they found themselves in a group with the Netherlands and Portugal. Roy Keane would repeatedly put in man of the match performances during the campaign. No inch was given by the midfielder and incredibly, Ireland finished the group unbeaten. 7 wins and 3 draws ensured Ireland finished second to Portugal. Roy Keane would finish the campaign as top scorer for the Irish with 4 goals. Simply put, Ireland wouldn’t have got close to qualifying without the Man United captain on the team.

That tackle on Overmars. The Netherlands, with all of their superstars, had traveled to Dublin expecting to win. Even Irish fans were dreading the game. After only a few seconds of the match, Keane clattered in to the explosive winger, Marc Overmars. A marker had been set that said “we’re not here to make up the numbers”. Keane would run the show that day, constantly winning the ball and finding space. Inspiring the players around him, it was Keane’s run down the left wing that started the move that led to McAteer’s famous strike.


“The pitch was like a car park,” Keane said as the Cork man became more and more frustrated with the preparations. Their first major tournament in 8 years and the FAI was more intent on enjoying the ride rather than attempting to win. Keane was pivotal in bringing Ireland to the World Cup but his complaints were dismissed. What happened next has been told from every side. The Irish side were the biggest losers, as they missed the opportunity to play in a World Cup with arguably the best player on the planet leading them.

Everyone has an opinion on what happened in Saipan. Keane’s perfectionism was not appreciated in the Irish setup at the time. The 2002 World Cup was relatively low on quality and who knows how Ireland would have done with Keane on the team. The United legend would only make 9 more caps in green after the infamous incident in Saipan. 9 goals in 67 appearances was his final tally. For one of the greatest legends of the game, Ireland were fortunate to have a player of Keane’s quality at a time of transition. While some may question his behaviour off the field, his commitment, skill and passion on the pitch in a green jersey was unrivaled.

What do you think? Paul McGrath and Roy Keane are two of the greatest ever players in Irish history. Which player will go down as the greatest Irish legend? Let us know by voting in the poll below. 

Keane V McGrath: Who is the greatest Irish legend?

Next Up? Roy Keane takes on Bryan Robson in the battle to become the real captain marvel.


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