How Aston Villa hijacked Ron Atkinson's bid to bring Paul McGrath to Sheffield Wednesday - and prompted him to steal defender from Leeds United

Whisper the words Paul McGrath around north Birmingham and you’ll hear some stories. Some Aston Villa fans consider him to be the best they ever had after he moved from Manchester United in 1989.

Saturday, 12th February 2022, 5:00 pm

But it’s a deal that nearly never took place. Because had it not been for a relaxed, off-the-cuff phone call between great friends Graham Taylor and Ron Atkinson, the Republic of Ireland legend would very likely have ended up in the blue and white of Sheffield Wednesday.

As it happened, Wednesday signed a local lad that struck up one of the most feared central defensive partnerships the club have ever had. But more on that later.

McGrath, who the man they call ‘Big Ron’ had bought once before as manager of Manchester United seven years earlier, was teetering on the edge of retirement from the game at the age of just 30 as injuries and a growing issue with drink began to take hold.

Ron Atkinson almost brought Paul McGrath to Sheffield Wednesday from Manchester United. When the deal fell through, he signed Owls legend Peter Shirtliff.

The scale of the latter issue unbeknownst to many at the time and was largely under control, Atkinson remembered in conversation with The Star.

The Owls had escaped relegation late on in the 1988/89 season after Atkinson’s arrival in the February and were seen as a light touch at the back.

McGrath was a player of real class, character and ability on the ball that Ron could see working alongside the meat and gristle of Nigel Pearson. And he sniffed a bargain.

“It was known in football that Paul McGrath was going to pack in with injury,” Atkinson said.

“He’d been given some advice to cash in some insurance money and give it all up. It was only right at the last minute he decided not to when he spoke to the PFA, who spooked him. What was clear was that his time at Manchester United was coming to an end.

“They wanted £400,000. So I got wind of this and rang Alex. I told him I’d give him £100,000 for McGrath and if he does this, that and the other, we’d build it up and they’d get their full fee.”

United were agreeable. It came in the same summer a deal to bring their midfielder Gordon Strachan to Hillsborough was close to being agreed before Leeds United offered him a deal Wednesday couldn’t match.

And Atkinson, puppeteering the club’s summer transfer dealings move from his conservatory in the West Midlands, was supremely confident McGrath would agree terms.

That was until his phone rang one evening.

“Two days later I get a call from Graham Taylor who was manager at the Villa,” Atkinson remembered. “He said ‘Tell me what you know about Paul McGrath’.

“That’s how things used to work, you’d have pals you knew and trusted and you’d get their opinion. Graham knew I’d had Paul at United so he asked the question. Well I levelled with him and said we’d approached United.

“I told him about his injuries but that he was a terrific player and that we’d offered this deal for him. His drinking wasn’t really a problem while I’d been there.

“Well Graham needed a centre-half. He went in and paid the £400,000 straight away. Well I couldn't believe it, he went down to Villa and ended up being the biggest legend they ever had. I worked with him later, of course.”

Atkinson felt an up-front outlay of £400,000 was too rich for Wednesday’s blood, ending their interest. But it left them with a hole to fill alongside Pearson.

The situation ended up working well for all parties as the Owls turned to one of their own, academy graduate Peter Shirtliff who had been a fan favourite at S6 before spending three years down at Charlton Athletic.

“I couldn’t be paying £400,000 outright for a suspect injury case,” Atkinson said on ending the McGrath interest. “My centre-halves had to be durable.

“I knew Shirty wanted to come back this way so I spoke to my mate down there, Colin Clarke, and he was very complimentary, saying he’d be a seven or eight out of 10 every week, he’d hardly miss a game.

“He was a good lad, a good age. Everything was right. He was a very good player, little or no trouble, a really good pro.”

He arrived for half a million. Though Wednesday were relegated from the First Division on record point the season after, within two years Shirtliff had a League Cup winners medal around his neck as well as a promotion. Within four he’d played in cup finals.

“I’d had three years at Charlton and it felt as if it was a good time to move back north, wherever really,” Hoyland-born Shirtliff said.

“I hadn’t been touting my name around or anything like that, but I think people in football got word and Ron came in and made a bid.

“Leeds were the first ones interested and I could’ve easily ended up there with Howard. But as soon as I heard about Ron and Wednesday that was obviously always my preference.

“It all got done fairly quickly. [Charlton manager] Lennie Lawrence pulled me into his office and told me they’d accepted a bid from Sheffield Wednesday.

“He gave me a piece of paper with Ron’s telephone number on and said he wanted me to go up and see him. I drove up to Ron’s house just outside Birmingham, sat down with him and had a cup of tea. We did a deal in an hour and that was it

“I drove up to my dad’s straight after that and the next day I was training with Sheffield Wednesday. Medical, training, job done. And I’m glad it did.”

This article is adapted from the book ‘91 – The Inside Story of Sheffield Wednesday’s 1990/91 Season’, which is available to buy at verticaleditions.com.