When Paul McGrath joined Aston Villa in 1989, he regarded himself as "damaged goods". He was descending into alcoholism, his knees were causing him pain and he was terrified by the prospect of leaving Manchester United.

Today, McGrath can talk about Villa with affection. "I love the club and always look out for their results," he said. But, in those days, he was "heading for Birmingham and a dressing room full of strangers".

While a player with United, McGrath was part of the "drinking club" that included Bryan Robson, later to become the manager of West Bromwich Albion, and Norman Whiteside.

Graham Taylor, the manager who signed McGrath for Villa, made no secret of what he thought. "I hadn't realised I had actually taken on an alcoholic," Taylor said.

McGrath had more things to worry about. "As far as Aston Villa fans were concerned, my CV was not promising," he said. "My knees were as fragile as cut glass. And I was six months short of being 30. Yes, I feared the worst from the Holte End."

If the auguries were not good, McGrath's career with Villa, which last until 1996, was a triumph. "I played the best football of my career at Villa Park," McGrath said.

Speaking exclusively to The Birmingham Post yesterday, as part of a tour of the region to promote his autobiography, McGrath says he misses Birmingham and has no doubts that Villa have been revolutionised by the arrival, as manager, of Martin O'Neill.

If only Villa supporters knew that, on the day McGrath was unveiled as the club's latest signing, he was less than sober.

"I knew that, to get through the unveiling at Villa Park, I needed a bottle of Southern Comfort," he said. "I saw microphones and cameras and I do not like those. I am not built to deal with those things. I am OK now, because this microphone is small [he touches my microphone] but those TV things made me nervous."

McGrath's book, Back From The Brink, has already been described as one of the finest autobiographies to be written by a footballer. It is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, gain and loss, of loneliness, of fear, of self-loathing, and of guilt.

McGrath, who spent much of his childhood living in orphanages in Dublin, has endured the break-up of two marriages, fought alcoholism and prescription drug abuse, and depression.

It was while with Villa that he cut his wrists in what he calls a cry for help. For his first match back in the team, against Everton on November 5, 1989, which Villa won 6-2, McGrath wore wrist bands to hide the damage.

"Did I seriously want to kill myself?" McGrath says. "I don't think so."

He has rehabilitated himself and now cuts a striking, even handsome figure. His relationship with Villa is deep, although he is one of a diminishing group of men who are willing to heap praise upon Doug Ellis, the former Villa chairman, who sold the club in August.

"I love Doug," McGrath said. "I read about all this 'Deadly Doug' stuff but I never found that. I found him brilliant to deal with. He was always great with me. But, then, so was everyone at Villa, particularly the fans.

"Through all of my misdemeanours, and there were many, the Villa fans stuck by me. Once, I recall, they held a Guinness sign for me. I liked that.

"In some ways, Villa have been a little tight with their money in recent years, but if you look at a club like Leeds United, perhaps it is better that Villa are stable.

"Getting Martin O'Neill in as manager was a masterstroke. He is an amazing manager, a different class."

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