Norman: Why I'll always be grateful to Fergie for the help he gave me... he's a decent man
Reunited at Windsor Park on November 16, legends Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath look back on 35 years of incredible football friendship
They are the two amigos of football... Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath. Best buddies going on 35 years, their lives inside and outside the game have been rollercoaster rides on parallel tracks.
Together and apart they have experienced soaring highs and crashing lows and even when their career paths branched off in different directions, they have always been there for one another in the best and worst of times.
Long after their playing days ended, both remain legends of their clubs and countries, constantly in demand to make media, sponsor and supporters club appearances.
Yet, remarkably, they have not shared a football stage together since their Manchester United glory days.
That will now happen at a unique Belfast Telegraph event in one of the new Windsor Park hospitality suites on Thursday week, November 16, by which time their respective countries World Cup destinies will have been decided.
That will be just one topic of conversation when the former Old Trafford double act are reunited for an evening of football chat with an audience of their biggest fans.
With Whiteside Manchester-based and kept busy as an Old Trafford matchday host and by speaking engagements up and down the country, and McGrath now back living quietly in rural Wexford, their paths rarely cross these days though they speak regularly by phone.
Their infamous United hell-raising days are long behind them but the memories remained fresh as I caught up with them separately this week.
And what stories they have to share, mostly hilarious, some shocking and there is no avoiding both men's battles with the demon drink at their height of their careers, now happily conquered on both fronts.
You know the stories are true as they are told in the same exact detail over the course of two separate phone calls.
They tell of their escapades as United players, testing the patience of disciplinarian boss Sir Alex Ferguson (left) to the limit; their run-ins with Fergie (McGrath revealing that he, wrongly, spent his first five years after leaving United believing his old boss hated him); the debilitating injuries they both believe to have contributed to their excessive drinking at that time and their mutual admiration for one another.
They are the most unlikely compadres, given their diametrically different background and personalities. Whiteside (52), the confident, outgoing Troubles-raised Shankill Skinhead as the Manchester media dubbed him, and McGrath (57) the shy, unassuming kid from Dublin, always questioning his own ability and popularity. They were thrown together in club digs, Whiteside, aged 17 and fresh from his Spain '82 World Cup heroics with Northern Ireland, taking Pele's record which he still holds as the youngest finals player, and McGrath, the late arrival to professional football at the age of 21.
They were soon to become inseparable, with Norman remembering: "Although he is five years older than me, I played the elder brother in our friendship, partly because I had maturity thrust upon me prematurely by joining the club at 14, while he'd been a late developer and was extremely naive about the customs of professional football and what lay in store for him.
"It was also because I was self-assured, despite my injury problems, while he was riddled with insecurity.
"Everyone likes praise but no one needed to tell me that I was good enough. But Paul would have men of the calibre of Sir Matt Busby, Bobby and Jack Charlton, Bryan Robson and Arnold Muhren on at him about how outstanding a talent he was and it never made the slightest difference deep down."
In his searingly honest autobiography, Back From The Brink, McGrath frankly recounts his one-time alcohol dependence and low self-esteem, one fuelling the other.
Nowadays he doesn't drink alcohol at all while Whiteside admits his once renowned capacity is reduced to a few glasses of wine with wife Denise over lunch then "home to put my jammies on and in bed by 8 watching telly".
McGrath's problems were more deep-seated, particularly post-United in his seven years at Aston Villa, where despite a very public battle with alcohol and injuries, he was Player of the Year five seasons running.
"There is regret," he admits. "If I only didn't do some of the negatives things I was doing, like not showing up for a game or not been a little bit tipsy for games I think we could have come closer to winning a league.
"There's always that thing in my mind, but I can't change anything now. Realistically we could have done better had I maybe not have been so self-absorbed, it's the only way I can put it."
Not all their misdemeanors were drink related.
Both laugh now at the memory of driving around Manchester in a battered old yellow BMW McGrath had bought for £250 - when neither had a licence, insurance or tax. At the time they were two of United's biggest stars - you simply cannot imagine that now.
Whiteside, McGrath and the third amigo, Bryan Robson, were indulged by their then boss Ron Atkinson who would overlook their afternoon sessions on the beer as long as they were performing on the pitch - and they were.
But their lifestyles were always going to put Whiteside and McGrath, in particular, on a collision course with Ferguson who came in determined to end what he described as the drinking culture he found at the club.
Whiteside describes how matters came to a head when the pair gave a TV interview outside Old Trafford after a few pints in a pub. That was bad enough, even though Whiteside was out of the team injured at the time. Worse, he recalls: "While the technicians were setting up, I noticed Paul had disappeared and I later learned that he'd been up to the Trafford pub to sink a few shorts and give himself the courage to face the cameras.
"The interview was a farce. It looked terrible and the clip has haunted us for years."
An infuriated Fergie carpeted the pair and not long after, they were on their way, Whiteside to Everton for £600,000 and McGrath to Villa after refusing United's offer of a £100,000 pay-off and a benefit game in Dublin if he called it quits and retired.
Whiteside, Robson and McGrath's United and Republic team-mate Kevin Moran were adamant he should not accept and he played on through the pain barrier at the top level for another seven years.
In sharp contrast, Whiteside's chronic knee injury problems ended his career at 26.
Ferguson may have shown him the door from the club he loved and where he was and still is revered by the fans.
But there are no harsh words from Whiteside who reveals he turned down £50,000 from a tabloid newspaper at the time to trash his old boss.
He tells how Ferguson helped him secure a lucrative contract at Everton.
"He gave me enormous help and great advice," relates Whiteside. "He basically sorted out my deal for me and I will always be grateful to him and Everton because I earned more in my two years at Goodison than I did in eight years at United.
"Contrary to rumours doing the rounds at the time and since, I wasn't shipped out of the club because of my drinking.
"I left because the boss wanted a new team and the state of my knee suggested I was not a long-term prospect.
"In my opinion Sir Alex is a decent a man as he is a manager."
McGrath readily admits his relationship with Ferguson was much more fractious and another cause for regret.
He left United thinking Ferguson hated him, and that the feeling was mutual
"I eventually grew to realise Sir Alex wasn't trying to make an example of me, he was trying to do the best for Manchester United.
"I wasn't going to be in his plans and I knew exactly why I wasn't going to be in his plans because I was a maverick. I was a raver and did my own thing. He knew I wasn't going to be in his plans and so did I.
"For five years we never said a word to each other even when we were playing against each other.
"I remember when I was with Aston Villa and he was with Manchester United, he'd look at that wall and I'd look at the other, even when we were passing each other in the tunnel.
"But then we beat them at Wembley, I think it was 3-1 in the League Cup final, he came and he shook my hand and said 'Well done, big man' and walked off. I took that as 'Thank God, that's the end of it now' because I loved what he was doing for Manchester United but always thought he hated me.
"I was wrong, it was just I was acting and doing things that were totally wrong as far as he was concerned and I deserved everything I got. It turns out he was a decent man and five years of my life were wasted disliking him."
Of his settled life now, McGrath says: "I find it amazing that I can still make a living out of football 20 years after I left the game.
"When we're out someone might come up and ask me for an autograph or photograph.
"They find it a little bit strange if people come up during the meal but I don't refuse anyone. Anybody who asks for an autograph or photograph will always get one. I'm the privileged one to be asked after this length of time. That's a privilege.
"We are lucky in that respect that we were those players so we can still sit down and tell a story and a joke about how things were and people still want to hear those old stories.
"It's never going to make us fortunes but I don't think people need four cars in their driveway, one does me and has done me for quite a number of years. I don't subscribe to all that stuff about never having too much money, you don't need it.
"I try to earn a little bit of money because other than that I'm not a wealthy human being. I have to earn a living. I have presents to buy at Christmas for my children and grandkids, not huge things but things I have to worry about. I'm glad to come up and do things like this, I still need to pay bills and it's lovely for me to be asked to do something like that."
McGrath remembers Whiteside the player as immense. "The things he could do, even in training...
"If it hadn't been for the injuries we would be talking about him now as not just the World Cup's youngest player but as one of its greatest."
Whiteside describes his pal as 'a footballer'. "Centre halves don't have to be cloggers," he says. "Paul was a footballing centre half. He could play his way out of trouble and put us back on the front foot. As a midfielder I didn't have to go back looking for the ball with Paul. He played it out to you."
For McGrath, Thursday week will be his first visit back to Windsor Park since the infamous Night In November of 1993 with the country on a knife edge after the Shankill bomb and Greysteel shooting atrocities.
The timing could not have been more inopportune for a Northern Ireland-Republic World Cup qualifier with FAI attempts to have the game moved to Manchester stoking up an already febrile atmosphere.
The Republic needed a point to qualify for USA 94, securing it in a tense 1-1 draw, and McGrath recalls: "I was nervous as hell with everything that was going on around the game, so much hostility.
"Some Northern Ireland players, including ones I knew, wouldn't shake hands pre-match.
"I thought this can't be right. They didn't want us to qualify. I was shocked because I had supported Northern Ireland at the 82 and 86 World Cups.
"I'm really glad things have changed for the better in Belfast and I'm looking forward to seeing the city in a new light.
"I also hope by then both our countries have qualified for Russia next year."
The two old friends do not agree on everything. Each believes their own country has the more favourable draw, Northern Ireland against Switzerland this Thursday and the Republic facing Denmark this day week.
Reckons Whiteside: "Michael O'Neill will have his side organised to secure the result he needs from the home leg, a win or a no-score draw. The important things is that we don't concede at home. That was our strength in were wasted '82 and ' 86. Billy Bingham set us up to give nothing away at the back and everything flowed from there. Michael has players in this team to do the same; Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley at the back and Josh Magennis up front to get us goals.
"The thing to realise is that we were in a group with Germany and we are still in there fighting. That's a remarkable achievement by Michael and the players. These two games are our World Cup finals and I honestly believe we have a realistic chance."
By the time the two buddies step back out at Windsor on Thursday week, we will know.