By Frank Craig
Former Finn Harps star Paul McGee says that the recent but untimely death of Argentinian football legend Diego Maradona stopped him in his tracks.
McGee, famously, is the Republic of Ireland International that was in the right place at the right time back in 1980 when he swapped shirts with the diminutive genius who was on the verge of global super-stardom.
The Sligo native’s phone has rung frequently since the 1986 World Cup winning captain’s sad passing. But it’s a story he doesn’t mind telling.
Here, he sits down with the Donegal News and looks back at a career that also contained a League of Ireland title with his home town club Rovers and, just prior to that, an FAI Cup with with Finn Harps.
He would also enjoy success cross-channel with Queens Park Rangers. A spell in Holland with HFC Haarlem put him in direct competition with the likes of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Guillit.
And during a brief spell in Canada with the Montreal Casters, he amazingly found himself face to face with Pele and the New York Cosmos in the North American Soccer League.
McGee had rubbed shoulders with an emerging Diego a year earlier, 1979, when he was introduced at the old Landsdowne Road as a second-half substitute.
Less than 12 months later, Argentina returned to the same venue with their now established No. 10 the most sought after footballer on the planet.
“I think he was 18 at the time,” McGee told the Donegal News. “The first game, as far as I can remember, they played at Wembley before they came to face us. So there was all this talk about this young guy who was going to be the new hero for Argentina.
“He’d played against England before us and he was absolutely brilliant so we were aware of him no doubt. He’d been around for a few years and he was already being labelled as the new big star in South America.
“Barcelona were in hot pursuit of him. To me, my first super hero, the guy I thought was just unbelievable, was George Best. And even then Diego was already in that league.
“He’d this low centre of gravity. But he was bull strong. He could look after himself. Standing beside him, I think he was only about 5’7”. But he was wider than me. I was a big enough guy. But he had these thick shoulders and massively wide thighs and calves.
“He was an odd shape. But powerful and muscular. To be honest, it was impossible to get near him. Regardless, of the conditions or pitch, he was just completely elusive. His touch and control, no one had ever seen any thing like it. It truly was out of this world.
“It was hypnotic in its own way. Opposition players were mesmerised to an extent. And that was part of his genius.”
Trading shirts wasn’t on McGee’s mind first time out and truth be told it wasn’t something he’d consciously pursued second time around either.
Maradona was decked out in the number 14 shirt when he trotted on in Dublin back in 1979. For his next visit he was in from the start and he had what would go on to become the most iconic player and number pairing ever on his back, 10.
McGee explained: “After the first game, I managed to get Daniel Passarella’s shirt – he was their 1978 World Cup winning captain. So I was delighted with that. Second game, it was a funny one as I should have been the last guy on the pitch to get Diego’s jersey as I was playing up front.
“Near the end, they got a few corners. He was having some fun, looking to actually curl them in and score a goal. He was mischievous and he had fun with a football. So we used to put a striker on the corners just as an obstacle.
“Gerry Peyton touched the first one over the bar. The next one was the exact same, almost went in. And then the referee blew the full-time whistle. I was right beside him as he was teeing up another corner.
“Pure chance. No more than four foot. We shook hands and I just said ‘jersey?’. And it was a simple as that. I turned around and the other nine lads were dashing over behind me but they were far too late!”
A simple trawl though google and McGee’s player profile and you see 25 club moves packed between a playing career than spanned from 1970 to 1994.
McGee enjoyed a brilliant three-year spell at Queens Park Rangers, and also played for both Preston North End and Burnley.
He starred for Harlem in the Dutch First Division, lined out with Kidderminster Harriers and Hereford United for a short time and also represented a host of League of Ireland clubs including his home side Sligo Rovers, Galway United and Finn Harps.
Buried in the middle of all of that is another real footballing nugget – a loan move to Montreal Castors, a side that competed in the old North American League.
It was the predecessor to Major League Soccer and it was launched with some serious fanfare. When it’s brought up, McGee has another fascinating tale about encountering another or, as he says, “the other” great footballing superstar.
“Yeah, I went over to Canada for a bit. It was the North American League. I was with Montreal. Soccer, as they called it, it was the first real big push of the sport over there.
“It was something different, but really exciting. George Best was also there but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to come up against him. But I did manage to play against the other so-called world number one or greatest ever, Pele.
“I was very fortunate. I didn’t get his jersey. But I have a few others. I have (Ronald) Koeman’s. They were in Dublin for a European game I think.”
It was the 1971-72 season when McGee got his first taste of English football with a move Kidderminster Harriers. From there he joined Hereford United.
He struggled to make inroads though and took the tough decision to return home. Patsy McGowan, then manger of Finn Harps, swooped for his signature ahead of near rivals Rovers.
He would go on to help Harps to a famous FAI Cup win that same season and, following a move home to the Showgrounds, would also fire the Bit O’ Red to a league title.
“I’d gone over to England after my Leaving Cert. But I came back home and I joined Harps. That was 1974. England was my dream so I was really down in the dumps. You wonder what now and where do I go from here? It was a real blow.
“But it was probably the best thing that happened to me. It was the making of me. I learned my trade and it meant I was much more ready for a shot at England a few years later.
“Harps were the new kids on the block at that time. They were getting huge crowds. Finn Park was bumping. I learned so much there.
“The likes of Tony O’Doherty, Terry Harkin and Brendan Bradley, if you can’t learn from those kind of lads then you weren’t up to much. Those guys would take you aside and give you great advice.
“Finn Park was rocking, it was unreal. It was just the tonic I needed as I was so upset about what had happened in England.
“That, and joining Rovers after where I was fortunate enough to win a league title, that really kick-started my career. And in 1977 I was back off cross-channel to QPR.”
Loftus Road and London in the late 70s was certainly a head turner for the young and still impressionable Irishman. QPR were big hitters then and he was joining a side packed with stars who had genuine designs at the time on the old First Division League title.
“They were (big stuff),” said McGee. “The year before they’d just missed out on the league title to Liverpool on goal difference. It was a lovely ground to play in. And when I joined they already had 11 internationals in their first team.
“And of course the biggest name there at that time was the then England captain, Gerry Francis. Stan Bowles was another class act, a real George Best type with bags of tricks and skill. It was an amazing time. I’d three and a half brilliant years there.”
A spell in Holland followed where he was again rubbing shoulders with emerging Dutch talent that would go on to become legends of the game.
“Van Basten, Guillit, (Frank) Rijkaard… they were the three big ones. It was a brilliant and very technical league at the time. And of course that three would soon move on to AC Mlian and were to the fore as Holland won the 1988 European Championships in Germany.
“Ireland also had a great tournament and ran them very close at the time.”
At 38 years of age, McGee again found himself back in Ballybofey. He might well have been in the twilight of his storied career but, he says, he still had that elusive knack of finding the net.
“That was around 1992. I was probably lying about my age at that stage! I was with Galway just before that. I played League of Ireland until I was 43.
“By the end, I was telling the other lads I was 37 or 38! But I could still do it. I’m Galway’s all-time record goal scorer as well. That’s something I’m really proud of. It’s something like 150 goals.”