John McGrath (footballer, born 1938)

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John McGrath
Personal information
Full name John Thomas McGrath
Date of birth (1938-08-23)23 August 1938
Place of birth Manchester, England
Date of death 25 December 1998(1998-12-25) (aged 60)
Place of death Manchester, England
Height 6 ft 0 in (1.83 m)
Playing position Centre-half
Youth career
Miles Platting Swifts
Bolton Wanderers
Senior career*
Years Team Apps (Gls)
1955–1961 Bury 148 (2)
1961–1968 Newcastle United 170 (2)
1968–1974 Southampton 168 (1)
1973 Brighton & Hove Albion (loan) 3 (0)
Total 489 (5)
National team
England U23
Teams managed
1979–1983 Port Vale
1984 Chester City
1986–1990 Preston North End
1992 Halifax Town

* Senior club appearances and goals counted for the domestic league only.

John Thomas McGrath (23 August 1938 – 25 December 1998) was an English footballer and manager in the Football League.

He played as a defender, and started his career at Bury from 1955 to 1960. He then spent the next eight years with Newcastle United following a £24,000 transfer, helping them to the Second Division title in 1964–65. In 1968 he joined Southampton for a £30,000 fee, where he would spend the final six years of his playing career, though he also played briefly for Brighton & Hove Albion in 1973. In total he played 489 league games in a nineteen-year career in the Football League.

Starting his management career at Port Vale in 1979, he won them promotion out of the Fourth Division in 1982–83. Following this he left to take the reins at Chester City in 1984. Appointed manager at Preston North End in 1986, he led them promotion out of the Fourth Division as runners-up in 1986–87, before departing in 1990. He finished his career with a brief spell in charge of Halifax Town in 1992.

Playing career[edit]

McGrath started out as an amateur player with local team Miles Platting Swifts and then Bolton Wanderers, but it was with Bury that he began his professional career in October 1955.[1] The "Shakers" posted a 15h place finish in the Second Division under the management of Dave Russell in 1955–56. However they suffered relegation after finishing 21st in 1956–57, five points below Notts County. Bury then finished fourth in the Third Division North in 1957–58, ten points behind champions Scunthorpe & Lindsey United. They became founder members of the Third Division in 1958–59, posting a tenth-place finish. They moved up to seventh in 1959–60, eight points behind promoted Norwich City. In his five years at Gigg Lane he made 148 league appearances, scoring two goals.

In February 1961, McGrath found himself the subject of a bid by Newcastle United, and he left for St James' Park for a £24,000 fee.[1] The "Magpies" suffered relegation out of the First Division in 1960–61 under Charlie Mitten. However, because of his no nonsense attitude and uncompromising style as a defender, McGrath soon became a real favourite with the "Toon Army". A disappointing eleventh-place finish in the Second Division followed in 1961–62, and Joe Harvey took over from Norman Smith in the management hotseat. Seventh- and eighth-place finishes followed in 1962–63 and 1963–64, before United were crowned champions of the Second Division in 1964–65, a single point ahead of second placed Northampton Town. They settled into the top-flight with a 15th-place finish in 1965–66, though they only avoided relegation by one place and four points in 1966–67. They then rallied to a tenth-place finish in 1967–68. Overall, McGrath played 179 league and cup games for the Geordies, scoring two goals, before making the long trip to Southampton in February 1968 for £30,000.[1]

Under Ted Bates's stewardship, the "Saints" finished seventh in the top-flight in 1968–69. They dropped to 19th in 1969–70, two places and three points ahead of relegated Sunderland. They then shot up to seventh in 1970–71, qualifying for UEFA Cup football. Southampton then dropped again to 19th in 1971–72, two places and six points above relegated Nottingham Forest. They rose to 13th in 1972–73, but occupied the newly created 20th place relegation place in 1973–74, one point behind the safety of Birmingham City. In 1973, McGrath played three games on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion. McGrath remained somewhat of a cult hero with The Dell faithful during what was a difficult time for the club, as he also making his mark as a very shrewd coach. He played a total of 195 games for Southampton in all competitions.

Coaching and management[edit]

Port Vale[edit]

After retiring from playing at the end of the 1973–74 season, McGrath joined the Southampton coaching staff. He got his break in management when he was appointed Port Vale manager in December 1979. A man of discipline, within his first fortnight with the club he had levied two fines.[2] He demanded dedication and effort from his players and managed to steady the ship at Vale Park following brief and unsuccessful reigns from rookie managers Dennis Butler and Alan Bloor.[3] The "Valiants" had flat-lined, and finished fifth-from-bottom in the Fourth Division in 1979–80, outside of the re-election zone on goals scored. He appointed John Rudge as his assistant on a recommendation.[3] McGrath offloaded many under-performing players, transfer-listing fifteen of them, and signed goalkeeper Mark Harrison and defender Lee Harwood from Southampton.[3]

McGrath spent the 1980–81 season attempting to whip his charges into shape, whilst Vale fans patiently awaited the true results of a manager they quickly built faith in.[3] The only new signings he could afford to make were free signings John Allen from Leicester City and Trevor Brissett from Stoke City.[3] Vale exited the FA Cup at the Third Round following a humiliating 3–0 defeat to non-league side Enfield.[3] They struggled away from home, but built their league campaign on results at Vale Park.[3] During the season he handed Mark Chamberlain (brother of top-scorer Neville) his debut, and brought talented winger Johnny Miller to Burslem.[3] He sold goalkeeper Trevor Dance to non-league Stafford Rangers for £10,000, as Harrison was in good form.[3] At the way mid-way stage he brought in midfielder Terry Armstrong and big defender Andy Higgins.[3] He solved the team's poor away form by installing a five-man defence.[3]

He built for the 1981–82 season by signing defender Ray Deakin from Everton; midfielder Geoff Hunter from Crewe Alexandra for £12,000; and forwards Ernie Moss from Chesterfield for £12,000 and Jimmy Greenhoff from the Toronto Blizzard.[3] They lost just one of their opening eight games, before their form suffered due to an injury crisis.[3] In mid-season Vale went fifteen games unbeaten, before another bought of injuries caused their promotion campaign to wither into a seventh-place finish.[3] Having drawn 12 home games, McGrath said "we blew it at Burslem".[3]

Promotion was eventually achieved with a third-place finish in 1982–83.[3] This was despite McGrath selling Mark Chamberlain and Mark Harrison to Stoke for £100,000.[3] He made five free signings: John Ridley (a former Valiant), Wayne Cegielski (Wrexham), Les Lawrence (Torquay United), Steve Waddington (Walsall), and Barry Siddall (Sunderland).[3] He further sold Neville Chamberlain to Stoke for £40,000, bringing in burly striker Bob Newton from Hartlepool United for £15,000.[3] Vale went top of the table despite a goalkeeping crisis which saw Barry Siddall, Neville Southall, Neil McAdam, and Andy Poole between the sticks at different points in the campaign.[3] He bought striker Jim Steel from Oldham Athletic for £10,000, whilst letting Ernie Moss go to Lincoln City for a £1,500 fee after judging him to be too old to be of any further use.[3] With 34 goals conceded, Vale had the best defensive record in the Football League.[3]

The following season, however, McGrath was in conflict with chairman Jim Lloyd, who instructed him to speak to the press only on team matters; numerous players also were disgruntled over contract issues.[4] By December 1983, Vale were three points adrift at the foot of the Third Division and McGrath was sacked.[2] McGrath had made some poor choices during his final months at the club, signing Ireland international striker Eamonn O'Keefe from Wigan Athletic for £10,000 only to play him in midfield, and allowing player unrest to fester as several rejected new contracts and four stayed at the club on weekly contracts – this was despite Vale paying the third-highest wage bill in the division (£9,000 a week).[3] He also offloaded top-scorer Bob Newton to Chesterfield in exchange for Martin Henderson, who was not a success.[3] McGrath retained the support of the fans however, who criticised the board for their decision to sack him.[3] His assistant, John Rudge, was appointed as manager and failed to avoid relegation, though would take the club to great success in a sixteen-year spell at the club.

During his time at Vale Park he made some unorthodox decisions; such as putting fifteen players on the transfer list at once, taking the team for a swim at Blackpool, and one time sending assistant manager John Rudge hundreds of miles on a scouting mission, only to rip up the report in the dressing room, declaring to his players that 'It's not about them, it's about us!'[5]

Chester City[edit]

He became manager of Chester City in January 1984, who were struggling at the foot of the Fourth Division, but some improved results (including a derby win over Wrexham) gave cause for optimism for the following season. McGrath added experience in players such as John Butcher, Steve Fox, Mick Speight and Nigel Walker but Chester continued to struggle at the wrong end of the table. He lost his job in December 1984, after a 5–1 loss to Stockport County. Although results were not always impressive, McGrath began to mould the side that would to go on to win promotion in 1985–86 after further strengthening by Mick Speight and Harry McNally. McGrath gave future England international Lee Dixon his first taste of regular first-team football when at Chester.

Preston North End[edit]

In 1986, Preston North End came calling. The once proud club was on its knees and after ending the 1985–86 season in 91st position (in the Football League) they needed some new blood and new ideas. McGrath was just the man for the job, although he was not the board's not first choice, with Preston courting the services of Tranmere manager Johnny King and his successor at Port Vale John Rudge, before settling on McGrath.

He signed Sam Allardyce as his centre-half, building the defence around him.[6] With the newly laid plastic pitch already installed McGrath assembled a squad of free transfer old pros, lower league journeymen and young cast-offs to fire the team to promotion in his first season. He was seen as a hero and after four years of relative success McGrath departed in February 1990 leaving Preston in a far healthier position that when he'd found them.

Halifax Town[edit]

His final spell in management began on 3 October 1991, when he succeeded Jim McCalliog as manager of Fourth Division strugglers Halifax Town. He lasted just over a year at The Shay before departing on 7 December 1992, five months before Halifax finished bottom of the Football League and were relegated to the Conference.[7]

Career after football[edit]

McGrath became for a while a very popular after-dinner speaker, but on Christmas Day 1998 he died suddenly at his Manchester home.[4]


Playing statistics[edit]

  • Sourced from John McGrath profile at the English National Football Archive (subscription required)
Club Season Division League FA Cup Other[A] Total
Apps Goals Apps Goals Apps Goals Apps Goals
Bury 1956–57 Second Division 15 0 0 0 0 0 15 0
1957–58 Third Division North 45 1 3 0 0 0 48 1
1958–59 Third Division 37 0 2 0 0 0 39 0
1959–60 Third Division 29 1 2 0 0 0 31 1
196–61 Third Division 22 0 1 0 2 0 25 0
Total 148 2 8 0 2 0 158 2
Newcastle United 1960–61 Second Division 13 0 0 0 0 0 13 0
1961–62 Second Division 10 0 0 0 0 0 10 0
1962–63 Second Division 14 1 0 0 2 0 16 1
1963–64 First Division 38 0 1 0 2 0 41 0
1964–65 First Division 42 0 1 0 1 0 44 0
1965–66 First Division 37 1 2 0 0 0 39 1
1966–67 First Division 6 0 1 0 0 0 7 0
1967–68 First Division 10 0 0 0 1 0 11 0
Total 170 2 5 0 6 0 181 2
Brighton & Hove Albion (loan) 1972–73 Second Division 3 0 0 0 0 0 3 0
Southampton 1967–68 First Division 14 0 0 0 0 0 14 0
1968–69 First Division 42 0 4 1 4 0 50 1
1969–70 First Division 34 0 0 0 6 0 40 0
1970–71 First Division 39 1 4 0 1 0 44 1
1971–72 First Division 27 0 0 0 4 0 31 0
1972–73 First Division 11 0 0 0 4 0 15 0
1973–74 First Division 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
Total 168 1 8 1 19 0 195 2
Career Total 489 5 21 1 27 0 537 6
A. ^ The "Other" column constitutes appearances and goals in the Football League Cup, Football League Trophy, Football League play-offs and Full Members Cup.

Managerial statistics[edit]

Managerial record by team and tenure
Team From To Record
P W D L Win %
Port Vale 21 September 1979 5 December 1983 203 73 57 73 36.0
Chester City 21 January 1984 20 December 1984 46 9 11 26 19.6
Preston North End 1 June 1986 13 February 1990 205 83 53 69 40.5
Halifax Town 3 October 1991 7 December 1992 61 14 12 35 23.0
Total 515 179 133 203 34.8


As a player[edit]

Newcastle United

As a manager[edit]

Port Vale
Preston North End


  1. ^ a b c "John McGrath". Nigel's Webspace. Retrieved 19 May 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Kent, Jeff (1996). Port Vale Personalities. Witan Books. p. 193. ISBN 0-9529152-0-0. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y Kent, Jeff (1990). "From Rags to Riches (1979–1990)". The Valiants' Years: The Story Of Port Vale. Witan Books. pp. 258–290. ISBN 0-9508981-4-7. 
  4. ^ a b What If There Had Been No Port in the Vale?: Startling Port Vale Stories! (Witan Books, 2011, ISBN 978-0-9529152-8-7)
  5. ^ Earle, Robbie (1 October 2009). "Robbie Earle: Vale boss Adams makes shrewd move". The Sentinel. Retrieved 1 October 2009. 
  6. ^ Allardyce, Sam (2015), Big Sam: My Autobiography, Headline, p. 72, ISBN 978-1-4722-3267-0 
  7. ^ "Halifax Town Managers". 4 March 2011. Retrieved 8 August 2011. 

External links[edit]