There are many who might suggest that Paddy McCourt ‘never quite made it’ in his playing career, yet those select few couldn’t be more wrong. However, there are many who don’t even recognise the name, which is much, much sadder. McCourt was and still is a top, top player, albeit for lowly League of Ireland Premier Division outfit Finn Harps, where the former Celtic man is now currently playing his football.
The Derry-born man had a wonderful career across the water, representing clubs from the top tier of Scottish football all the way through to the England’s League Two with Luton Town. Many football fans across the world will undoubtedly, and unfortunately, admit that they’ve never even heard of this truly gifted player, yet those lucky enough to have watched him play week in week out will unquestionably think of his name and smile. It’s difficult to phrase such a description of a player who is still currently playing, yet in my mind is barely noticeable nowadays, but thankfully the 33-year-old hasn’t called it a day just yet.
The talented winger is renowned for his style of play rather than his goal scoring, and Finn Harps fans have already been graced by such finesse since he joined the club in February, with his exquisite through ball against Drogheda doing the rounds on social media. He has, of course, scored a typically classy McCourt-style goal, which came from a twenty-yard free-kick as he drew his side level against former club Shamrock Rovers.
After one season in the Championship for Barnsley, in which his incredible goal against Middlesbrough was shortlisted for the Football League Goal of the Year award, he floated around the English Football League with spells at Brighton, Notts County, and Luton, before returning to Northern Ireland with Glenavon and consequently joining current side Finn Harps.
After beginning his football career with home-based club Foyle Harps in Derry, McCourt then travelled across the water to join Rochdale in 2000 and went on to have his longest spell at a football club with 80 appearances. After impressive early performances linked him with a move to either Manchester City or Blackburn, he was incredibly let go by the Greater Manchester club, and so returned home to play for League of Ireland side Shamrock Rovers. Despite being forced out at Rovers halfway through their season due to financial difficulties at the club, McCourt was their top goal scorer and won the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland Young Player of the Year award.
The gifted winger seemingly finally settled down at hometown club Derry City from 2005-2008, where I was fortunate enough to travel regularly to the Brandywell to witness the sheer brilliance before my eyes as McCourt was simply a level above his opposing defenders, easing past them every time the ball came his way. His messy brown hair waved from side to side as he glided past worried full backs, who were terrified at the mere presence of lining up to face such a talented player. Thus, ‘The Derry Pelé’ was born, and McCourt’s star performances earned him a deserved move to Celtic, a fitting transfer to the team he supported as a boy.
Finally, his true potential was revealed to the thousands who turned up at Celtic Park to see their beloved Bhoys. Ten goals in 88 appearances is certainly no real feat, but the goals he scored were nothing short of spectacular. Akin to his amazing solo strike for Barnsley, every McCourt goal comprised a mazy run, a drop of the shoulder to jerk past helpless defenders, and an assured finish to top it all off. With astonishing, unaccompanied, simply ridiculous goals came trophies, comprising an impressive honours list of two SPL titles and two Scottish Cups, with the 2013 final ending his five-year spell at Celtic, where he entered play as a substitute and was suitably handed the captain’s armband.
With a part time role at Glenavon – the eventual reason he parted company with the Irish Premiership side – he had the opportunity to coach young aspiring footballers in the Irish Football Association youth setup. Such was his nature, he spent time and effort to give back to his community in his hometown Derry, while throughout the years has always been on hand to do his part, while I was personally honoured and admittedly hugely excited to meet my local hero as he handed out trophies at my local football club’s award night all the way back in 2006.
As a huge Northern Ireland fan, it genuinely saddens me to look back on the international career of McCourt, who made his debut for the country in 2002. He somehow suffered a seven year wait until his next cap, before scoring his first international goals with a brace in a 4-0 victory over the Faroe Islands, where both goals were, of course, McCourt-esque efforts, the second of which, regardless of the lesser opposition, is truly one of the best goals I’ve ever witnessed, which brought much delight to the stunned Green and White Army.
His international career however also brings out the darker side of football in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, where an endless list of players born in the north choose to represent the south, many for different reasons. Not McCourt. The Derry-born playmaker, who could have easily represented the southern half of the country, went against many in a similar position to his and chose to turn out for the green and white of Northern Ireland. Others who chose a different route include James McClean, Darron Gibson and countless young rising stars who, despite originating from the same city and with some even representing the north at under-21 level, sadly opted to go down a different route. These international players would have undeniably been welcomed into the Northern Ireland family, although admittedly McCourt, among others in his situation, have disgracefully received death threats from a minority of those living in the country.
His disappointing international career finally took off towards the Euro 2016 Championships as he was an ever-present in Michael O’Neill’s heroic squad, yet McCourt’s tragic journey ended prematurely as he pulled out of the squad to be with his wife Laura, who underwent surgery to have a brain tumour removed the day before the tournament began. Thankfully the operation was successful and Laura has since been given a positive diagnosis, which is truly terrific news for both Paddy and his wife.
His journey across the Irish Sea epitomises many young talented footballers in the country, whose journey is perhaps not what it could be for many different reasons. Some are poorly coached while others simply cannot adjust to the unusual surroundings. The other side of the story is equally disappointing, where players finally make it and either they or their former clubs receive very little reward, with Daryl Horgan among other stars heading across the water on a free transfer, with Dundalk now failing to live up to the standards they set last season due to this unfortunate aspect.
A true hero and idol to many, McCourt continues to live his dream, but I like many others are left wondering what could have been. Akin to George Best, ‘The Derry Pelé’ was fond of a drink or two in his playing days, but once more akin to Best, the winger was something special on his day.