Embed from Getty Images“With shaggy boyband hair, a slightly ruddy complexion partly obscured by his unkempt beard, he thrives in opposition to others.” Edd Norval explores the cult status of the Derry Pele, the irrepressible Paddy McCourt.
Patrick James McCourt aka Paddy McCourt aka The Lad At The End Of The Bar. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bar, it could be at your local park or garage. That’s the thing with McCourt – he has this appeal that’s hard to put into words without simply calling him an everyman. Albeit one that is capable of making 60,000 hold their breath as he embarks on mazy runs to finish with a screamer.
We’ve all been there. At least, in our heads, growing up as children watching our heroes on our television screens. We’ve all scored that goal – one like Paddy managed for Celtic against St. Mirren where he meandered on balletic toes passed five opposition players before smashing the ball well beyond the keeper. It was an instant classic. The world saw another Lionel Messi and Celtic fans were reminded of one of their heroes, James ‘Jinky’ Johnstone, their diminutive attacker dubbed the ‘Flying Flea’.
It’s this duality that exists within the Northern Irish winger that helped him quickly establish his ‘cult’ status. These men, your George Bests and Robin Fridays are inherently likeable. They succumb to the same trappings of success that we might. Like Icarus, their rise is always predictably limited, but certainly not by their talent.
Players like Cristiano Ronaldo resemble Greek statues in all of their toned and honed perfection. They are well-oiled machines built for success. On the other hand, there’s Lionel Messi – the artist as much in the mould of Picasso as of Platini. Who are these people though? To us, they might inspire awe, but they’re names, brands and faces that belong on billboards and honorifics that adorn football kits the world over.
Ronaldo and Messi don’t seem to come from this planet, but maybe if we’d stuck in a bit, or if we hadn’t got that injury, we could have been something like McCourt, at least at times. His dancer’s feet and sprinter’s pace at times wouldn’t have looked out of place in La Liga or Serie A, but on other days he could be very average, a man saved only by such momentary flashes of greatness. Embed from Getty Images
With shaggy boyband hair, a slightly ruddy complexion partly obscured by his unkempt beard, he thrives in opposition to others. McCourt is the antithesis of the primed and preened modern footballer. He is like them enough – a gateway drugs to greatness – but he will never be one of them. An inadvertent black-sheep, it was written in the stars that he’d only make it so far. His ephemeral performances and evident fallibility are what marked him out from the start.
It’s this undeniable presence of spirit that gave him the foot-up with Derry City and Celtic fans. These clubs are themselves not usual cases. Their fans are predominately Catholic, certainly in identity. Celtic, despite being from Scotland, are a worldwide symbol of Irishness. That these two clubs were home for McCourt is as much a statement of his own identity as simply steps in his career.
Born in Derry, McCourt moved from local team Foyle Harps to Rochdale in 2000. His debut came late in 2001, and immediately impressive, he was given a three-and-a-half year contract. For the first two seasons at the club, he was able to maintain his formative momentum. The third-season loss of form struck McCourt at the club and after loan spells at Crewe Alexandra and Norwich City failing to bring success, Rochdale let him go. Despite still being a young boy, he had unknowingly set the template for the rest of his career.
Shamrock Rovers were next to sign him up and again, his impact was felt immediately. An overnight sensation for the Dublin club, he was the only doorframe remaining when a financial earthquake shook Rovers. To keep their head above water in a poorly funded League of Ireland, the club placed all players except from McCourt on the transfer list. Losing him was a risk too great even for the panic-stricken club.
Sadly, it did reach the point that he had to go. This time he was in a car back up to his hometown club, Derry City. Although McCourt left Rovers midway through the season, he still finished as their top goalscorer and that season lifted the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year award.
Another successful spell followed at Derry, the most consistent of his life, winning three back-to-back League of Ireland Cups between 2005 and 2007, with an FAI Cup in 2006 to give the team a double that year. In a sensational move to vindicate his resistance to a hitherto turbulent career, his boyhood club Celtic called the ‘Derry Pelé’ to Glasgow’s East End.
McCourt had a rare ability of appealing to the idealist and purist crowds.
Whilst able to produce spell-binding wizardry that had been absent from Scottish football for some time, he also managed to do it looking like Jay from The Inbetweeners. He was the Against Modern Football movement personified. Who said you had to look or act a certain way to play a certain way? His debut season in Glasgow was spent in the Reserves squad where he helped guide them to their eighth consecutive title. Noticing his role in their success he was called up to the full-squad for his vintage season. In the 09/10 and 10/11 seasons, Paddy McCourt became the player that we all remember. Against Falkirk, St Mirren, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Hearts he’d score a ‘typical’ McCourt goal. Embed from Getty Images
Typical for McCourt though was atypical for any other player. They were highlight-reel finishes predicated on the confidence in his own ability to be able to pick up the ball nearly anywhere in the opposition half and time his blistering runs in such a way that players only managed to gather their thoughts in a quivering heap when they heard Celtic’s support roaring after the ball went over the line.
It got to the point that fans, no matter if you supported Celtic or not, would tune in just to see him play. Players, even ones that are more consistent goal-scorers, rarely have that magnetism. He managed to have all of the young boys vying to ‘be’ McCourt as they played in their local park and similarly had old men reminiscing about similar players that have existed through the eras. It’s true that McCourt was timeless.
It’s hard to see exactly where or what went wrong, but his reluctance to acknowledge all of the prerequisites of being a ‘professional’ football player didn’t help. The following two years saw him relegated to the bench as a possible impact player – a role he could never fit into. Once again, his contract expired and he was left without a club.
A devastatingly ‘talented’ player had it all there, but never seemed to want it enough. The word ‘talented’ crops up a lot with McCourt. It is a word that assumes his gift with a football is one that came naturally to him, that it is a skill that is as much honed as it is programmed into his DNA. For Gordon Strachan, his manager at Celtic, “Paddy was as gifted a footballer as I have ever seen.” It wasn’t just the fans that he managed to thrill.
During his spell at Celtic, McCourt earned some international caps, and in a performance against Faroe Islands, he set a nation ablaze. At their home-ground Windsor Park, McCourt scored two unforgettable goals. After his second went in, a trademark squiggly run and chipped finished, the commentator gushed, “The man with the x-factor, the man with the touch, the flair, that little flash of genius occasionally.”
McCourt’s celebration, despite the wondrous display of virtuosity was cool, calm, almost disinterested. It distilled the complexities of the figure we were watching into about 20-seconds of football. For us, the people who could only manage such performances in dreams, we can’t help but fall for a player that’s capable of sending us into raptures with seeming ease before shrugging it off with baffling humility.
A report after the game in the Belfast Telegraph was even ready to forgive him his shortcomings, “Who cares if the Celtic player is lazy – a criticism often levelled at the 27-year-old – if he can play this beautiful game.” We’ve all had this person in our lives. Someone that can break our heart, but that we forgive for the blinding flashes of exuberant life that they are capable of producing.
After Celtic, McCourt headed to Barnsley, Brighton and Hove Albion and Luton Town for one year each, with his contract not being renewed at any of them. A stint for Northern Irish side Glenavon in 2016 was similarly short-lived after McCourt struggled with life as a part-time footballer. He currently plays for Finn Harps in Ireland’s First Division and will retire at the end of the year to take charge of Derry City’s youth system.
Steve Beacom wrote that, “There’s also the point that many coaches will tell you for all his ability he is a luxury player they can’t afford to have on the pitch. Even Lionel Messi tracks back these days!” in 2013. Despite the years passing, this hasn’t changed.
McCourt’s nomadic career kept us excited because he occupied the precarious position on the precipice of wonder and greatness. The final step, it seems, was one he was unwilling or unable to take. Growing up, we learn about these flawed characters in fiction and mythology. Perfection doesn’t carry the same intrigue.
Fellow countryman Niall McGinn has a story about McCourt, well-known for his hard-living lifestyle, pouring pints behind the bar to make sure his teammates keep the pace with him. It’s common that those bequeathed with such wicked and evident genius carry it from their professional to their personal lives – often to great detriment.
Football’s equivalent of Keith Moon has a new life ahead of him as head of Derry’s youth structures and has plenty of life lessons to bring to their academy. Reflecting on his career, he mused that “It was basic stuff like going out too much and not eating the right food. That’s why, when I came home, I learned what it takes to become a proper athlete because you need to live a clean lifestyle to make it as a footballer and I wish I knew back then what I know now.”
Whether these lessons will bleed into his new career remains to be seen. Had Robin Friday or George Best been given the opportunity to develop younger players, who knows what they might have produced? Lessons are valuable from disciplinarians, but when someone has lived the life that they’re warning you against – their words carry lived weight. It’s possible that McCourt was never meant to be a football player at all, but to manifest his talent as a teacher.
Throughout his career, McCourt lived how he wanted to and played football his own way. Tactically lacking, a low regard for discipline and without the versatility often required of the modern footballer, he has created moments that will forever be etched into our imaginations.
We always want what we can’t have. With McCourt, it isn’t just his talents – it’s him. What fans wanted more than anything was for him to care and to turn out and perform at 100% every week. It’s not just for his sake though – the motivations are clearly selfish. We long to be entertained in a way that very few players will ever be capable of doing. It’s for these moments that we return to the achingly cold terraces every weekend and to have our visibly cold breath taken away from us.
Paddy McCourt could be seen as many things. Many of these things may be disputed. That he exhibited moments of genius is not one of them. He’s the boy at the end of the bar, walking his dog at your local park or working in your local garage. To look at and to talk to, he seems just like us. Give him a ball though and he’s capable of doing things beyond our wildest dreams. He’s the boy next door who is nothing like us.
Edd Norval is a Scottish writer currently living in Dublin who covers the sociology, politics and economics behind the beautiful game. Follow Edd on Twitter: @EddNorval