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‘Derry Pelé’ Paddy McCourt caught between The Rock and a hard place

By Ed McGinley

In mid-August a photograph of Lionel Messi, celebrating yet another goal, circulated online.There was nothing abnormal about that. Given the little Argentinean’s prolific strike rate it’s practically a weekly occurrence.  However, the superimposed picture revealed the world player of the year raising his jersey, to unveil a white vest adorned with the image of Paddy McCourt.

It was an irreverent but humorous attempt to compare the duo.

Having just dismantled the Faroe Islands with an all action display, and two breathtaking solo goals at Windsor Park, the Celtic winger had finally endeared himself to the fans of Northern Ireland.

For supporters of Celtic, the wing wizard’s slalom dribbles were far from a revelation. After all the ‘Derry Pelé’ has hoodwinked SPL opponents since joining the Glasgow giants in the summer of 2008.

A similar feat of balance and technique, to match the South Belfast exhibition, was unleashed against St Mirren during an SPL game in September 2009.  There are countless other examples but that goal summed up McCourt.

Nevertheless, despite his scheming box of tricks, McCourt is not overtly trusted at club or international level. He divides opinion.

‘Paddy should have pockets in his shorts’, ‘he can’t do it in the big games’ or ‘it was only the Faroes’ have been routine accusations levelled at the

Derry native.

Managers and coaches making a crust in the professional game are suspicious of artisans like McCourt.

Lauded for their brilliance on the one hand, only to be quickly thrown to the wolves in the next for sacrificing possession in an attempt to unlock a miserly defence.

Creators are viewed with suspicion, even more so when the going gets tough. Spoilers, who play the percentages, are a better bet.

Even given Celtic’s erratic form this season and, as the pressure of the Glasgow goldfish bowl builds on manager Neil Lennon, the 27-year-old has found first team opportunities limited.

It must be a frustrating situation for a player who loves to play. A run of games, consistent trust, and some momentum would ultimately be repaid.

It hasn’t been forthcoming – yet. The left winger is biding his time and is more concerned with Celtic’s fortunes, the team’s progress than his own personal plight.

“To be honest I don’t want to be known as that (a luxury player). I’ve never ducked out of working back. I think people maybe label me as that type of player because of the amount of times I’ve come on as a sub,” said Paddy speaking from his Glasgow home last Thursday afternoon.

“I haven’t actually started a great deal of games, which is disappointing but I’m just hoping that if I get a chance this year I can grab it with both hands and try and stay in the team as long as possible.”

Financial and administrative problems off the field have engulfed the Bhoys’ Govan rivals. Although their fiscal stock has plummeted, Rangers’ books are well in order on the pitch.

Ally McCoist, for so long the apprentice, appears to have learned enough to keep the ‘Gers comfortably ahead of the chasing pack – Celtic included.

McCourt is adamant that the Hoops have the quality, ambition and desire to close the gap. It is only November. The SPL title race still has plenty of forks in the road to traverse before anything is set in stone.

“The big aim every year, playing for Celtic, is to win trophies. We managed to win one last year (the Scottish Cup), which we weren’t particularly happy about because we thought we could have won all three at one stage,” added McCourt.

“That was disappointing although at the same time it was nice to finish the season on a high with a trophy.

“We have dropped a wee bit behind in the league but we have reached the semi-final in one cup (the Scottish Communities League Cup after a 4-1 away win over Hibernian) and we are hoping now to kick on.

“There is a long, long way to go and we still have to play Rangers another few times.

“So the league is far, far from over and I’m sure Rangers will know that. It’s up to us to get the consistency going and make sure we don’t drop any silly points to try and keep the pressure up as long as possible.”

The ‘Old Firm’ adversaries have met only once this season, 18 September, and it was the blue half of Glasgow that was celebrating after a 4-2 triumph.

McCourt wasn’t involved that Sunday afternoon. December 28 at Celtic Park and March 24 are the next two dates both sets of players and fans have highlighted in their fixture calendars.

It’s a game that is known the world-over. A derby unsurpassed by any other and McCourt admits it’s always special to be one of the pawns, attempting to checkmate the Ibrox kings.

“I’ve been lucky to play in a few ‘Old Firm’ games. A few we’ve won and a few we’ve lost so I’ve had the feeling on both sides,” said the Derry dribbler.

“The time we played at Ibrox last year and we won was special for me because it was the first time I started a game against Rangers. It was a great feeling to be involved.

“But, at the end of the day, it’s still only three points. Three points against St Mirren, St Johnstone or Kilmarnock are just as valuable as against Rangers.

“You try not to get too caught up in it but in any league, it is always good to get one over on your rivals. Celtic and Rangers is no different.”

Fans of the two clubs would beg to differ. The ‘Old Firm’ is a unique tie, cloaked in religious and political history. The rivalry is unprecedented. As such the players are very much public property.

Their profile can make Glasgow living difficult. Aiden McGeady, now showcasing his talents in Russia with Spartak Moscow, pointed to the constant vitriol aimed in his direction as one of the reasons why he sought pastures new.

For McCourt, it’s all about getting the balance right. He is enjoying life in Scotland and settled in the divided city.

“You are in the spotlight because everyone knows that Glasgow is a goldfish bowl,” admitted McCourt.

“Everyone knows you so you have to conduct yourself properly and make sure you don’t step out of line. It’s like anything else, it has its pros and its cons but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.”

McCourt isn’t seeking sympathy. He is fully aware that he is living the dream. A ‘privilege’ is how he puts it. Being a footballer is ‘the trade’ he aspired to enter when kicking the ball about with his two brothers, Harry, who played for Cliftonville, and Leroy, as a starry-eyed youngster. The older siblings set the example.

“I always wanted to be a professional footballer and to have the opportunity is something that I don’t take lightly,” he added.

“I’m always very, very grateful because it’s not the easiest trade to get into as you can imagine. So many people want to be footballers so there is so much competition.

“I’m well into my career and I’m just hoping to enjoy the last six or seven years as long as my legs keep going.

“My family was always into football and my two brothers (Harry and Leroy) would have been the two boys I would have looked up to.

“They were the ones who had me out playing football most days so I’m very grateful to them as well.”

Sometimes he has to pinch himself. Celtic is the club he supported as a boy and the famous green and white hoops had a magnetism that he couldn’t resist.

Having climbed the youth ladder at Foyle Harps, McCourt cut his teeth among the professional gladiators at Rochdale in Greater Manchester in 2001. His salute was shortlived. Spotland Stadium was a tough learning ground, made tougher by the pang for home. Shamrock Rovers, and their manager Roddy Collins, stepped in and brought McCourt back to Ireland in 2005. Maybe the green and white hoops of Tallaght would be the only hoops he would ever wear?

“I never thought when I came back to Ireland that would be it. I was really homesick in England. It was hard moving away from home at the time because I was very close to my family,” said McCourt.

“If you’re not enjoying it then there is no point being there. Lucky enough after coming home I got a second chance and was able to fulfill a lifelong dream by playing for Celtic.”

Football can be an unforgiving, ruthless vocation. After falling off the ladder, it is nigh on impossible to get back on it. Shamrock Rovers and then a mesmerising spell at his hometown club Derry City put McCourt back in the frame. Settled and content in his home life, he made League of Ireland defenders’ lives unsettling and miserable.

During the prodigal son’s return the Candystripes were twice league runners up, FAI Cup and League of Ireland Cup winners.

Stronger, more mature and tactically aware, McCourt had outgrown the town he loved so well.

It was time to give it another shot across the water, time to unleash the potential that had always been festering.

In June 2008 ‘Derry’s Diego’ signed for Celtic on a three-year deal, disappointing courtiers like English Premier League side West Bromich Albion in the process. Almost two years later, after proving his worth, McCourt penned a further three-year deal with the Hoops in August 2010.

That hasn’t stopped rumours circulating of interest from English giants Liverpool.

“When I got the chance to sign for Celtic it was something I took with both hands. It was an absolute dream come true,” said McCourt.

“I’m really enjoying my time here. I’m settled and hopefully now this season I can get a few more games and try and help the team and go on to win a few more trophies.

“It’s a big club with a great history and a lot of supporters not just in Ireland and Scotland but across the world. So there is always pressure but that’s something you have to try and enjoy.”

Switching off from the perpetual demands of professional football is not elementary.

However, other interests allow the 27-year-old to take a necessary step away from the pressure-cooker environment that he finds himself in.

Earlier this year he became part owner of The Rock Bar on the Falls Road. The business venture, in conjunction with his close friend and agent Gerry Carlile, was too good an opportunity to turn down.

The local hostelry is thriving, due in no small part to the vision of Glengoland man Carlile and his business partner Sean Duffy.

The acquisition follows Carlile and Duffy’s purchase of the popular Fáilte restaurant in April 2010, also on the Falls Road, with another Bhoy Niall McGinn

Paddy keeps a keen interest and gets in for a drink when the football season allows. As we spoke McCourt was in the midst of finalising an end of season party for his former Derry City teammates at The Rock.

The entertainment business, it seems, is part of McCourt’s repertoire off the pitch too.

“Gerry (Carlile) is my friend and Sean (Duffy) as well and they approached me last year about getting involved. We took it on last year and it’s going rightly thank God,” said McCourt.

“Gerry and Sean do most of the work but I try and get in when I’m back and show my face. I’m delighted to be a part of it. The Falls Road has such a strong Celtic support so it is great to be involved in a venture there.”

Quite literally Paddy McCourt is caught between ‘The Rock’ and a hard place. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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