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Peterhead v Celtic - Scottish Cup Fourth Round
Paddy pictured in full flight
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Eòghann MacLeòid with a personal look back at the laid-back genius that was Paddy McCourt

I worry from time to time about my attention span. I’m certain I’m not alone in this. Hours each day are spent refreshing my Twitter feed, always in search of something new. It’s relentless, and usually ends up throwing up nothing more than some vaguely amusing diversion and then the refreshing begins again. From time to time, though, a tweet will send me down a rabbit hole. One such tweet caught my eye as I was scrolling through my timeline a few days ago: a League of Ireland club announcing a new player signing. The player stands against a picturesque backdrop (Fahan in Donegal, apparently), shaking hands with a club official. His gaze is firm, inscrutable; his weathered face has a fixed smile. The player is a favourite of mine, Paddy McCourt. He is 33 years old and the club in question are relegation favourites Finn Harps who, at the time of writing, have just lost their opening fixture 1-0 to Cork City. Paddy came on as a second half substitute. Since I saw it, I haven’t been able to get the image of Paddy standing in front of Drongawn Lough out of my head. How did it come to this?

I have a confession to make: I came late to football. At primary school I professed my support of the team everyone supported so that I didn’t attract any unwanted attention, and as I moved through secondary school I maintained only the most perfunctory interest. It wasn’t until I started university and was forced to learn about football for fear of having nothing else to talk about that I discovered a real and enduring love for it: watching it, playing it, talking about it. Since I was seven or so, my stated allegiance had been Celtic, and I soon set about reading everything I could about them. The history of the club was vast and rich, but one of my main priorities was getting to grips with the current squad. I spent red-eyed hours browsing Wikipedia until the early hours in my halls, memorising names and faces. One player caught my eye: Paddy McCourt, a recent acquisition from Derry City, mostly a reserve player. It’s difficult to say why, at this stage, Paddy stuck in my mind. There was the signing photo: the bad skin, the long hair. There was the nickname: The Derry Pele. I filed him away in my newly minted Celtic knowledge and it wouldn’t be too long before he came to my attention again.

Paddy’s first goal in a Celtic shirt came in 2009 against Falkirk in the League Cup. He’d spent most of the previous season under the radar playing for the reserves, with only a handful of first-team appearances, and it was beginning to look like he’d need to make an impact or end up another in a long list of inexpensive players acquired from Ireland who end up being sold or released after a season or two (Michael Duffy, anyone?). Make an impact he did, with a silky run through five men before a perfectly weighted chip above Bobby Olejnik into the centre of the net.

It was, and still is, an impressive goal: pace, intelligence, mastery of the ball and awareness of space all come together. It took him three days to better it, rifling the ball into the left hand side of the net against St Mirren after making beating six men look trivial.

I can remember my excitement being almost overwhelming; every time Paddy had a touch of the ball that season he looked like he might do something wonderful with it. He managed it again against St Johnstone in January of 2010, showing an exquisite awareness of space and timing to beat his man and finish from the edge of the penalty box.

He finished the season with 14 appearances and three goals; this wasn’t especially remarkable, but it was the quality of his goals that excited me. No other player was capable of scoring with such panache, such flagrant disregard for the Scottish league: this was supposed to be a league where the old rules still applied, where good football men knew what was best, and what Paddy was doing certainly didn’t fit that mould at all. Here was a player of exceptional skill.

Paddy’s next season was even better, and the goals he scored still raises my heart rate when I watch them. When he got the ball, he was capable of magic. In early 2011, he was anonymously sent bullets in the post along with Neil Lennon and Niall McGinn, presumably because they were all Catholics from the north of Ireland. This disgusting act only served to endear him to the supporters more: here was a man who was dealing with death threats to play for the club he loved. He finished the season with 31 appearances and 7 goals and, more importantly, he had a place in the heart of just about every fan I knew. There was talk of Liverpool coming in for him. We sang about him at games, we clapped harder when his name was announced over the tannoy. He was, to me, a hero and a symbol of everything I loved about Celtic since I started following them properly.

The next few seasons saw Paddy’s appearances for Celtic drop off to cameos from the bench. Rumours abounded as to his lack of playing time; some said he smoked 20 cigarettes a day and was always in the pub. Others said that he was lazy and wouldn’t train enough to get fit or that his attitude wasn’t up to scratch. Still, we sang, warning Neil Lennon against selling him. After a while, we knew that for whatever reason he wasn’t fit to play but still we sang. Every time he came on I thought, this is it. This is the time he’ll score another one of those goals and he’ll be off again, winding his way around dazed defenders and slotting another goal in. This period did see what will surely stand as his finest goal amongst a litany of great ones, an absolutely superb solo second goal against the Faroe Islands in qualifiers for the 2012 European Championship.

Similar to his first league goal for Celtic, he does what he’s so good at and makes it look nothing less than totally natural. The goal I wanted him to score so badly never came, and it was with great alarm that I saw him given the captain’s armband in the 2013 Scottish Cup final, when he came on as a substitute. I knew then that it was over, and I felt bereft.

Paddy moved on after Lennon allowed his contract to run down, failing to impress Hibernian enough after training with them and then drifting from Championship clubs to League Two and then returning to Ireland for family reasons. He seems to have been well-regarded wherever he’s gone as a player with exceptional skill with a ball at his feet, and was nominated for the Football League Goal of the Year Award after scoring a frankly sublime goal against Middlesbrough during his time at Barnsley.

Nonetheless, he’s consistently thought of in many quarters as a player who somehow squandered his talent, who had the chance to be a George Best-like figure and who chose to smoke or drink or laze that away. Speculation aside, the reasons that Neil Lennon had for not playing Paddy as a regular starter are still a mystery. For me, Paddy represents something more than a talented player. He represents the pure joy and excitement of watching someone who has a natural talent and verve for their craft. He represents the chaotic few seconds of recognition, anticipation and utter ecstasy when a player beats a defence to score a beautiful goal. There were many things I liked and deeply admired about Celtic when I began to support them, but it was Paddy McCourt that made me fall in love with the club. Other players were arguably better during the formative years of my support: Gary Hooper, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kris Commons, Scott Brown, Artur Boruc and others were consistent and valued servants of the club but none had the same effect on me as a new fan. That’s the unique value of the cult player: they embody something intangible that goes above goals or assists, above solid defensive displays and wonder saves. They speak to us, they affirm our love for the club and its ethos in a way that other, more traditionally effective players don’t. Gordon Strachan (a man whose judgement recently has been, shall we say, questionable but with whom I’m in full agreement on this) said of Paddy after he departed Celtic: ‘Paddy is as gifted a footballer as I have ever seen. Some players can see a pass, but not dribble. Others can dribble, but not see a pass. Paddy can do both. And, I have got to say, watching Paddy is one of the best things in football.’ So, Paddy, here’s to you – I wish you all the best at Finn Harps and your place in both my own history and the history of our great club is secured.

A great article from Eòghann, you can follow him on twitter here.