Pat McCourt, the Derry Diego
A stunning display against the Faroe Islands hints at greater things to come
That well worn phrase from the world of show business about performers who have taken many years to become 'overnight successes' could easily be applied to Northern Ireland’s ‘newly’ discovered footballing sensation, Pat McCourt.
The Glasgow Celtic star’s undoubted talents shone brightly at Windsor Park in the European Championship tie against the Faroe Islands last week, where the former Derry City player scored twice in the 4-0 victory.
A trademark mazy run, which culminated in an audacious lob over the goalkeeper for his second goal, has had the football world buzzing, although those who know McCourt’s history are not surprised in the least.
'While some have described Paddy’s performance for Northern Ireland as the best individual display since George Best played for his country, people here in Derry remember him doing that sort of thing all the time,' says Richie Kelly, a football journalist in Derry~Londonderry. 'What really surprises them is the length of time it has taken for McCourt to get the wider recognition that he deserves.'
And Kelly has a point. McCourt is not a teenager who has just burst onto the scene. Despite his skill the 27-year old has taken longer than most to get noticed for both club and country.
McCourt’s first venture across the Irish Sea took him to Rochdale a decade ago. Norwich City and Crewe showed some initial interest, too, before he was released and returned home in 2005. Injuries, a loss of form and eight goals in 91 appearances were never going to be the kind of statistics to attract the attention of major clubs.
However, League of Ireland club Shamrock Rovers recognised McCourt’s abilities, and he repaid their faith in him by scoring seven goals in 17 appearances as he picked up the league’s Young Player of the Year award.
McCourt’s stay in Dublin was shortlived. Financial problems at Rovers forced them to sell him, and thereafter McCourt travelled back up the road to his native Derry City for a reported £60,000 transfer fee.
'When Paddy came back from Rochdale he told me himself that he hadn’t put enough dedication into his game. He certainly made a difference at the Brandywell,' recalls Kelly.
Derry finished second in the League of Ireland Championship in the following two seasons, and McCourt’s skills were ever present as The Candystripes collected both the FAI Cup and the League Cup. A run in Europe, that included wins over the now defunct Scottish club Gretna and IFK Gothenburg of Sweden, came to an end in Paris against Paris Saint Germain.
McCourt’s performances were again attracting attention from clubs in England and Scotland, and in June 2008, Glasgow Celtic paid £100,000 for him.
'I think that much of the credit for Paddy’s development has to go to Derry City manager, Stephen Kenny,' says Kelly. 'He is primarily a coach and he worked incredibly hard to get the best from McCourt. It’s paid dividends.
'Kenny has a track record of good transfers. Conor Sammon to Kilmarnock, Kevin McHugh to Linfield, £200,000 for Niall McGinn to Celtic and only recently £350,000 for James McClean to Sunderland. Paddy knew that when his chance at Celtic came along, he had to take it.'
Competition for places at Celtic Park is intense, and McCourt has spent the last three seasons between the reserve team and the first team squad as the SPL club has worked on maximising his fitness. As appearances have begun to increase, he has won over the supporters with some brilliant solo goals. He believes that Neil Lennon’s appointment as manager has helped his chances of staying in Glasgow.
On the club’s pre-season tour of Australia, the quietly spoken McCourt said: 'We've got a big squad. One or two will probably leave: I don't want to be one of them. I don't think the manager would let me go on loan and I think he sees me as a valuable member of the team. If I was ever going to leave it would be permanently.'
And McCourt’s dazzling performance against the Faroe Islands has reignited interest from the Premiership. Overtures from West Brom and Blackpool were rejected last season, but rumours are circulating now that Wolves are on the scent of the man who has been dubbed the ‘Derry Deigo’.
The twists and turns that McCourt displayed while wearing the green of Northern Ireland at Windsor Park has added to the brewing pot of football intrigue.
In the recent past, shame was brought on the Irish FA and its thousands of decent supporters by the actions of bigots who set their minds against former players like Neil Lennon and Anton Rogan because of their connections to Celtic.
The deeds of McCourt and his stable mate McGinn (presently on loan to Brentford) and how the supporters respond to them, can do much to remove that stain.
In his native city, there is incredulity that the ‘Derry Deigo’ was making only his first competitive start at international level last week. 'The suggestion from some quarters that he will have to fight to keep his place in the team brings laughter here. We’ve known for years how good McCourt is. Why haven’t others?' asks Kelly.
And McCourt’s international colleague Aaron Hughes recognises what he can bring to the team. 'Defenders do not know what to do. He has the skill and the execution to finish it,' commented the Fulham player.
'McCourt is a fantastic individual player with good feet and he is learning how to play for the team,' says Northern Ireland manager, Nigel Worthington. 'It was a superb display overall. He has taken the opportunity with both hands. With Pat there is so much ability there.'
Amid all the hype of that win over the Faroe Islands, and that wonder goal, McCourt’s modesty speaks for itself. 'It was just one of those things that came off on the night — next time I'll probably put it in the stand. But I'll try it again,' he said.
However, the new breed of supporters who have just discovered the Celtic player’s talents want more, and want Worthington, who has been criticised for leaving McCourt out of previous squads, to rebuild his team around the winger.
'When we had George Best, the team was geared around him. Paddy is a big part of our international future. We should be prepared to do the same for him, too,' said one fan, riding the wave of euphoria along the Donegall Road from Windsor Park.