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Jumping through hoops to earn Paradise place

A KNOCK picked up in training last Monday rules Paddy McCourt out of Celtic's season-opener SPL game away to Hibernian today. It means at next weekend's Dublin Super Cup takes on an added importance for the Derryman, who is hoping to improve on last season's 31 appearances for the Celts.

The knock on his knee -- "nothing too serious," he reassured me -- comes at the wrong time, though, as McCourt had featured in all Celtic's pre-season games in Australia, and is obviously in Neil Lennon's plans.

His return to the Aviva Stadium will evoke memories, good and bad. He was on the Derry City team which won the FAI Cup in the old Lansdowne Road in 2006 in conditions unlikely to be repeated next weekend.

McCourt was many people's man of the match on that occasion, but his last visit to the Dublin Super Cup venue was less memorable. "We were slaughtered 3-0 by Scotland in February," he said of Northern Ireland's Carling Nations Cup tie.

Like many Derrymen, McCourt was a boyhood fan of Celtic so to wear the fabled green and white hoops is living the dream -- and one man who helped him fulfil that dream was the present Monaghan United manager Roddy Collins. As a teenager, McCourt signed for Rochdale and played well for two seasons before a bout of homesickness struck him.

"I remember playing for the reserves against Carlisle and afterwards Roddy was trying to sign me, but shortly after he fell out with the owners and left Carlisle. He kept an eye on my progress, though, and when I was leaving Rochdale he was the first in the queue."

Collins was then manager of Shamrock Rovers and attracted McCourt with the carrot that he would get him a trial with Celtic if he signed. "When I got him into my house," Collins recalled, "I wouldn't let him leave until he had signed. My wife, Caroline, thought he looked like a refugee from Long Kesh and gave him a big feed, while Paddy was saying 'I have to speak to my agent, my brother'."

McCourt confirms Collins' anecdote. "Roddy was brilliant -- he knew what I was going through, but he wouldn't let me out of the house so I just signed there and told my brother later. It worked out well for me."

McCourt made a huge impression in his first six months with Shamrock Rovers, but the club then ran into money problems and released all their players. He signed for Derry City, where he enjoyed three good years, helping them win the FAI Cup, the League Cup twice, and missed out on the League title twice on the last day. They also had a great run in the UEFA Cup, beating Gothenburg and Gretna, before going out to Paris St Germain. All this time, Collins did his best to keep his promise. "One of my connections wrote five letters about Paddy to Dermot Desmond and went to meet him," he recalled.

For McCourt it was a dream move. "The hardest thing was getting in the door," he said, "and the next hardest was getting up to the standard expected of you here. I had injury problems for the first 18 months, but the last 18 months I have been fit most of the time.

"Last year was probably my best year. I won a Scottish Cup medal, but we were disappointed not to win the League.

"My target is to improve. I have done so every year I've been here and hopefully it will be no different this year. With so many top players here I'm not going to knock on the manager's door and say I should be in every week, because he picks different teams for different games.

"I'm from the same background as the manager, but there's no favouritism. He picks the team that he thinks can win, just like every other manager. It's not like the same 11 every week. Now it's a squad game, and he could make four or five changes with so many games to be played. I would love to play 90 minutes of every game, but it's not on."

All of which makes next weekend's games important for McCourt, as he tries to catch the eye of Neil Lennon, who gave him a vote of confidence last summer with a new three-year contract.

Nicknamed the 'Derry Pele' for the spectacular solo goals he scores, many of which feature on YouTube, his fans will be hoping for another McCourt special in the Aviva Stadium next weekend.

Sunday Indo Sport