Monday 16 September 2019

'If it was only God-given talent, I could have just sat at home and called Celtic when I was 20 to get a contract'

Paddy McCourt was a football genius but is troubled by the suggestion that he didn't work to achieve his childhood dream. As a coach, he's determined to tackle a perception and inspire the next generation.

Youth coach Paddy McCourt pictured at the Brandywell. Photo: Derry City FC
Youth coach Paddy McCourt pictured at the Brandywell. Photo: Derry City FC
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Last month, as final year school students around the island dissected their exam results, Paddy McCourt decided to articulate a thought that had always bothered him.

"Leaving school with very little qualifications is without doubt the biggest regret of my life so far," he told his 27,000 Twitter followers. "I was very fortunate to fulfil my dreams of becoming a professional footballer but if I could turn back time that's one thing I'd definitely change."

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Responses poured in. One stood out. From a Celtic fan. "It's always a Celtic fan," he smiles, wryly.

"Surely your biggest regret is not putting more effort into the God given talent you had, then you wouldn't need to be a***d with qualifications," wrote JP1888.

McCourt sighs as the story is raised. He knows, deep down, that he will always have to deal with that perception. Even now, as he builds a new life as a coach.

His school regrets are borne from the belief that he had the intelligence to do better, but ultimately ended up with a handful of D grades and no proper qualifications. Laziness and disinterest were to blame.

In that context, football saved him, much as that didn't look likely when he bombed out of Rochdale aged 20, disillusioned with the game. "Broken," as he puts it.

From that low, he went on to properly make his name and experience plenty of highs. Hence, the cult popularity that endures to this day - especially in the green half of Glasgow.

Searching 'the Derry Pele' on YouTube throws up a treasure trove of wonder goals, the majority of which involve a free-flowing dribbler with a scruffy indie rocker's haircut pirouetting around hapless defenders before dispatching the ball goalwards.

McCourt remains a cult hero at Celtic, where he drifted in and out of the side as successive managers grappled with how best to use him.

Gordon Strachan didn't know much about it when Celtic's hierarchy were tipped off and told to nab him from Derry City before West Brom tied up a deal. Strachan ended up describing McCourt as one of the most gifted footballers he had ever seen. And yet he seldom picked him.

Which brings us back to the tweet, and the widely-held view is that McCourt's football career scored a couple of grades below what it should have been. A feeling that one of the most exciting players to grace a pitch in these islands could have done more.

McCourt loved his time at the club he followed as a kid. He remains a fan and will be doing his best to keep an eye on proceedings at Ibrox tomorrow as his old boss Neil Lennon looks to kick-start his second spell in charge.

But it niggles away at him that his Celtic story is intertwined with a caricature. It's true that he didn't enjoy running. It's true that he liked to socialise at the weekend. And it's true that he had the ability to make the game look easy. But that doesn't mean that no work was required to get to where he did.

"If God had given me a talent," he says, "Then I could have just sat in the house and rang Celtic when I was 20 and said, 'I've never played football but God gave me a talent so have you got a contract for me there?'

"I came from Derry and played for Celtic. I'm one of the lucky ones. If people think I should have played another 200 games (his tally was 88) well, it's up to them. Other people seem to be more bothered by it than I am. I'm not bitter or resentful. I've experienced walking out at Celtic Park in front of 60,000 people, scoring a goal, just four years after I was released by Rochdale. Better players than me have never experienced that so I'm fortunate. I try and tell people that and they think I'm lying."

"I don't think anyone is given a talent," he continues. "You might be given certain genetic advantages where you might be able to run faster than someone or take instructions on better or learn a skill better. I wasn't born with a great athleticism, whereas someone like Scott Brown could literally not train for six weeks and still be ahead of everyone.

"But you're not born a good footballer, just like you're not born a good basketball player if you're 6ft 8ins. Now you might have an advantage but you still have to practise. My ability was created by eight to 10 hours a day dribbling with the ball outside, in a country that doesn't get very much sunshine.

"If that was natural, I'd have stayed inside. But I was on the street playing against boys two or three years older than me and if I didn't go by them they were going to lift me in the air and bring me down onto the gravel elbows first. Maybe my talent was that I didn't have to do a skill 20 times to pick it up."

He is sitting in the new function room upstairs at the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, animated as he makes his point.

The image of the half-a**ed carefree character is out of sync with his current existence.

This is his place of work again now. He is doing 12-hour days, leaving his seaside home at Fahan in neighbouring Donegal for his dual role as head of the Derry City academy and a key member of Declan Devine's first team staff, with a particular emphasis on recruitment.

Devine consistently name-checks his influence. Around Derry, there is a genuine belief that McCourt has big days in football ahead of him.

He started studying for his badges at 28 and completing the Pro Licence is the next step. Management now appeals as a longer-term career move.

"When I started doing the badges I wasn't sure if I would use them," he admits. "I could have hated it. But since I've got into it, I've nearly become obsessed."

His own experience has shaped his philosophy. McCourt works with the U-13 side and has a distinct policy when it comes to interactions with the youths. Freedom of expression is a priority. Bollockings are off the agenda. Training sessions have to be entertaining and stimulating or else he feels players will mentally tune out.

"The reason I took the youngest boys is that I think I can encourage them to be more free in how they play," he says. "There's no real in-depth team talks or real in-depth analysis or big debriefs. It's, 'Well done'. Even if they didn't play that well, it's well done. And then something constructive.

Better

"If you're 12 and you're told you're crap at something is that going to make you better? Now if you're 25 and not doing your job, I'll come and tell you. But a 12-year-old who might look up to you? Me shouting is only going to discourage him."

He did experience his share of ranters and ravers early on his own journey; managers that couldn't accommodate an entertainer and employed old-school methods in the search for a certain brand of graft.

From McCourt's perspective, the hairdryer treatment only works once or twice a season. "Otherwise, it's just noise."

At Rochdale, he grew tired of the environment and beat a retreat to Shamrock Rovers where Roddy Collins told him to go and enjoy himself.

He did that on the pitch every Friday night, and in town on Saturdays and Sundays as a single man with no commitments. Rovers' pre-Tallaght financial troubles brought him to Derry, a timely switch as he'd just started going out with Laura, a neighbour growing up in Shantallow who moved in different circles.

"She was in the it crowd and more popular than I was," he laughs. "I was the nerdy footballer."

Stephen Kenny was Derry boss and the right man at the right time.

McCourt reckons he can accurately list the strengths and weaknesses of all the managers he worked under but the one he struggles with is Kenny.

"If you said, 'What made him so good?' I couldn't give you an answer," he says, "He was exceptionally good but if you ask me why, I don't know. He had a gift. He had 22 lads in a dressing-room and he made those 22 lads feel like they were the best player in the world. That's why he's been so successful."

He tells a story. The Derry players used to do pool sessions at William Street Baths, and the manager approached McCourt one day and placed an envelope in his hand. "Don't open it now," he said. "Go and read that later."

It was a letter of advice. "He was basically saying, 'Look, sometimes you don't realise how good you are and what you can be'," McCourt explains. "And if you listen to what we're telling you, then the world is your oyster. I had just bought my first house. Laura was pregnant. We had moved in together. It was a time to get up and to get focused and that letter was saying that, in his own way.

"It was smart management. If you have a chat with a manager, especially in your early 20s, then nine times out of 10 it goes in one ear and then out the other. But if someone goes to the bother of writing a letter and you are sitting on your own reading it, then a lot of those things resonated with me."

From that crossroads, the level of his thrilling Derry displays opened the door for the life-changing Celtic switch.

After five years, he travelled south for spells at Barnsley, Brighton, Notts County and Luton a mixed bag of experiences that ran in tandem with a stop-start international career with Northern Ireland. Similar to his club career, managers tended to pick and choose the games that might suit his attributes.

He was still in Michael O'Neill's thoughts when he asked to be left out of their Euro 2016 plans for personal reasons. Laura had been diagnosed with a brain tumour.

Football came second to his role as a family man with two kids, and they moved home so she could go through the necessary treatment. Laura wasn't able to drive for two years, but the process was successful.

"She's similar to me," says McCourt, "Quite laid-back. A strong mentality. It was very much, 'Look, this is happening. We'll get it sorted, we'll be grand, but it will take a bit of time,' and that's what happened. We're very thankful to have come through it and her life, touch wood, hasn't changed that dramatically at all."

Preparing

The couple are preparing for a much happier type of stress with Cora (13) and Luke (10) due to be joined by a younger brother this week. "A bigger challenge," McCourt quips. With a newborn around the house, he may have to look at balancing the workload and delegating some of the tasks in the academy.

But this is his career now, and while the family are comfortable in Fahan, he doesn't rule out the idea that coaching could eventually take him further afield in the future. There was always a serious side behind the swagger and headlines about a so-called 'playboy lifestyle'.

"A lot of the stuff that's said about me is rubbish," he continues. "I'm not sitting here saying I was an angel. I liked to go out on a Saturday night and for a few drinks on the Sunday. But people actually think I sat in the house and drank 50 cans a day and smoked 200 fags. Do you know what I mean? I'm married eight years. Going out with my wife 14 years. If I was this mad hellraiser, I'm sure she would be long gone."

His enduring status amongst Celtic fans has made him a draw on the Q and A circuit and he goes over a handful of times per year. Crowds expect a few yarns that play up to the stereotype. His hatred of pre-season running when he craved the ball; Strachan's character-building endurance sessions that, in the words of McCourt, 'told him about my character.' But there's a pantomime element to it. There are McCourt admirers who might be surprised that he's viewed as manager material now.

Before his first Q & A, he was slightly nervous, anticipating a rowdy alcohol-fuelled room with little interest in his stories. Instead, he was shocked by the silence, as a transfixed audience digested every word. That is the power of the Celtic connection, the fanatical support that see everything in green and white. McCourt always found it hard to grasp why people were interested in anything that he had to say.

"That's not me trying to be ultra humble," he says. "But that's why I never really did interviews during my career. I thought, 'Who cares what I think?' Go and ask somebody else who people care about. Why would they want to hear what I have to say?"

He's found his voice now. And he won't be allowing his football brain to go to waste.

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