Paddy McCourt was rarely a regular for Celtic and acknowledges it’s tough for managers to pick flair players like him in the modern game. But now working as head of Derry City’s youth academy, he’s out to get more street footballers into the game.
As a player, McCourt was always something of a throwback to another era. With his shaggy hair, mercurial dribbling ability and fondness for a night out, he was never entirely at ease in a world where it felt as if craft and skill were overlooked in favour of stamina and athleticism.
“I was a street footballer,” admits McCourt, who brought his colourful playing career to a close at the end of 2018. “I played on the pitch like how I learned to play on the street, with enjoyment and no fear.
“I tried to do all the stuff that made me fall in love with the game in the first place. That’s what I carried through my career and hopefully that showed in how I played the game, and how I believe it should be played as well.”
While McCourt’s unorthodox and improvisational style owed much to his obsession with playing football whenever possible, he worries that today’s youngsters have too many other distractions to do the same.
“I don’t think kids play on the street as much anymore,” he says. “My mum still lives in the same house I grew up in. I’m up there fairly regularly and I never see three or four boys with a ball out on the back square where I used to be.
“You never see kids walking with a ball under their arm anymore. They’re using their phone or sitting at home on their Xbox or whatever.
“The street side of playing football has really diminished over the years and it’s now very structured coaching sessions from a young age. I don’t think players are being produced who want to dribble the ball and have a feel for it.
“There are a lot of very similar types of players, and that’s to do with society and the coaching at grassroots, which starts very early. I’d prefer to let the lads play.”
Unfortunately for McCourt, not everyone shares these simple ideals. Managers increasingly want players who cover the ground quickly, are strong in the tackle and keep the ball. The physical and the functional.
McCourt was neither of these things, and supporters loved him for it.
He hated running, particularly for no purpose. Pre-seasons at Celtic under Gordon Strachan, who hadn’t even chosen to sign him, were a nightmare. There were endless laps of the pitch, designed to build both fitness and character.
McCourt could always be found somewhere near the back, shambling along a little awkwardly.
“Certainly in the later years [of my career], football became a lot more structured, a lot more tactical and a lot more physical in terms of distances covered and high intensity running.
“That type of stuff was never my strong point. I was never blessed physically in that sense.”
McCourt started his professional career at Rochdale but, after a promising start which saw him linked with Premier League clubs, he was released by the League Two club in February 2005 and headed home to play in the League of Ireland, worried he might have blown his chance.
“I went to Rochdale as a young boy and started off really well, but it finished on a bit of a sour note. I stopped enjoying it and I probably wasn’t living my life as well as I should have been,” he says.
“One thing led to another and I ended up going back home and signing for Shamrock Rovers, which turned out to be a godsend.
“At the time it was difficult. You start questioning yourself. You start doubting yourself. ‘Is that it finished now? Will I maybe not get another chance to go back across?’ Thankfully I did and it turned out OK in the end.”
Playing under Stephen Kenny at Derry City revived McCourt’s career and eventually earned him a dream move to Celtic in 2008, but he managed only 88 appearances across five years at Parkhead.
He left a lasting impression on supporters, but considering his raw ability, he perhaps never scaled the heights he might have done.
For Northern Ireland, there were 18 international caps spread across 13 years, with a substantial gap between his first and second.
There were two goals, both typically outlandish efforts, both in a 4-0 win over the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park in August 2011. It was one of just four matches he started for his country as he was used sparingly, completing the full 90 minutes on only three occasions.
“I was in a lot of squads where I never got on the pitch,” McCourt says. “When I look at how Northern Ireland are playing at the minute, it’s probably more of a style that would have suited me.
“When I was involved under Nigel Worthington and when Michael O’Neill first took the job, we were very much a 4-5-1 side – staying compact, working hard and trying to take advantage of set pieces.
“I didn’t feature as much as I probably should have, but it’s not something I give any great thought to. I was grateful to play international football and score a couple of goals.”
Reflecting on his career as a whole, that sense of pride and satisfaction remains. “I enjoyed it. There were certainly more highs than lows. I look back on it very fondly.
“I managed to fulfil a few dreams along the way in terms of playing for my hometown club and the club I supported as a boy. I count myself very lucky.
“There are a lot of boys who don’t get to that level or don’t even get to taste what it’s like to play professional football. I just count myself as one of the very few lucky ones.”
And should McCourt go on to become a manager, he has vowed to give chances to more players like him.
“Maybe managers sometimes went with a safer option and I was used more off the bench, but I have no hard feelings about that,” he says.
“It’s a lot more difficult now for managers to take risks, or what they would see as risks. Like playing a flair player rather than a boy who’ll get up and down, win tackles and just be solid.
“If I go on to be a manager I’ll hopefully stick to my philosophy of wanting attacking players creating chances and entertaining the fans.”
Now back at Derry City as the club’s academy director, McCourt is trying to put his ideas into practice.
“I’m learning every day,” he says. “I’m a firm believer that if you want to be good at something you have to learn.
“Playing, coaching and managing are completely different. You can’t think that just because you were a good player then you’re going to be a good coach or manager. It’s about learning how to do it the best way.
“At the moment I’m going through that process and if that leads to becoming a good coach or manager someday then I’d be absolutely delighted. For now I’m just taking it week by week and trying to soak up as much information as I can.”
And even amid concerns that coaching, particularly at academy level, can be overly prescriptive and system-oriented, McCourt will ensure there’s always room for a streak of daring individuality.
There are few sights as thrilling for a supporter as someone who runs with the ball and gets them off their seat. That rising excitement and anticipation he was so adept at generating on the pitch will remain a consideration in McCourt’s new role.
By Sean Cole