Celtic star Paddy McCourt set to whack Italy at Windsor Park
The dancing feet which have dazzled defenders across Scotland are being lined up to tease, torture and torment a country renowned for its tight defences.
Italian backlines are arguably the toughest in world football to penetrate and Nigel Worthington has decided that he needs a trick up his sleeve if that proves to be the case at Windsor Park next Friday night.
And like every Northern Ireland fan he knows that the best man to produce something unpredictable or out of the ordinary is Celtic’s Paddy McCourt.
After being overlooked for a place in the squad that won 1-0 in Slovenia last month, Worthington appears ready to hand McCourt the chance to transfer the talent that he has shown in the Scottish Premier League to the international stage — and against one of the biggest countries of all.
Londonderry native McCourt is the Maiden City’s answer to Maradona. When he has the ball at his feet defenders quake and shiver, largely because they know that he can be past them in the blink of an eye and once he has a sight of goal he won’t hesitate in having a go.
He has scored five goals for Celtic, with every one of them standing out as real collectors’ items. They have all come at the end of mazy dribbles which have left defenders trailing in his wake.
The most recent, just over a fortnight ago again Hearts, was right up there with the other four, coming at the end of a run which had fans on the edge of their seats.
He does have the tendency to frustrate though. Drifting out of games when he doesn’t see possession for long spells and his contribution to the overall team effort has been cited by Worthington time and time again as the reason why he hasn’t been a regular at international level.
Put simply McCourt doesn’t do average.
“Paddy gives you something different,” admits Worthington, ahead of the Euro 201 qualifiers against the Italians and the Faroe Islands.
“He knows what I look for in a player, he knows what he’s got to do and there is no reason why he can’t do it.
“He believes he can do it, I believe he can do it and the opportunity is there for him.”
The changing times at Windsor Park mean that McCourt — and his club and international colleague Niall McGinn, who has also returned to the Northern Ireland squad — won’t suffer the same fate that their Celtic manager Neil Lennon did.
His move to Parkhead in 2000 resulted in Lennon being jeered on his next Northern Ireland appearance and his international career didn’t last much longer after that.
The contrast now is that when McCourt wasn’t included in that Slovenia squad there was uproar amongst fans, with questions as to how Northern Ireland could afford to leave at home someone with such obvious individual talent.
Possibly the best piece of news Worthington received yesterday came from the other side of Glasgow’s football divide.
Northern Ireland managed to beat Poland 3-2 at Windsor Park in March last year without Steve Davis in the team, but the chances of getting a victory against Italy are much better with the Cullybackey-man in the team.
And the sight of him training with his Rangers team-mates ahead of tonight’s Champions League tie with Turkish champions Bursaspor, when his participation in the game was threatened by a hamstring injury, will have pleased Worthington.
Warren Feeney also expects to be fit after suffering an ankle injury and missing Oldham’s League One game last weekend.
In Slovenia Worthington handed a first competitive cap to Wolves teenager Jonny Gorman.
Born in England, his family connections also qualified him to play for the Republic of Ireland and with no shame whatsoever — and no criticism from any quarters — Worthington threw him on to make sure that no other country can now tempt him away.
And he is ready to do the same with another youngster, Preston North End’s Adam Barton, who is making waves in the Deepdale first-team.
Born in Blackburn, it is understood that despite being capped at under-19 level by Northern Ireland and his inclusion in the last under-21 squad, Barton — who has caught the eye of Bolton and Sunderland — is being pursued by others.
And if it takes players to be capped at senior level to fend off rivals, then that is what Worthington will do.
“Only if they are good enough. I am not going to bring Tom, Dick and Harry in if they aren’t good enough,” said Worthington.
“I am only going to bring players into the squad who are of the right quality to represent Northern Ireland.
“If players don’t want to represent Northern Ireland, it doesn’t matter how good or how bad they are, that’s up to them and good luck to them. It’s not a problem for Northern Ireland.
“I focus on the ones who want to be with us, not those who want to be elsewhere. I don’t lose any sleep over them.”
NORTHERN IRELAND SQUAD: Maik Taylor (Birmingham City), Johnny Tuffey (Inverness), Alan Blayney (Linfield), Gareth McAuley (Ipswich Town), Craig Cathcart (Blackpool), Stephen Craigan (Motherwell), Aaron Hughes (Fulham), Jonny Evans (Manchester United), Chris Baird (Fulham), Steve Davis (Rangers), Grant McCann (Peterborough), Sammy Clingan (Coventry City), Corry Evans (Manchester United), Chris Brunt (West Brom), Adam Barton (Preston North End), Johnny Gorman (Wolves), Niall McGinn (Celtic), Paddy McCourt (Celtic), David Healy (Sunderland), Warren Feeney (Oldham), Kyle Lafferty (Rangers), Rory Patterson (Plymouth).
The Bhoys from Northern Ireland
Bertie only played professionally for one club across the water and is a legend at Celtic. During 12 years at Parkhead — from 1949 to 1961 — he played over 300 games and won the Scottish League and Cup double in 1954. Peacock was a star of Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup team and became manager shortly after he retired.
Celtic had tracked Rogan for some time and ended up taking both him and Allen McKnight from Distillery. He was an early success at the club, playing regularly in the 1988 double winning season, but he never really recovered from missing a penalty that cost Celtic the 1990 Scottish Cup final and moved on to Sunderland a year later.
Rogan’s international career never really took off, partly because of competition for the left-back spot from both Mal Donaghy and Nigel Worthington and a lack of confidence, down to the fact that as a Celtic player he was the victim of sectarian abuse from a small section of Northern Ireland fans.
Success in football is all about timing and while McKnight’s timing was right on the international stage was just right, it couldn’t have been more wrong at club level.
He got his move from Distillery to Celtic when Northern Ireland were struggling to replace the legendary Pat Jennings, so as soon as he broke into the team at Parkhead he was promoted to the international stage.
He didn’t play for long in the Celtic first-team — with Packie Bonner well established as number one. McKnight did play in the 1988 Scottish Cup final though, with Bonner injured, as Celtic marked their centenary year by winning the double.
McKnight moved to West Ham shortly after and his Northern Ireland career ended after only 10 caps and as a Protestant he never received the same abuse from fans as Rogan.
Lennon was established in the Northern Ireland team, having played for six years before he moved to Celtic in 2000. He was jeered by some supporters in his next international appearance against Norway in February 2002 and left Windsor Park early after being substituted at half-time.
He would only play four more times for Northern Ireland, quitting the international team after receiving a death threat before a match against Cyprus in August 2002.
McGinn won his first senior international cap while still playing for Derry City in the league of Ireland in November 2008.
It was his move to Celtic two months later that gave him the chance to make his mark in the Northern Ireland team.
The 23-year-old has won seven caps and his electrifying pace has made him a favourite among fans.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph before his last appearance at Windsor Park McGinn said ‘the fans have been 100 per cent to me and I have never had any problems playing for Northern Ireland.’
Far from being abused by Northern Ireland fans, the Green and White Army have been calling for the gifted McCourt to be in the squad after he didn’t make the trip to Slovenia last month. They spotted the ability the Londonderry-man possess, albeit as an enigmatic figure who can frustrate when he fades out of matches.