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Let the lads play: Paddy McCourt determined to produce entertaining stars in Derry coaching role

Paddy McCourt celebrates Finn Harps' promotion back to the top flight after the final match on his playing career.
Paddy McCourt celebrates Finn Harps' promotion back to the top flight after the final match on his playing career.
Gareth Hanna

By Gareth Hanna

If there's a man to tease the exciting flair from the next generation of footballers, surely it's Paddy McCourt.

The Derry Pele made a career out of his inimitable style that was always likely to bring spectators to their feet. It's the reason he's now held in legendary esteem among the Celtic support and fondly remembered by many other football fans.

But where's the next Paddy McCourt?

Having taken on the job as head of Derry City's youth academy, the man himself reckons there are reasons that there aren't more players coming through with his swagger.

The game's moved on - it's a commonly used phrase in modern-day football but for McCourt, it's not in a positive sense on this particular facet. He says that the coaching structures put in place at under age levels, combined with the change in society, is holding back the natural instincts and abilities of young attackers.

“I don’t think kids play on the street as much anymore,” he told Planet Football. “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.”

McCourt hung up his boots at the end of the 2018 League of Ireland season, having helped Finn Harps to promotion to the top tier.

But he's keen to help his own flowing football style return to hometown club Derry City, where he made his name, vowing to carry his philosophy into his coaching and, should his career progress, his management.

“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," he said.

While some are doubtless too young to have witnessed them at first half, McCourt's Derry City stars-of-the-future could do worse than to watch his spell-binding goals in Celtic's hoops and Northern Ireland's green shirt among others.

“I was a street footballer,” he admits. “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.

"Certainly in the later years, 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.”

At international level, McCourt netted twice, both in the same game against the Faroe Islands at Windsor Park but he says if he was playing in the current team, he might have fared better.

“I was in a lot of squads where I never got on the pitch,” McCourt said, mulling over only 18 caps. “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.

“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 continues, discussing a career that was spent too often on the bench at Celtic as well as his other clubs and in international football.

“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."

Such players in McCourt's teams, however, won't have similar stories of woe.

“Playing, coaching and managing are completely different," he said of his career in the dugout. "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.”

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