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Comment: Why football is nothing without entertainers like Paddy McCourt

         

By Daniel McDonnell

Any football fan living within reasonable distance of Markets Field should be taking the last chance to watch Paddy McCourt grace a pitch at senior level.

He will retire following Friday's promotion/relegation play-off decider between Limerick and Finn Harps, with his penalty on Monday giving Harps a one goal lead at the halfway stage of the tie.

A happy ending would be a nice way to sign off a playing career which has had its ups and downs but, either way, the legacy will live on.

The debate over whether the 34-year old truly delivered on his ability would possibly be shaded by the 'No' camp. Time will make that less relevant though.

There's logic in Derry City's deci­sion to give McCourt a new job head­ing up their academy because he is the type of player that would inspire kids to go out and practice.

He is sometimes excluded when advocates of the League of Ireland extol the virtues of the alumni. For geographical reasons, Derry players can sometimes be out of sight and out of mind.

The fact he played for Northern Ire­land might explain it too; his name should be bracketed with the likes of Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Doyle and James McClean when high profile exports are listed.

Football is nothing without enter­tainers. Punters paying cash want to see individuals capa­ble of doing things that the ordinary player could only daydream about.

Typing his name into YouTube can be a time consuming endeavour as there are countless videos of the 'Derry Pele' at work at various stages of his career.

There's a brilliant package of his early years at Rochdale, an 18-year old youth with a tight haircut who commentators referred to as 'Patrick McCourt'.

Despite the contrast in physical appearance, he's easily recognisable with a trademark drop of the shoul­der and burst of pace as he embarked on a series of weaving runs that left defenders in a trance - he would glide past them like George Best in his pomp.

It made it all the more remarkable that he would end up back at Sham­rock Rovers in 2005. Homesickness was a factor. He would admit himself that an unprofessional lifestyle was a hindrance too.

Roddy Collins brought McCourt to Dublin, where he lit up the league while also enjoying a hectic social life with a team that would be relegated at the end of the season.

He had already departed with cash problems necessitating his sale to Derry. Still, he left his mark in a dark period for Rovers where they were playing out of Dalymount Park; the high­light was a match with Bray where he scored two amazing solo goals inside nine minutes. Bray defenders were left strewn on the pitch like slain soldiers in a battlefield. He was comically good.

McCourt thrived under Stephen Kenny, a perfect fit given his belief that players with his skillset should be allowed to express themselves.

Kenny once wrote McCourt a two page letter to tell him how good he could be if he made a couple of changes in his life. It was inevitable bigger fish would eventually come calling; Celtic pipped West Brom to his signature.

The story goes that the recruit was comically off the pace on his first day with his new club; Gordon Strachan set his players off on a long training run that exposed his weaknesses in the fitness department.

"He used to call it character running and he wasn't long finding out my character," McCourt joked recently.

He eventually got up to speed and became a cult hero without ever really assuming the responsibility of a senior player. For big matches, he often found himself as number twelve in the manager's plans.

After five years, he went south again to Barnsley and the rest of his career consisted of short spells with clubs peppered with sporadic moments of brilliance. He did get a proper run in the Northern Ireland side under Michael O'Neill, yet missed out on Euro 2016 because his wife Laura had suffered a brain tumour.

That was the trigger for a move home and, while there is little doubt that age and injuries have slowed him down slightly, Harps fans have witnessed some magic moments. They will happily take one more.

Perhaps he should have done more with his ability. But there are players who won more medals and earned more money that will be easier for­gotten. Mention McCourt's name to those who had the pleasure of watch­ing him in full flight and there's every chance the response will be a story told with a smile. Don't underestimate the impor­tance of that.

Belfast Telegraph

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