It’s a cold Tuesday night in September as the Finn Harps take on Sligo Rovers. The ground is worn and muddy as two of the League of Ireland’s relegation candidates take to the field. Less than 2,000 have braved the cold to shiver in the stands. It is the kind of game only the real faithful turn up for, the masochists willing to endure the frost to watch an hour and a half of the beautiful game’s uglier side.
No one is expecting the football to flow freely or the night to be packed with excitement. Grinding out a vital point will be considered a successful night’s work.
Come the 81st minute, the Harps score a goal that briefly pulls them level, before a late Rovers winner undoes it. The next morning, that goal will be on the home page of BBC Sport’s website.
A goal that didn’t matter in a game nearly no one was watching, somehow attracting international attention. On the surface, it seems completely unreasonable. Two simple words and, to those that recognise them, it suddenly makes perfect sense.
Over the past decade, the scruffy winger has popped up in the middle of grubby, inglorious encounters across Ireland, Scotland and England to explode expectations. One moment a match is a rugged maelstrom of hard tackles and hoofed clearances, the rough and tumble scrum of British football’s less elegant leagues. It’s business as usual for the fans, the grim weekend ritual that repeats itself throughout the season. And then Paddy gets the ball.
At Finn Park on that September night, the mop-haired Irishman picked up possession around the edge of the centre circle and began bearing down on the opposition. Two red shirts move in to suffocate his space and he springs their trap with a twist of the hips, skipping into the space between them that wasn’t there. He dashes on, momentum building, each touch bringing another defender flying towards him, each one left sprawling in his wake. Three, four and five fail to derail him as he dances to within touching distance of the left post and rolls the ball casually across the goalkeeper and into the bottom right corner.
It is pure footballing magic, a lone figure ghosting his way through an entire team like it was the easiest thing in the world. A quick YouTube search reveals that, for Paddy McCourt, it often has been.
The gawky, grinning midfielder earned the moniker ‘The Derry Pele’ for his capacity to score these kind of slaloming goals with something approaching regularity. In 2008, rave reviews from Ireland brought him to his boyhood heroes Celtic where he would spend the next five years, amassing some 88 performances and scoring ten goals, most of which were Goal of the Season contenders. He appeared in a handful of European nights, sauntering on to the Champions League’s grand stage and briefly looking like he might belong there.
He swaggered into the Old Firm cauldron and back out again in one piece. He won two league titles and two cups. He found his way back into the Northern Ireland squad after a seven-year absence, scoring one of the country’s greatest ever goals in a game against the Faroe Islands by rounding out one of his trademark runs with a delicately floated chip over the helpless keeper.
And yet, at best, McCourt is remembered by both club and country as a cult hero. At worst, he isn’t remembered at all.
What his sparkling highlights reels hide is the fact that the time in between these magical moments was spent either unfit on the bench or under-performing on the park. His natural talent was never backed by the discipline or commitment it takes to succeed as a professional athlete. Too much time in the bar, too little on the training ground: even at the height of his powers, McCourt’s managers bemoaned his inability to see out a full 90 minutes, his disinterest in tracking back. He was a “lightweight”, a “luxury” who teams could only afford to field when they were either taking on the likes of Falkirk and the Faroes, or with a system designed to compensate for his shortcomings (his most impressive Old Firm showing saw him floating freely in a Number Ten role in front of seven defensive-minded players).
Even during his best years in Glasgow, McCourt was regarded as only the second-best tricky Irish winger at the club. For the most part, he played when Aiden McGeady was unavailable.
But he is fondly remembered by many simply because, when he was interested and in form, he seemed almost superhuman. He scored the goals you dreamed of as a kid, gliding past entire teams with the lackadaisical poise of someone who could perform just as well with a champagne flute in one hand and a cigar in the other. As part of a gritty Gordon Strachan team that prided heart, grit and graft over all else, McCourt injected style and wonder into a team that, while incredibly successful, was often workmanlike.
For fans who grew up in the nineties, the only really correct answer to “Who is your favourite Celtic player?” is Henrik Larsson. The diminutive Swede stands head and shoulders above everyone else, a god from the olden times in which a Scottish team could pay their star player as well as anyone in Britain. As a Scotsman with a European Cup medal, Paul Lambert might also pass as an acceptable answer. Someone like Shunsuke Nakamura might even work as a hipster pick. He too was an elegant midfield player with unrivalled technical ability but a lack of muscle. He too disappeared from many games, but the difference was that his big moments won Old Firm games and lit up Champions League nights.
No one is supposed to answer Paddy McCourt. But I often do.
For clarification: I would never argue that he was the ‘best’ player to don the hoops during my lifetime. He wasn’t even the best player in the Celtic team he played in. And I could never really disagree with anyone looking to write him off as a passing oddity. But he is still my most honest answer.
Football analysts today are willing and able to break the game down to an almost molecular level. Every player’s every movement is tracked and tallied, every game can be distilled into success rate percentages and per-minute achievements. Nothing occurs on the pitch that cannot be rigorously analysed, rolled into a larger trend and written into a hypothesis. The science of the sport has never been better understood, the subject has never been more ruthlessly scrutinised.
It’s fitting that the titans of this era are Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo: two men whose natural ability alone would have made them legends in their time but who have worked tirelessly over the years to become as efficient as they are dazzling. Every week they seem to break a new goalscoring record, converting their gifts into football currency with relentless success. They delight the fans with trickery while playing the numbers game better than anyone else, operating in a way that is both beautiful and deadly.
Paddy McCourt was not like them. Even ignoring the fact that their dizzying runs took them gliding past the greatest players in the world rather than the best Inverness Caley Thistle could afford, and that they occupy the same footballing realm as the original Pele rather than his Derry counterpart: even ignoring all that, there is a difference in their style and strategy which marks them apart. They score 50 goals a season because every second they spend on the pitch is devoted to winning the game. Their considerable powers are directed towards victory with total economy and unfailing precision. Every move they make is necessary and purposeful.
If McCourt was to be compared to a Ballon d’Or winner – and, technically, there is no reason he can’t be – it would be Ronaldinho. The Brazilian trickster god was the greatest force in football during the years in which I began to follow the sport seriously. My earliest memory of him is his famous free kick against England in the 2002 World Cup. Spotting David Seaman off his line as he prepared to take a set piece from way out on the right wing, he decided he could beat him.
It was an objectively bad decision. He was too far out to reasonably think he could score. It would be a waste of a free-kick in a dangerous position. The score was tied at 1-1. It was the World Cup. He had, in Ronaldo and Rivaldo, two of the greatest centre forwards in history waiting in the box for his delivery. Recognising all of this, he chose to shoot anyway, and made World Cup history.
This playful, maverick quality was the heart of Ronaldinho’s style. He grinned through games, mockingly bopping the ball back and forth over the head of defenders and elastico-flicking it between their legs. He played with the street soccer extravagance of someone interested as much in seeing what he can make the ball do as in winning the game. He played like an artist, committed more to creating something beautiful than performing effectively. His game was pure expressionism.
Throughout his career, he would look up, spy the ‘right’ choice, grin and barrel off in whatever direction he felt like.
McCourt’s abilities were never near enough to bring him close to the footballing pantheon which Ronaldinho ascended to. Even if he had developed the work ethic to match his technical gifts, there is little to suggest he would ever have risen much higher than the top of the SPL. In truth, he failed to even carve a lasting impression into Celtic’s own official records. But he played with the same smiling recklessness, as the mad geniuses like Ronaldinho. He was a player who emphasised the ‘play’ above all else.
Analysts and managers alike often seem to be seeking a mathematical solution for the beautiful game, a Moneyball approach that aims to achieve a kind of mechanical perfection. Players like McCourt are the ghost in the machine, the erratic artist’s temperament that refuse hard data in favour of intuition and inspiration. They throw a spanner into the works and delight in the chaos that unfolds for a few brief minutes before normal service is resumed.
As part of an often dourly effective Celtic side, he shone with a brightness that could light up the most dreich afternoons.