CELTIC LEGEND, Paddy McCourt feared silly mistakes he made during his early career had cost him the chance of fulfilling his childhood dream of scoring a goal at Parkhead.
The Shantallow man, known affectionately to Celtic fans as the ‘Derry Pele’, is set to begin his 17th season as a professional footballer at the age of 34 with Finn Harps this weekend.
And in an honest, in-depth question and answer session at University Ulster recently, McCourt opened up about the obstacles he’s had to overcome, how he bounced back from mistakes and the sacrifices he’s made in order to make it at the top of the game.
Tackling issues on lifestyle, sports science and his plans for when he hangs up his boots during an, at times, emotional interview at the Magee Campus in Derry as part of the N. Ireland Science Festival, McCourt recounts how he failed to make the grade at Rochdale as a teenager and how he rebuilt his career in the League of Ireland before starring for Celtic and Northern Ireland.
The gifted winger won two SPL titles (2011/12 and 2012/13), two Scottish Cups (2011 and 2013), scoring 10 goals in 88 appearances with Celtic during a five year career in Glasgow during which he became a cult hero with supporters.
McCourt signed for the Hoops from Derry City in 2008 for a £200,000 fee and forced his way into the first team during the 2009/10 season, netting his first goal - a typically outrageous individual effort - in the League Cup against Falkirk on September 2009 when he skipped past five defenders before chipping the goalkeeper.
However, when asked to recall his most memorable moment in his career he made no hesitation when replying it was his first goal at Parkhead in a 3-0 win over Hearts in September 11th, 2010 which realised a lifetime ambition.
“The one highlight of my career, and it’s not winning a trophy, but scoring my first goal at Celtic Park,” he said. “And the reason for that is I actually had dreams of scoring at Celtic Park. I felt I had let that go when I had that set-back at Rochdale,” added McCourt. “Self-doubt creeps in but I remember the night. It was Hearts at home and it was a very proud moment.
“It might never have happened if I hadn’t made the sacrifices I made and I have a lot of people to thank for that.”
That was all during McCourt’s second spell across Channel when so much had changed from the period in which he first made the move to England from junior club, Foyle Harps, signing for Third Division club, Rochdale as a 17 year-old in 2000.
I don’t think anything I do will fill the void of playing football. It’s the best thing in the world for me. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I think about is football and when I go to bed at night.Paddy McCourt
While he admits he didn’t have any trouble playing at that level, it was the copious amounts of free time, a new-found freedom, playboy lifestyle and the temptation of socialising in the local bars which he struggled to balance with a professional football career. And the Derry man admits he was not ready for that experience.
“When I look back now, 18 years later, I know I was nowhere near ready for it and the events that transpired in the next couple of years proved that. It’s very hard to know the situation you’re going into when you’re not prepared for it.
“I was coming from Foyle Harps, playing junior football and then going into a professional environment. It wasn’t that big of a jump in terms of what you did differently because Rochdale was a small club and you went in and trained and were home for 1 p.m. living in digs and I didn’t drive at the time.
“You had so much spare time on your hands and as a young lad, you do daft stuff and make mistakes and I admit I made plenty. It was basic stuff like going out too much and not eating the right food. That’s why, when I came home, I learned what it takes to become a proper athlete because you need to live a clean lifestyle to make it as a footballer and I wish I knew back then what I know now.”
McCourt claims it was his misguided lifestyle choices, and the lack of information about the pitfalls involved, which led to his eventual release from the club and return to the League of Ireland with Shamrock Rovers where he spent the next six months.
Those bad habits picked up at Rochdale didn’t exactly go away during his time in Tallaght and it wasn’t until he linked up with Stephen Kenny at his hometown club, Derry City, in 2005 that he finally got his career back on track and took better care of his off-field activities.
This stage of his career football coincided with football evolving to place more emphasis on sports science and become more technological in its analysis. It was then the realisation hit home.
“It was a setback,” he continued. “Initially when I was at Rochdale I did quite well and broke into the first team quite early but when I came back I took stock. I made mistakes and wasn’t really living my life to be a professional footballer.
“I had six months with Shamrock Rovers where I didn’t make many changes to my lifestyle but I was doing quite well on the pitch. I came back to Derry where I had a good man guiding me in Stephen Kenny who was really into promoting youth players.
“There was a bit of sports science starting to come in at Derry in terms of what to do leading up to a game, and then your recovery sessions on a Saturday morning after a game. It was tiny, basic stuff but it started to kick in then and that helped me because I was getting information I didn’t have before. It was up to yourself to buy into it and I started to buy into it a bit more and started to see the benefit.”
Between 2005 and 2008 McCourt won an FAI Cup, three League Cups and helped guide Derry to a runners-up spot in the league (2005) and a remarkable UEFA Cup run in 2006 before Celtic came calling.
With his mind focused and his confidence restored, McCourt says he was much better prepared for a second shot across the water.
“I was much better prepared but when you go to a club of that magnitude you need to be. I was very fortunate to get the second chance because not a lot of people do. I don’t know the exact figure but the percentage of people who come back and get back across again, is pretty low.”
Sammy McIlroy handed McCourt his first international cap for Northern Ireland in 2002 and he won 18 caps before his 14 year association came to an end in 2016 after he opted out of the Euro ‘16 squad heading to France due to his wife, Laura’s battle with illness.
In an interesting insight into how preparation for games changed while in the international set-up, McCourt recalls how he would be persuaded to hit the town on nights leading up to a game and how the N. Ireland national team ‘wasn’t a great place’ for an impressionable 18 year-old.
“When I first went in to Northern Ireland it probably wasn’t a great place for an 18 year-old who liked a night out because you’re in with 28-year-olds who loved a night out and were always encouraging you to come with them.”
Of course that mentality changed over time and, just like at Celtic, players could no longer get away with failing to look after their bodies.
“It was just a progression. But from there (2002) to where it is now is just amazing. I was in the international set-up right up until last year and it’s like night and day. There’s no going out, there’s no drinking before a game. It’s just complete and utter concentration on the game.”
After spells with Barnsley, Brighton, Notts County and Luton, McCourt returned home and joined Glenavon part-time in the Irish League before joining Finn Harps last year.
He acknowledges his playing career is nearing an end but he’s keen to make the transition from player to coach and is thriving in his role as an elite coach at the newly established ‘Talent and Development Academy’, co-founded by his good friend and ex-Derry City teammate, Martin McCann.
While he claims the buzz he gets from coaching will never match the feeling he gets when he crosses the white line as a player, he hopes to make a real difference in the lives and careers of Derry’s young football hopefuls.
“I don’t think anything I do will fill the void of playing football. It’s the best thing in the world for me. When I wake up in the morning the first thing I think about is football and when I go to bed at night. If I’m not playing it, I’m watching it and thinking about it.
“I’ll still be involved in football and I love what I’m doing. When I first came back it took me about a year to decide what I wanted to do. I was still playing part-time. Myself and Marty spoke at length about setting the Academy up, something which is needed in Derry. It’s six months since we first decided to set it up and I’m absolutely loving it. Being honest, you’re never going to recreate the buzz of playing. It’s like when I was a player I tried to become the best and hopefully we’ll see where that takes me as a coach now.”