FORMER Celtic star, Paddy McCourt is offering young Derry footballers the chance to achieve their dream of becoming professional players as he prepares to open the doors to an elite football development academy in the city.
The ex-Northern Ireland international is teaming up with former Derry City assistant boss and current Club NI youth coach, Martin McCann to launch the exciting ‘Talent Development Academy’ at Magee University.
McCourt - one of the most naturally gifted players to come out of Ireland - is a UEFA ‘A’ licence holder and believes Derry desperately needs a centre for youngsters aspiring to become better footballers and those striving to make it in the professional game.
Alongside McCann’s considerable coaching expertise, McCourt believes they can offer the perfect formula to identify, nurture and develop young talent in the North West through a unique programme and environment which will eventually put members on a level playing field with academies across the water.
His experience working with McCann at Club NI in the North West during the past 12 months has allowed the former Celtic star to cut his teeth in coaching and he insists ‘there’s no better feeling’ than the satisfaction of watching young players learn and progress their skills.
It has certainly given him the appetite and passion to do more for youngsters in Derry, who he believes, are being left behind.
“It’s not frustration but I feel we could be doing more,” said McCourt who believes the new academy can reform youth football in the city and enhance the coaching options available to Derry kids.
“In fairness to all the junior clubs, they’re doing as good as they can in terms of being voluntary and they’re out two or three nights a week with two or three different age groups.
“I just feel the way things are developing outside of Derry, for us to stay on a level par, the young fellas need to be training more.
“In England, the Academies are bringing them in at eight and nine years of age and they’re getting coached right up to the age of 16 when a decision is made on whether they get a scholarship and then go on and get a professional deal.
“Here, there needs to be something to give our children, or cousins or nephews, a good chance to be on a level playing field and to have a chance of making a career whether it’s in the Irish League, the League of Ireland.
“Or if someone’s lucky enough to get across to England or Scotland, then they’ve been in an environment for five or six years previous to that with a good level of coaching three or four afternoons a week where it prepares them for what they’ll need going across the water. Or, even if it is playing in Ireland in one of the leagues here.
“I’ve been working with Marty for the last year with Club NI and we had those players for four or five hours a week, and the difference I saw in some of them from when I first went in and now, has just been unbelievable.
“If someone had told me how much you can bring someone on between these age groups, I wouldn’t have believed it. But some of the young boys have really come on because they’ve bought into it, they’re willing to work hard.”
I know for a fact there are children now going for trials at the age of 10! So that is the age they’re prepared to bring them in.Paddy McCourt
The Shantallow man secured his first cross-Channel move as a 17 year-old in 2000, moving from Foyle Harps to Rochdale where he eventually bagged himself a three year professional contract.
Known affectionately to Celtic fans, where he went on to become a cult hero at Parkhead, as the ‘Derry Pele’, McCourt also enjoyed spells at Barnsley, Brighton, Luton and Notts County and has witnessed, first hand, what it takes to make it at the top level of English football.
And he’s determined to provide Derry kids with a fighting chance of getting to the top by setting up an elite academy to rival those of professional clubs in England and Scotland.
“When I was going on trial I was probably at 13 or 14,” he explained. “I know for a fact there are children now going for trials at the age of 10! So that is the age they’re prepared to bring them in.
“Now they wouldn’t move them across at that age but they monitor them for the next three or four years and bring them over during holidays. But for the other three or four months that they’re here, they need to be doing as much training and getting as much coaching as they can and that’s what myself and Marty are now looking to offer.
“We’ve seen it ourselves,” continued the Finn Harps midfielder. “Marty for the last six or seven years, and myself for the last year, where players all over Europe who Marty has seen and players I’ve seen in Belfast and in England - the standards are just getting better and better every year. They’re bigger at 10, they’re stronger and more physical.”
Catering for years 2006, 2007 and 2008, the ‘Talent Development Academy’ will be run three times per week for a 10 week period each time at Magee University’s top class facilities at Duncreggan Road and players will receive elite level coaching from both McCourt and McCann.
Focusing on developing the technical, tactical, physical and psychological components of the game, McCourt explains the coaching offered will complement the work already being done at the players’ junior clubs as they attempt to help mould the professional players of the future, without ‘stepping on anyone’s toes’.
“We’ll be offering technical, tactical and physical testing and report cards after the 10 weeks with parents meetings. We have to do it as close to an English Academy as we can. Everything is reported on a database.
“We’re going to run this as a development academy in terms of developing players. These players will still go and play for Foyle Harps and Trojans and all the other junior clubs they’re involved with. Our goal is just to make these players better so when they go back to their clubs, they get the benefit of it. We’ve done everything humanly possible not to step on anyone’s toes.
“I think this needs to happen soon,” he stressed. “There’s nothing like this available in the area and that’s what we want to bring. It will be an individual development programme. We don’t want to steal players off other clubs, we’ve no interest in becoming a club. We just want to develop and give players the opportunity to be the best they can possibly be with an extra three or four days training a week.”
Ex-Derry City midfield playmaker and assistant boss McCann, has recently returned from coaching the Club NI squad at the Madrid Cup where he’s watched Barcelona’s teenage sensation, Xavi Simons up close and personal and he’s excited about bringing back to Derry some of the coaching techniques he’s learned along the way.
The Galliagh native is a UEFA Pro-Licence qualified coach and has a wealth of coaching experience on his extensive CV. He’s spent the last four years working with the best young talent in N. Ireland with Club NI but he’s passionate about developing youth coaching in his hometown which, he reckons is crying out for an academy which can potentially unearth the next big talent from the North West.
“I have 17 years working with Sports Development in Magee and have managed at Finn Harps and Derry City and been in Club NI where I have had the chance to travel Europe to see who’s doing what and why and now I just want to bring that back towhere I came from to ensure that wee ‘Joe Soap’ gets the same opportunities.
“Practice makes perfect. I’m only back on Monday from the Madrid Cup with teams like PSG, Liverpool and Real Madrid - we played all the top teams. It’s just about having high standards and continuous good habits. Practice, practice, practice,” he repeated.
“We’ll work on receiving skills, releasing skills, being in situations where we they have to work out solutions consistently. Everybody is different but we will work on the technical, tactical, physical and mental side of the game.
“Nowadays, if you want to succeed you need a lot of strings to your bow. This is what you need to do and this is all the different aspects you have to work on and components you need to have to be able to cope with the harsh football environment. It takes hard work and effort. The harder you work at it the better you get at it.”
Both McCann and McCourt have built up strong contacts at top clubs and academies in England and Scotland and they’re hoping members of their own academy will benefit as they attempt to provide a helping hand in getting them to the ‘shop window’ and pitting them against some of the best teams in Europe at future Invitational tournaments.
“I haven’t had the career Paddy has had but I’ve been in football my whole life,” said McCann. “I had the opportunity to coach and be the assistant manager at Derry City and played for them. I’m from Galliagh and Paddy’s from Shantallow and you just want people from those sorts of areas to do well. They might not go on and fulfil their dreams but what’s wrong with having that ambition?
“The talent is there and it’s about nurturing it. I have a lot of good contacts in Academies and so does Paddy at different clubs in England and there’s the opportunity of going to invitational tournaments and academies in the future, but we’ll walk before we can run. But this is what we want, to put young players in the shop window and showcase players.”
There will be limited spaces on the first Academy course which is set to begin on October 16th next with coaching sessions scheduled for Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6pm at Magee University playing pitches, Duncreggan Road.
“We want a certain level of competence on the pitch and that’s where it’s going to be hard at the start but we’ll get it to where we want it eventually,” explained McCann. “As long as they can handle the ball and want to get better.”
“You don’t have to be at any certain level to come into the academy but you have to want to come down to get better and willing to work hard,” echoed McCourt. “It’s not the place to come down just for a kick-about with your mates, you have to want to improve and that’s what we’ll be looking for the whole time.
“It’s not going to be perfect at the start and it’s going to take a lot of patience from us as coaches too but once we have the first couple of months out of the way and so many sessions they do start to take it in. You start seeing them develop and for us, there’s no better feeling,” added the former Celtic man.
Long Term Project
Do they envisage the Academy being a long term project or simply a quick fix?
“It can’t be something we just do for a year because that would be defeating the purpose,” answered McCourt. “This has to be a talent development academy. I’ve been asked to do almost every job in football since I’ve come back, scouting, coaching, managing, assistant managing but this is something I want to do.
“When I was doing my badges I was doing it with the view of getting an assistant manager’s job or a manager’s job with a senior team but since I went in with Marty to Club NI I’ve really enjoyed watching the young players develop and watch them learn.
“That’s something I would love to see happening closer to home. There’s an opportunity now for everyone to come but there will be limited places. Over time we’d like to grow it but for now we can only take so many so it will be a work in progress.”
“People in Derry have been asking me for years about something like this,” added McCann. “It seems like a natural step for me now. It’s something I haven’t done before and I think there’s a need for it and I want to do it. I’m 36 now coming and I’ve done most things I’ve wanted to do but this is something I’m passionate about.”
Welcoming the initiative, Ulster University Provost, Malachy O’Neill said he was delighted with the project.
“The Ulster University is always looking to back new and exciting projects which promote both excellence in sport as well as general health and well being” he added.
To register your interest in the Talent Development Academy email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 07513148117.