He was the Derry Pele, the man with the twinkle toes and the seemingly indestructible liver.
Paddy McCourt was signed by Gordon Strachan after having had spells with Rochdale, failing to impress Motherwell after a two week trial, Shamrock Rovers and Derry City (where his brother was a director). Not exactly a sparkling CV but the word from Ireland was that this guy was a major talent if he applied his mind to it. The footage on You Tube (admittedly never a foolproof test) suggested a player of some ability, and of course there was the odd fact that while with Shamrock Rovers he had three goals in contention for goal of the season in one year.
But on his arrival at Celtic Park he disappeared from view. Apparently his level of fitness was closer to pub league than SPL.
His debut in the Hoops was as a sub in a 4-2 win over Hibs but that was one of only 5 appearances we got off him that season (all from the bench).
The following season wasn’t a whole lot better under Mowbray. 14 run outs, although he did manage 3 goals, including an incredible solo run and chip again Falkirk. For the most part he was the star of the reserve team, which is probably the ultimate in being damned with faint praise.
The arrival of Neil Lennon changed how Paddy was used and the way the support viewed him. During season 2010-11 he made 31 appearances, scoring 7 goals. He was a key player in certain games and a couple of his goals will be long remembered: as a sub against Hearts he took on and left for dead 3 defenders before deftly lifting the ball over the diving keeper.
It was a goal that had class stamped all over it and the support responded warmly to the way he would always look to take on players not with pace but with guile and sleight of foot. Those were the trademarks of his finest goal, but it is one that is all but forgotten because it arrived in the game that, for my money, cost us the league – the game against Inverness. Not the one in April, the one in November, where we were 2-0 up and could only draw. The loss of those points wound up being crucial because you can always drop points in the highlands – the grounds there are tough – but when Celtic are 2-0 up at home with only about 20 minutes to go 3 points must be delivered, it’s that simple.
We were already a goal up when the ball arrived at Paddy’s feet about 25 yards out. He beat one man with a perfect switch of feet, dummied his way past another before taking the keeper out by feigning to shoot and then casually walking round him to roll the ball into an empty net. A joy of a goal and actually our 600th in the SPL, but one lost in the disappointment of such a poor result.
Even with that, the game that will live longest in his memory, the one he will relive the most, came two months later at Ibrox.
The common wisdom was that we were to be slaughtered. Celtic’s form had been shaky and the previous game had seen us narrowly beat Motherwell 1-0 only thanks to a deflected shot from Paddy. Hooper was injured, Stokes was out and Scott Brown had got himself sent off in the last minutes against Motherwell meaning he couldn’t face Rangers (1872-2012 RIP) either. The makeshift nature of the Celtic line-up can probably be best summed up by saying that up front we had Samaras and Paddy and up until that point of the season Paddy had probably gathered more game time than Sammy.
The first half was a bit of a siege. Samaras was running a lot but not seeing much of the ball. Paddy was being nullified by the sheer pace of the game, although he did produce one reverse pass that came very close to opening them up.
At half time the TV pundit opinion was that it was a matter of time until a Rangers (1872-2012 RIP) goal arrived. But during that halftime Lenny told McCourt to move closer to Sammy and work as a pair.
Within 5 minutes of the second half Paddy had shot just wide from a Sammy knockdown. Truth be told he should have done a lot better, but it mattered not, he became a presence in the game, not just as an attacking force and once Sammy had done his thing and we had established a 2-0 lead there was Paddy tackling on the right wing, chasing back and generally defying the wisdom that said he couldn’t last 90 minutes (although it could be argued that his first half efforts meant he hadn’t really put in a full 90).
That game was probably the high point of his time at Celtic Park.
He appeared as a sub in the cup final that May and would have had a clear view of goal if it hadn’t been for Stokes being a greedy sod. He had scored the final league goal of that season in a 4-0 win over Motherwell. But that was his last goal for us, despite making over 30 appearances in the following two seasons.
His last two seasons at Celtic were tales mainly of sub appearances. Very rarely was he started. His role was almost that of a kicker in American football, introduced only when the occasion called for it. With the increased role for Forrest and the arrival of Commons, together with the superior goal threat that these players carried, it was easy to see why.
One of the knock on effects of this was been the introduction of a modified Billy Ray Cyrus song in his honour. The punk wars were not fought for that kind of rubbish!
But the song acknowledged the fact that he was surplus to requirements. His main contribution in his final season was possibly as a sub at Tannadice in the autumn. He gave up the possession that led directly to their equaliser.
He had become the luxury player that we simply could not afford. When it became obvious that his days were numbered my only concern was that he didn’t move to another SPL club. We all knew what he could do when properly motivated and on his day no defence could stop him. The last thing we needed was that running at our back four.
Pat McCourt was probably the most naturally gifted player we’ve had the club since Lubo, capable of turning an entire defence with one pass, taking a defender out of the game with one perfect first touch and seeing all the angles of the pitch, all the possibilities before anyone else.
The downside was always the murmurings about his lifestyle. Put bluntly, for the talent he possessed he should have been playing at SPL level for a hell of a lot longer and possibly at an even higher level.
His final appearance was in the 2013 cup final – as a sub obviously – but the esteem that his teammates had for him can be gauged by the fact that as he came on he was given the captain’s armband. He signed off his Celtic career as captain of the team that won the cup. Cool.
He left with 2 SPL winners medals and 2 Scottish Cup winners badges.
Yes Paddy, your name is up there, in song and memories, Hail Hail.