Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Ryan Byrne/INPHO Paddy McCourt of Finn Harps is set to retire from football.
# last stand
'When he has the ball, his feet are like glue. They don't call him the Derry Pele for nothing'
Paddy McCourt will play two crucial matches for Finn Harps this week before retiring.

OF ALL THE footballers who have graced the League of Ireland in recent years, few can claim to have been as naturally gifted as Paddy McCourt.

Affectionately known as ‘The Derry Pele,’ injury permitting, he will play his final two games this week, as Finn Harps host Limerick in a promotion-relegation play-off this evening, before the second leg at Markets Field on Friday.

McCourt is one of a number of Harps players doubtful for tonight’s game, with Gareth Harkin, Mark Timlin, Nathan Boyle and Mark Coyle also carrying knocks.

The 34-year-old is set to retire from football and take on a new role as head of youth structures at Derry City, but before joining the Candystripes, he is hoping to help his current side regain promotion to the Premier Division at the first attempt.

The Donegal club, who are unbeaten in the league since losing to UCD last June, finished runners-up in this year’s First Division and have already overcome Drogheda in a play-off over two legs.

They now face a Limerick side who have had far more time to prepare for this game, having known their fate for a considerable period, after their ninth-place finish in the 2018 Premier Division was confirmed weeks ago.

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In contrast with in-form Harps, Tommy Barrett’s side have endured a torrid campaign, with financial problems as well as consistently poor results miring their season.

And one player well capable of heaping more misery on the Shannonsiders is McCourt, who was inspirational against Drogheda at Finn Park 10 days ago.

“The man’s a legend,” Finn Harps captain Ciaran Coll tells The42. “When he has the ball, his feet are like glue. They don’t call him the Derry Pele for nothing.

“The experience he has and how he can help you around the pitch, he’s different class, so he is. Hopefully he can do a bit of magic for us [tonight].

“He wants to finish on a high and hopefully get the lads up into the Premier Division again.”

RTÉ Sport / YouTube

McCourt initially caught the eye at underage level playing locally for Foyle Harps, before in 2000 signing with Rochdale, then in the English fourth-tier, at the age of 17.

Since then, his career has had several peaks and troughs. At his height, McCourt was being linked with several Premier League clubs, but the out-of-favour star returned to Ireland in the mid-2000s, enjoying successful spells at Shamrock Rovers and Derry City.

After excelling for the Candystripes, helping them win the FAI Cup in 2006, the League of Ireland club accepted offers from West Brom, who had just been promoted to the Premier League, and Celtic, with McCourt choosing to join the latter.

Barnsley FC / YouTube

The Derry native was not always a regular starter for the Scottish side, though his form increasingly saw him pick up caps with Northern Ireland at international level, while the winger was even linked with a surprise move to Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool in 2011.

McCourt won two Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup while at Celtic, featuring 66 times in total and acquiring cult-hero status, though he continually struggled to establish himself as a first-team regular, eventually leaving Parkhead after five years to join Championship outfit Barnsley in 2013. 

Ex-Celtic boss Gordon Strachan later claimed the club made a mistake letting McCourt leave. Speaking to reporters prior to a Scotland-Northern Ireland friendly in 2016, he said: 

Paddy is as gifted a footballer as I have ever seen. Some players can see a pass, but not dribble. Others can dribble, but not see a pass. Paddy can do both. And, I have got to say, watching Paddy is one of the best things in football.

“I like him as a fellow, as well. And I’ve known about him almost all of his career because my son, Craig, played with him at Rochdale when he first came over from Ireland.”

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Current Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny, who managed McCourt at Derry, also thinks highly of the star, while suggesting Patrick McEleney as his heir apparent.

After a year with Barnsley, McCourt also had short stints at Brighton, Notts County (on loan), Luton and Glenavon, before joining Harps in 2017.

Niall Conway / YouTube

And despite all the great memories he has created over the course of an unforgettable career, as he prepares to hang up his boots this week, the veteran midfielder will certainly bow out with a few regrets.

“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,” he said in an interview at Ulster University earlier this year.

“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 1pm 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.”

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