It will only be in time that the true worth of Paddy McCourt’s two seasons and 51 appearances for Finn Harps will be known – but his status should never be in doubt.
McCourt, now 34, has missed large swathes due to injury and has never been fully fit during that time.
Picture: Paddy McCourt in action for Finn Harps. Picture by North West News Pix
And yet the former Celtic winger’s contribution will be a lasting one due to the imprint made on supporters.
Sometimes instant judgement isn’t truly reflective, but McCourt – who will make his last Harps appearance tonight in the second leg of the promotion-relegation play-off against Limerick at the Markets Field – has made safe a place in the hearts and minds of those of us who have been transfixed at times in his mesmeric presence at Finn Park.
It was his manager at Celtic, Gordon Strachan, who said ’watching Paddy is one of the best things in football’.
There were sceptics when McCourt signed for Harps on the eve of the 2017 season after a spell at Glenavon in the Irish League didn’t work out for the Derryman.
Those who know him best couldn’t believe the luck that McCourt was rocking up to Harps.
“What a player to have in,” says Kevin McHugh, who retired just a few months before Harps captured McCourt. McHugh played alongside McCourt at Derry City and saw first-hand the genius.
“Talent-wise, I’ve never played with or against anyone who comes close to that natural ability,” the Killea man said.
“He can just skip past players, left and right, and the vision he has. Not many players in the country are on the same wavelength. He was probably very frustrated when he played with us. he was a couple of steps ahead of us all the time.”
McCourt’s greatest offering to Finn Park were the memories.
Impressions last forever.
Finn Park was the mecca and Speak was God as far as the ten-year-old version of this writer was concerned.
‘Speakie’ was already a bona fide legend in Irish football by the time he arrived at Finn Harps from Ballymena United in 1994. In a glorious spell at Harps, including winning promotion in 1996, making it to an FAI Cup final in 1999 and an FAI Cup semi-final in 1998, Speak scored 81 goals in the blue and white.
The games and the goals from Speak’s tenure have stuck even in the mind of a cynical writer, 14 years after he arrived at Finn Park just as this impressionable youngster was taking an interest from the crowd.
Like Speak before him, McCourt, in aiding Harps to the play-offs – and possible a return to the Premier Division – may just have ensured that the kids of today, some of whom will be bundled into cars to head for Limerick today, will be hooked on Harps.
It is why it has been a shame that McCourt hasn’t been used more for promotional purposes, though his shy nature means he’d be a reluctant ‘poster boy’.
Even his unveiling as a Harps player, which had been rumoured since he’d appeared in a pre-season friendly against Cabinteely, was low-key.
The ‘Derry Pele’ was a prized addition.
During a spell at Celtic, he won two Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup.
Strachan has always insisted that Celtic erred in allowing McCourt to leave.
Strachan 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.”
After a year at Barnsley, McCourt spent some time at Brighton, Notts County and Luton before returning home. Capped 18 times for Northern Ireland, he missed out on Euro 2016 having pulled out of the panel as his wife took ill. It was during that trying time that he returned to live in the north west.
By that stage, his time in the professional game had ended, before it had a chance to properly begin.
“Water finds its level and paddy found his level at Celtic…or even further,” McHugh says,
“If he had pushed himself more or looked after himself more he could have gone even higher.”
There will be as many as 14 Finn Harps players who will feature at the Markets Field tonight.
Some of them will become specks in the memory – but not McCourt.
Those flashes of brilliance and the moments of magic will live long in the memory. Those youngsters lucky enough to watch him from the terraces and who try to imitate the weaves, the shimmies and the dummies will ensure his legacy is carried.
Think of the goals: the slalom against Sligo Rovers; that mazy dribble against Cabinteely, the free kick against Shamrock Rovers.
Or the 30-minute cameo that sealed a win over Drogheda United in March of this year.
What about that delicious pass, which only he could either have attempted or executed, for a goal by Sean Houston against Bohemians last summer?
It may yet turn out that his penalty on Monday night, should it help win promotion, becomes one of those iconic Harps moments.
It is for those reasons that McCourt will always be remembered around Finn Park and why getting two seasons out of him at Finn Park will go down as one of Ollie Horgan’s best pieces of business, regardless of what follows. That he stayed put at Harps after relegation in 2017 said a lot about his character.
There can be no greater test of greatness than how one is remembered by others.
Speak is still revered around Finn Park and those of who saw him will always talk in only glowing terms about the Sion Mills postman.
Even if he is returning to Derry City – to take up a new role as their Head of Academy – after he hangs up the Harps number 20 shirt tonight, McCourt’s highlights reel alone ensures that his own place in Harps history is already sealed.Tags: