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Tuesday, 10th Dec 2019 12:09 by AtThePeake

Looking back on one of the most talented footballers ever seen at Spotland - one Patrick James McCourt.

Spotland Stadium, home of Rochdale AFC, is not the most glamorous place to watch football in the world. It’s not even the most glamorous place to watch football in Greater Manchester. For a record-breaking amount of years, the club remained stuck in the basement division, occasionally having to apply for re-election to remain in the Football League after finishing bottom of the pile. Few stars had graced the Spotland pitch with their presence and the weight of a lack of success of any kind hung heavy in the air amidst scores of relegation battles and play-off near misses in the late 90s and early 00’s.

But when a stick-thin Northern Irish kid with Copa Mundials and terrible acne was handed a three year contract by new manager John Hollins in 2001, after making just one league appearance under previous boss Steve Parkin, we knew something was afoot. We only gave key players two year deals at the time, this kid must be special.

And special he was. On the clumpy pitches of the fourth tier, against the overly physical defenders that the game has wilfully left behind, Patrick James McCourt weaved his magic time and time again. Every first touch killed the ball stone dead. He'd nudge it out of his feet and raise his head, willing the terrified full-back towards him and 2,000 or so hardy souls would collectively draw their breath. Seconds later, he'd be galloping away, bearing down on goal, and you'd be left turning to the stranger next to you and exclaiming "how did he do that?”

It felt like a matter of time until he was striding out at Old Trafford or Anfield or somewhere. We knew we weren’t worthy of this little genius. We paid our money to see Division Three football, we expected the ball in the air for roughly three quarters of the playing time over the heads of largely untalented lower league journeymen and yet here he was, doing things no Division Three Footballer should be able to do. I was nine years old and I already knew here was a player who would be written into the annals of the club’s history. Here was the kind of player I would one day tell my grandkids about.

Under Hollins, Dale’s promotion push in the 2001/2002 season was faltering somewhat. Parkin had left the club in the automatic promotion spots, taking captain Gary Jones with him (who would later return to Rochdale and become the club’s record appearance holder) and the new boss at first, seemingly struggling to motivate a side that possessed a few star turns but lacked consistency and in the seven games following Parkin’s departure, won only once.

Waiting in the wings, McCourt’s ability to change a game was quickly realised by Hollins and before long, he was a regular in the starting line-up and linking up excellently with another youngster, Kevin Townson. The pace and penalty-box instincts of the Liverpudlian striker coupled with the skill and ingenuity of McCourt proved too much for many a Division Three defender in those coming months and despite any notions of an automatic promotion push faltering, there were moments of real fun in the remainder of that season. At the heart of it all was this Derry boy with a twinkle in his eye and natural ability the likes of which frankly, had not been seen before at Spotland.

Most of Paddy’s best moments in a Rochdale shirt came in the remainder of the 2001/2002 season. He scored only four goals in the campaign, but each were vitally important, two winners, one equaliser and a goal against Hull City that sparked a pivotal comeback in the penultimate home game of the season. He was among the assists too, including for Townson in that comeback fixture versus the Tigers and another incredible defence-splitting pass to set ‘Super Kev’ up to finish sublimely versus York City.

The highlight of it all though was surely his sublime winner against Halifax. Despite being in different counties, there’s no love lost between The Shaymen and the Dale and in a scruffy, hard-fought game on a quagmire of a pitch, it seemed Hollins and his side were about to drop two vital points in the promotion push as the game was poised at 1-1 going into injury-time. Step forward Paddy. Picking the ball up on the half-way line in the dying seconds of the game, the 18 year old skipped past several Town defenders in advancing towards the goal. With the ball starting to run away from him, he managed to slip a pass into Townson on the edge of the box, who returned the favour only to see the ball skip up off the dreadful surface. It seemed the move had broken down. But then, emerging through the static defenders like the blinding beam of sunlight through the clouds of a dreary northern day, Paddy brought the ball down with his trademark coolness and slotted it past Barry Richardson in the goal to send the travelling fans behind the goal into the kind of limbs-akimbo frenzy that goes down in folklore.

But it wasn’t the goals or the assists that made fans warm to him so quickly. It was the way he dribbled past players like they weren’t there. The way he would shift his feet so quickly to ghost past them. The way that when he set off running, once he beat the first man, you just knew he would beat the second, and the third. Sometimes, after an irksome defender had given him a bit of an old-fashioned boot to the shin, you’d see him target the player for ultimate humiliation next time he got the ball, Paddy would turn the player inside out, stop the ball dead, go back and beat them again, just to really rub it in. Much like his entire career, it may not have been professional, but my word it was entertaining.

It seemed in those first few months that McCourt could do no wrong. He even won his first full international cap for Northern Ireland, against Spain, in April 2002 - just four months after his 18th birthday. The rumour mill was of course always in full effect and the Main Stand at any home fixture seemed to be packed to the rafters with scouts from bigger clubs taking a look at both McCourt and Townson with Preston reportedly having a bid of £1m for the duo turned down. Admittedly this seems unlikely now given that future Premier League stars like Grant Holt, Rickie Lambert and Glenn Murray would later be sold by the club for much smaller fees.

In the end, the play-off dream died at Spotland. After a thrilling 2-2 draw with Rushden and Diamonds, the boys in Blue had led the second leg 1-0 after a shocking error by the Diamonds keeper Billy Turley, before goals from Jamaican internationals Onandi Lowe and Paul Hall sent the Northamptonshire outfit to the Millennium Stadium. Remarkably, Dale managed to keep hold of both McCourt and Townson, but lost manager John Hollins after a contractual row in the summer.

His replacement, Paul Simpson, wasn’t really able to get the best out of the side the following year. Most frustratingly of all, Simpson’s favoured position was on the left of midfield, McCourt’s natural spot, and that was also the position that marquee summer signing Lee Hodges was best known for occupying. Player and manager reportedly clashed off the pitch and Paddy’s confidence was clearly knocked as he was in and out of the team over the course of the season and absent altogether for an entertaining cup run that included wins over Division One outfits Coventry City and Preston North End lighting up an otherwise drab season.

Still, there were moments of genius at times. That sparkle was still there when he got on the ball and every fan wholeheartedly wanted Paddy back at his best. For some, the picture of a seemingly drunk McCourt taken by a Rochdale Observer photographer in a local nightclub, coupled with the many hazily-told stories of seeing him frequenting the town centre’s drinking establishments were proof that he didn’t have mentality to go and play at a higher level but to others it just confirmed his status as a likeable, relatable young lad with a serious talent. The truth was probably somewhere between the two.

After a disappointing 19th placed finish, Simpson was shown the door and replaced by Alan Buckley, but the former Grimsby boss had similar problems trying to get McCourt to knuckle down in the following campaign. He was sent on trial to Norwich City, partly in hope that they would be able to coax some professionalism into him, partly in hope that they would be swayed enough by his ridiculous levels of natural talent to stump up some cash and sign him permanently. Neither came to pass.

These two years were so frustrating watching McCourt. His ability on the ball was obvious and he still had the capability to dribble past a couple of players and lash a clean strike into the bottom corner, but mentality and fitness were major issues. The most infamous example was when he was introduced as a substitute in one particular home match, only to be substituted off again out of breath and out of sorts just twenty minutes later with the game clearly passing him by. 

Buckley’s reign at the club was short-lived and by December 2003, Steve Parkin had returned to the dugout, but he too was unable to get Paddy back to his brilliant best and any notions of Premier League stardom we may have envisaged seemed to have vanished completely as he started just three games in the remainder of the campaign and would make only six more appearances in the 2004/2005 season before injuries and a lack of form eventually saw him leave the club in February 2005 and join up with League of Ireland outfit Shamrock Rovers.

After successful spells with the Hoops and latterly with his hometown club Derry City, McCourt made a dream move to his boyhood club Celtic in 2008 with manager Gordon Strachan proclaiming him to be “as gifted a footballer as I have ever seen”. His ambling style, shabby haircut and those Copa Mundials we had loved so dearly at Dale, saw the Celtic Park faithful take to him immediately. It didn’t hurt that he scored some quite incredible goals too, notably against St Mirren, Falkirk and St Johnstone. Go search for them on YouTube, you won’t regret it.

Over his five year spell at the club McCourt would always struggle to retain full fitness and his ability to change a game with a typically mazy run or incisive through ball perhaps reduced him to the role of impact sub, particularly given the issues he sometimes faced when trying to complete 90 minutes. He would score ten goals in 88 appearances in all competitions for the club, winning the title on two occasions, and was unsurprisingly much-loved by the supporters at Parkhead, prompting the popular “don’t sell McCourt” chant that can still be heard occasionally at Bhoys home games.

It was during his time with Celtic that McCourt would also earn a recall to the National side. The two goals he scored in a 4-0 home win over Faroe Islands are now famous, particularly his second - a sumptuous chip over the goalkeeper - but would be the only two international strikes he would manage in 18 appearances for his country. Short spells with Barnsley, Brighton, Notts County and Luton followed his time at Celtic and another mind-boggling YouTube favourite was scored for the Tykes, before he returned to Ireland to play for Glenavon and Finn Harps, eventually hanging up his boots at the end of the 2018 season.

But none of the stats or figures are of any importance when it comes to talking about McCourt really. Yes, Paddy should and could have played at a higher level for a longer period. He could have been a Premier League star, with kids from across the globe looking to replicate his silky skills on bobbly park pitches after another stunning goal. We’ll never know truly what stopped that from happening, whether it was the injury problems, a mentality issue, or his unpredictable nature off the field in his younger days. But in hindsight, it doesn’t really matter.

Because what mattered is that feeling you got watching him flying down the wing, skipping past challenge after challenge. What mattered was that, in the sometimes unglamorous humdrum life of an English lower league club, sometimes a player can come along that makes even the most miserable of weather-beaten old supporters omit squeals of boyish delight. What matters is that like they once listened to their fathers and grandfathers talk about Reg Jenkins or Lyndon Simmons, those in attendance at Spotland for those few flashes of genius would have someone to tell the next generation about; the stick-thin Northern Irish wonder-kid who made us fall in love with football.

This story originally appeared in the View Fanzine. You can follow them on Twitter at @ViewFootballMag where you can order the next issue, out in the New Year.

Photo: Action Images

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