Daniel McDonnell: 'Entertainment rather than medals will be Paddy McCourt's enduring legacy'

After a turbulent year on and off the park, Limerick face a real battle to get a fatigued public out to support them in Friday’s second leg of their promotion/relegation play-off with Finn Harps.

Maybe they should look at a different angle to draw in the punters as they look to overturn a one-goal deficit, although it might not be a tactic which brings extra volume to their side.

Any football fan living within reasonable distance of Markets Field should be taking the last chance to watch Paddy McCourt grace a pitch at senior level.

He will retire afterwards, with his penalty on Monday giving Harps a one-goal lead heading into the decider. A happy ending would be a nice way to sign off a playing career which has had its ups and downs.

Either way, his legacy will live on. The debate over whether the 34-year-old truly delivered on his ability would possibly be shaded by the ‘No’ camp. Time will make that less relevant, though.

There’s logic in Derry City’s decision to give McCourt a new job heading up their academy because he is the type of player that would inspire kids to go out and practise.

He is sometimes excluded when advocates of the domestic game extol the virtues of the LOI alumni. For geographical reasons, Derry players can sometimes be out of sight and out of mind.

The fact he played for Northern Ireland might explain it too; his name should be bracketed with the likes of Seamus Coleman, Wes Hoolahan, Kevin Doyle and James McClean as prized exports.

Football is nothing without entertainers. Punters paying cash to watch a game want to see individuals capable of doing things that the ordinary player could only daydream about. McCourt could do things that top pros were unable to manage.

Typing his name into YouTube can be a time-consuming endeavour as there are countless videos of the ‘Derry Pele’ at work at various stages of his career.

There’s a brilliant package of his early years at Rochdale, an 18-year-old youth with a tight haircut.

Despite the contrast in physical appearance, he’s easily recognisable with a trademark drop of the shoulder and burst of pace as he embarked on a series of weaving runs that left defenders in a trance – he would glide past them like George Best.

It made it all the more remarkable that he would end up back at Shamrock Rovers in 2005. Homesickness was a factor. He would admit himself that an unprofessional lifestyle was a hindrance too.

Roddy Collins brought McCourt to Dublin where he lit up the league while also enjoying a hectic social life with a team that would be relegated at the end of the season.

By then, he was already gone with cash problems necessitating his sale to Derry. Still, he left his mark in a dark period for Rovers where they were playing out of Dalymount; the highlight was a game with Bray where he scored two amazing solo goals inside nine minutes. Bray defenders were left strewn on the pitch like slain soldiers in a battlefield. He was ridiculously good.

McCourt then thrived under Stephen Kenny, a perfect fit given his belief that players with his skill-set should express themselves.

Kenny once wrote McCourt a two-page letter to tell him how good he could be if he made a couple of changes in his life. It was inevitable bigger fish would eventually come calling; Celtic pipped West Brom to his signature. The story goes that the recruit was comically off the pace on his first day with his new club; Gordon Strachan set his players off on a long training run that exposed his weaknesses in the fitness department.

“He used to call it character running and he wasn’t long finding out my character,” McCourt joked in a recent chat with Scottish website Open Goal.

He eventually got up to speed and became a cult hero without ever really assuming the responsibility of a senior player. For big matches, he often found himself as number 12.

After five years, he went south to Barnsley and the rest of his career was a tale of short stays at clubs peppered with sporadic moments of brilliance. He did get a proper run in the Northern Ireland side under Michael O’Neill, yet missed out on Euro 2016 because his wife Laura had suffered a brain tumour.

That was the trigger for a move home and, while there is little doubt that age and injuries have slowed him down slightly – he operates deeper these days – Harps fans have witnessed some magic moments. They will happily take one more.

Perhaps McCourt’s CV should be richer in terms of end product. Yet in a week of bad news stories, there’s a value in considering what sport is meant to be about. Gifted players living in the moment should be appreciated.

There are players who will retire with more medals and more money that will never garner a comparable level of affection.

Mention McCourt’s name to those who had the pleasure of watching him in full flight and responses will be delivered with a smile.

It would be foolish to dismiss the importance of that.

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