'Throwback' winger McCourt has the talent, but does he have the time?

Celtic's Paddy McCourt has impressed in flashes this season, William Heaney ponders whether the former Rochdale and Shamrock Rovers wide-man will ever get the chance to become a key figure for the Hoops...

The SPL isn’t exactly awash with gifted players who are capable of taking on opposing defenders and producing something just a wee bit different. 

That’s why watching Celtic and Northern Ireland winger Paddy McCourt in full flow is a sight to behold.

The ‘Derry Pele’ has become something of a cult-hero with Celtic fans since joining the club from Derry City in 2008, producing a series of stunning individual goals during his time in Scotland.  While not blessed with lightning speed, he is nevertheless able to glide past players with his effortless, almost lazy, running style

A player with McCourt’s ability should be the fulcrum of a side – the guy you pin your hopes on to deliver on the big occasion.  Instead, he settles most weeks for a late run from the bench and while he’s often effective, you can’t help but think that a player who is able to leave three, four or five opposition players in his wake, should be capable of so much more.

The number of minor injuries picked up by the player during his Celtic career has certainly not helped his cause. Already this season he has been sidelined by neck and shoulder problems and his issues with fitness and stamina appear to be ongoing concerns.

McCourt’s contribution when he isn’t in possession of the ball has also been questioned. He does his best work in the final third with the ball at his feet, but isn’t quite so keen on tracking back.

Perhaps most telling is that most of McCourt’s magic moments have come against weaker opposition, or when the game is already won. 

His goal at Falkirk last season, compared by one Scottish journalist to John Barnes’ for England against Brazil at the Maracana, was the third in a comfortable 4-0 win. 

Similarly, the waltz round three Hearts defenders in September, which culminated in McCourt dinking the ball over the keeper into the net, was scored in the final minutes of the match with Celtic already two goals ahead. 

Contrast that with McCourt’s record in Old Firm matches – just two appearances as a sub where he has made little or no impact.  Whether that’s down to a lack of confidence, the occasion getting to him, or simply not yet having a proper chance to show what he can do on the big stage, remains to be seen.

McCourt’s international career mirrors his current situation at Celtic.  With just four caps for Northern Ireland over an eight-year period, he was left out of the squad for the opening Euro 2012 qualifier against Slovenia.  Manager Nigel Worthington explained his decision: "With all the craft that Paddy has, if he can get the graft side, the work ethic, what a great player he would be for us."

Whether Worthington’s comments say more about the player’s abilities or are a reflection of the modern game is debatable.  While he has since returned to the squad, watching McCourt try to play a more disciplined central midfield role in the recent friendly against Morocco was a strange experience.

For anybody thinking that’s heo’s a young guy with time on his side, well, he’s not.  McCourt turns 27 this week, and rather than being a naive kid, it’s more a case of him being in last chance saloon. 

The early promise shown by McCourt at Rochdale led to him being linked with Manchester City and Blackburn Rovers, but a move never materialised and he ended back in the League of Ireland.  While trials with Norwich

City, Crewe and Motherwell failed to produce a contract, West Brom were ready to offer the player another shot at English football until Gordon Strachan stepped in at the last minute to take him to Celtic Park.

In order to become a first-team regular, it’s not just personal challenges that McCourt has to overcome. While Celtic have defensive problems, they are not short of options in the wide areas: fellow countryman Niall McGinn is younger, faster and more direct than McCourt, and seemingly preferred by Nigel Worthington at international level. 

Shaun Maloney meanwhile, is producing his best form since returning to the club, and young James Forrest was arguably Celtic’s top performer in the opening weeks of the season before injury struck.

There’s not much he can do about it, but McCourt was probably born 30-40 years too late.  Described by Neil Lennon as a 'throwback', he is a player who would have thrived in the 1960’s or 70’s, when ability was everything and less emphasis was placed on athleticism and conditioning – he even has the hairstyle.

Tragedy is too strong a word, but it would be a real shame if McCourt fails to progress from bit-part player to centre stage.  In his defence, he conjured up the only goal at Inverness on the opening day of the season, and assists which led to last minute winners at Dundee United and St Mirren, but he has to consistently produce when it really counts. 

With a manager and a fanbase who clearly believe in him, McCourt may yet prove he was worth the wait.