While hopes of staying in the Premier Division are now hanging by a thread Paddy McCourt’s focus is firmly on Finn Harps putting everything into trying to win their final two games of the season starting with the game against Drogheda Utd on this Friday night in Ballybofey. The former Celtic and Northern Ireland international missed last week’s game against Derry City due to a calf strain and while time is against him he remains hopeful of playing some part in the Drogheda and Bohemians matches.
Despite the difficult challenge that Harps has faced from the outset this season in maintaining their Premier status McCourt has got stuck in and has played through the pain barrier in a number of games for Ollie Horgan when his small squad was stretched to the limit. The Derry man has been especially struck by the dedication of Horgan and his assistant Paul Hegarty and says the management has gone over and above the call of duty in trying to ensure that the club stays in the top flight. And McCourt is in no doubt that Horgan and Hegarty should be given the opportunity to be at the helm again for the 2018 season regardless of where the team finishes at the end of this campaign.
The 34-year-old signed for Harps in February having opted to leave Irish League side Glenavon by mutual consent last December after injuries had curtailed his game time at the Lurgan club. He wasn’t sure at that stage what route his career would then take him. “I had a few injuries and just couldn’t get a decent run of games so we agreed that I could leave Glenavon. So I had about ten weeks where I did my own work in the gym and I had to think about what I would do next. I spoke to a few other clubs. I spoke to Higgsy [Paul Hegarty] and Ollie [Horgan] and they convinced to me to come to Finn Harps. It ticked all the boxes for me at the time because it suited where I am living and I didn’t want to have to travel a long distance to training. I knew Higgsy from our time together with Derry City so that also played a big part in my decision and I came down to train with Harps a couple of times before signing. I had a good feel about it and met a good bunch of lads. So I decided to give it a go here this season” McCourt said.
The Derry man recalled making his debut for Harps as a second half sub in the opening League of Ireland game against Cork City in Ballybofey at the end of February. Heavy rain in the days leading up to the match made the Finn Park pitch a big doubt but the game did go ahead. Harps lost by the narrowest of margins with only Seanie Maguire’s goal before half-time separating the two sides at the final whistle in very difficult playing conditions.
Reflecting back on the season McCourt says the injuries and suspensions at key times have now left Harps in a precarious situation. “The injuries and suspensions that we have had at different times has left us a bit short in terms of the squad. It is not in our hands now but we have two games left which would give us 36 points.”
There have certainly been more downs than ups this season in terms of results with some of the standout wins coming away from home. “We had good wins away to Bray, Derry and Limerick. We also defeated St. Pat’s twice who are a much bigger club than us.” While it didn’t define the Harps season McCourt feels that a point against Sligo Rovers in Ballybofey last month would have a good result. It was the game where he got that stunning individual goal and one of the best ever seen at Finn Park. “After getting the equalizer I think we all got a little too excited and then were caught with the ‘sucker punch’.”
Regardless of how the season finishes for Finn Harps the Derry man is no doubt that the club should be moving swiftly to ensure that Horgan and Hegarty stay at the helm for next season. “I just hope that at the end of the season everyone sees the job that Ollie and Higgsy has done here. It won’t be their fault if it doesn’t end right. It’s just that we have come up short in certain areas. There is nobody that could have done a better job in the circumstances and hopefully the two lads will be staying on. They have a great desire to bring success to the club” McCourt said.
With his own one-year deal coming to an end the Derry man says he will take stock of his own situation when the season finishes. “I signed a contract for a year so I’ll just see how I feel about things when the season finishes. I’m just hoping that I can be involved in the last two games as I picked up a calf strain in the Dundalk game and didn’t play against Derry.”
To keep alive their slim hopes of survival Harps must defeat Drogheda Utd on Friday night in Ballybofey. “To have any chance we must win against Drogheda on Friday night and see where that leaves us then. I played in both games against them this season. We lost at Finn Park and then had a good 2-0 win away to them. Even though they are relegated Drogheda is still a good side if you look at the names in their squad. Their position doesn’t reflect the quality that they have. I’m expecting a very tough game against them.”
McCourt has also been fulsome in his praise of the efforts being made in every section of the club to make Finn Harps a side that can compete consistently at the top level of League of Ireland football. “John Campbell, Aidan Campbell, Lorna McHugh, Shane Elliott, William O’Connor and all the rest deserve great credit for the work that is being done.”
Meanwhile, manager Ollie Horgan has described McCourt as a massive addition to Finn Harps this season. “Paddy has made a huge contribution on and off the field, be that on the training ground or in the dressing room. He’s a quiet spoken man who has been a massive addition to Finn Harps. On the training ground his influence has been immense and he’s been great with the young lads” Horgan said.
The 34-year-old started his professional career with Third Division club Rochdale in 2001 but after four years there he moved to Shamrock Rovers. Later in 2005 McCourt transferred to his home-town club, Derry City. He won the League Cup three times with the Candystripes as well as the FAI Cup success in 2006.
It was at the Brandywell that McCourt gained the nickname ‘The Derry Pelé’ for his skilful play. As a result of his consistently high standard performances in a Derry shirt he he signed for Glasgow Celtic in 2008. McCourt was to spend five seasons at Parkhead winning the Scottish Cup twice and he also picked up two Scottish Premier League medals in 2011–12 and 2012–13.
He then had spells at English Championship sides Barnsley and Brighton & Hove Albion as well as a short loan period at League One club Notts County. McCourt left Brighton and in July 2015 joined League Two club Luton Town. He was released by mutual consent one year into his contract to enable him to return to Northern Ireland and subsequently joined Irish League Premiership club Glenavon. He left Glenavon at the end of last year and in February joined Finn Harps.
He made his Harps debut in the opening Premier Division game of the season as a second half sub in a 1–0 defeat at home to Cork City. McCourt scored his first goal for Ollie Horgan’s side in a 3–2 defeat away to former club Shamrock Rovers at the end of March.
McCourt made his Northern Ireland international debut in 2002 against Spain in a friendly at Windsor Park, which ended in a 5–0 defeat but did not play again until 2009. He scored his first two goals against the Faroe Islands in 2011 that ended in a 4–0 victory over the Faroe Islands in a European Championship qualification match.