McCourt eager to knuckle down and claim Celtic starting place

Winger admits defensive failings need to be ironed out to earn regular role in team
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The Independent Online

Paddy McCourt will not settle for being an impact player at Celtic Park. But the winger is convinced he can iron out the deficiencies that prevent him making a more sustained contribution.

The mercurial talent has marked his only two starts for Celtic with spectacular solo goals against Falkirk and St Mirren. Those glimpses of brilliance showed Celtic fans exactly why Gordon Strachan signed McCourt on a three-year deal from Derry City last summer.

The 25-year-old took a while to catch up with the fitness levels of his team-mates and made only five substitute appearances in his first season. But he feels in good shape now and is keen to return to the starting line-up in tonight's Co-operative Insurance Cup quarter-final against Hearts at Parkhead.

"I don't think any player will ever set out just to be an impact player," said McCourt, who has also made five substitute appearances under Tony Mowbray. "I don't think any player will stay at a club for more than two or three years if they are going to be on the bench all the time.

"They will obviously look to move somewhere where they are going to play. I would love to finish my career here, I love the club and I've always loved it. If that means playing 20 games and coming on in 15 then I'll be quite happy, but I wouldn't want to just be on the bench every week."

McCourt has had an up-and-down career, making almost 100 appearances for Rochdale before returning to Ireland at the age of 20, and then having an unsuccessful trial spell at Motherwell.

But he flourished under Stephen Kenny at Derry and some spectacular goals persuaded Strachan to sign him just as Mowbray looked set to take him to the manager's former club West Bromwich Albion.

McCourt, who has two caps for Northern Ireland, believes he can now take his career to the next level. "I feel great, I haven't missed a day of training all year," he said. "Obviously the more games I get, the sharper I'll get, but the two games I started I have felt great. I just want to be a regular starter, but it's up to me to rectify the wee things I'm missing in my game.

"If I put all that together I don't think there will be much stopping me becoming a regular starter. I know the manager says he doesn't think I'm the complete player. I know that myself and I'm working hard to improve." McCourt was employed behind the front two by Willie McStay in the Celtic reserves last season but he has been restored to a wide position by Mowbray, who now wants the player to strengthen his defensive game.

"I came here as a winger," McCourt said. "I don't know if the manager last year saw me as a winger. He wanted his wingers up and down, which most managers do. That's something I never really had to do at Derry City. Stephen, my old manager, gave me a black ball on the defensive side and just wanted me to be creative.

"It's something I hadn't had to do for a long time and it's something I'm trying really hard to improve on. I think the manager has just said that, off the ball, maybe I need to be getting back a bit quicker and being a bit more alert.

"He maybe thinks I switch off when we don't have the ball. I don't think it's anything major. If I can scratch up on that then hopefully nothing will stop me."

Mowbray's assistant, Mark Venus, has told McCourt he still has work to do to enable him to unleash his undoubted talent on a more regular basis.

"Paddy McCourt is a player who we were going to take to West Bromwich Albion," Venus said. "After watching him train, Paddy is what we thought he is. He can light games up and show pieces of individualism that other footballers can only dream of. But he is also a player who has got shortfalls in his game and I think he would be the first to admit that. He needs to improve on his shortfalls to be a regular at a club like Celtic.

"I see him as a player who, at the moment in our eyes, is probably not a week-in, week-out footballer for the club. Some games he can play, sometimes maybe on the bench, but I think his game has ups and downs. We are trying hard and he is trying very hard, I know that, to get better."

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