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Having to answer fitness questions the only thing leaving Paddy McCourt out of breath

PADDY McCOURT is asked about his fitness about as often as Tiger Woods is questioned on the state of his marriage.

Both queries elicit similar responses, albeit McCourt’s stare and dismissive retort are mercifully not as intimidating as the troubled golfer’s.

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McCourt has been a Celtic player for two years now but the image remains of a maverick talent who can barely run the length of himself without an oxygen tank. It is as if the Northern Irishman has been plucked from the famous Harry Enfield comedy sketch where the Arsenal team of 1933 take on a Liverpool side from 1991.

In it Arsenal are dressed in long shorts, smoke Woodbines, and indulge in some gentle stretches as a pre-match warm-up, while their star man is a dazzling winger called Charles “Charlie” Charles whose majestic twists and turns are roundly applauded by his appreciative team-mates as the opposition hare off with the ball.

McCourt bristles at the inference that he is a throwback to a time when footballers were entertainers and not athletes but it is a criticism that is not going away. As recently as this week Neil Lennon, his manager, praised McCourt’s pre-season performance against Blackburn Rovers but noted that his countryman still “has a wee breath now and again in games”.

His undoubted talent, combined with a perceived physical frailty, have earned him the nickname “the Derry Pele” and cult worship from an adoring Celtic public. McCourt could simply offer a coy grin and a shrug of the shoulders when asked about his fitness, along with a quip about how it never did George Best or Frank Worthington any harm, but it is clear that the 26-year-old is determined to be more than a showman who can only turn it on in spurts.

During a press conference to promote ESPN’s coverage of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League, he rolls his eyes when asked about his fitness, as if it were old news. It could hardly be described as an outburst – it is hard to recall him ever raising his voice – but he is clearly unhappy with the inference that he has more work to do if he is to become an established figure at Celtic. On that front, McCourt knows that actions will speak louder than words.

“I’m feeling in great shape so I don’t know what he [Lennon] meant by that,” he said. “I’ve had to answer these questions for two years now. When I first arrived [from Derry City] they were valid questions as I was struggling really badly but I’ve been here for two years now and I feel great.

“When I play, I don’t know if I look unfit or what, but I feel good. I feel I can play games no problem. When I first came in I was miles behind and had missed a lot of training and was out for a few months. But I feel great now but still this [subject] keeps on popping up.

“I feel as if I’m doing my job on the pitch. As a winger you can’t have the ball for 90 minutes. Sometimes it doesn’t come to you and you get 10 or 15 minutes when you’re not getting a kick. That’s not me taking a breather, it’s just how the game is played.

“But if the manager’s got it in his head [that he’s not fit] then it’s up to me to keep putting in performances and playing 90 minutes and hopefully that will stop it. He’s seen me since I first came to the club and maybe he’s thinking that, although I’m a lot better, I can still get better. That’s fine. But the best way for me to improve is to play 90 minutes on a regular basis.”

McCourt has endured something of a chequered Celtic career, enthralling with wonder goals against Falkirk and St Mirren, before disappearing from view for several months at a time. He shies away from describing this season as “make or break” but knows he needs to start making more of a sustained impression.

“I’ve not had many first-team games and that’s what you need. In pre-season friendlies and bounce games the tempo isn’t the same so I’m just hoping this year I can really kick on and get as many full games as I can. If I get an opportunity I need to make the jersey my own. If so I won’t be giving it up easily.”

The transfer of Aiden McGeady to Spartak Moscow has created an immediate vacancy for a creative wide midfielder, and McCourt hopes he will be given the chance to fill that gap. “I think I can do that given the opportunity. I would have liked to have played alongside him but he’s gone now.

“They are big boots to fill. In my eyes he was the best player in the league and you don’t want to lose your big players. But it was a lot of money and maybe the club thought it was a good time to cash in on their asset. It’s up to me to show what I can do now. I’ve never shied away from hard work in the past.”

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