A fixture at first-team training sessions, the Northern Ireland youth international was widely regarded as the Academy’s poster boy, fated for a headline-grabbing future.
Such fanfare is unrecognisable from a career which ultimately saw service at Pompey, Tranmere, Burton, Cambridge United and Morecambe, before dropping out of the Football League aged 29.
Yet injury cruelly robbed McGurk of his destiny, condemning him to depression and falling out of love with the game he adored.
‘I have never loved football the same since I was 18, before then it was all I wanted to do, all I thought about,’ he told The News.
‘Then, after the injury at Villa, it just became a job to me. I didn’t want to play, I was fed up.
‘It’s probably why I stayed at League One and League Two level my whole career, I never really cared enough after that, I never cared enough to dedicate myself.
‘I wasn’t living great either. If I wanted to go out on a weekend I would, if I wanted a night out I would. I did it because it was a job which every now and then I liked.
‘Pompey saw a completely different player to the one before injury at Villa. I wasn’t good at Fratton Park and it didn’t work out, but playing at that club was enjoyable, there in front of 18,000 proper supporters was one of the good times.
‘If you ask any of my mates still playing in the Premier League and Championship, they will tell you I was the next big thing to come out of England at 16 or 17. I was actually good at that age, then I turned rubbish.
‘I captained Villa’s Academy from a first-year scholar and was head and shoulders above all those boys around my age that made a career. Marc Albrighton, Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan, Andreas Wiemann, James Collins, Nathan Delfouneso, they were nowhere near – and they would say the same.
‘Then injury changed my career. I had not long turned 18, it was towards the end of the season, Villa didn’t have much to play for, at that stage they usually threw a youngster in to give them a Premier League game.
‘I was on the verge of first-team football, training with them every day as a scholar. When I returned after two years of injury, my age group had got their opportunities and progressed, while I was ruined and mentally all over the shop.
‘When I came back I was a Sunday League player, mentally I was gone.’
It occurred on March 17, 2007, ironically St Patrick’s Day. The date is etched in McGurk’s memory, yet the identity of the opposition escapes him.
Although a second-year apprentice at Villa Park, his talent had significantly outgrown Academy duty, instead turning out for the reserves while training with O’Neill’s first-team.
Yet, with the latest reserve match looming, it was decided the attacker would play the first half of a youth-team fixture as preparation.
As it turned out, that opening 45 minutes would change the course of a once brilliant young career.
He added: ‘I’m probably my biggest critic and will admit I was always rubbish at football – but, at that time, I was actually playing well.
‘I dinked the ball over the goalkeeper, who came sliding out and went through my planted left leg. What sums it up was the shot went into the net, but I was off-side. If only the whistle had been blown earlier, I wouldn’t have gone for the ball.
‘I ruptured the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) which is rare. I was sent to Dr Richard Steadman in Colorado to get the knee done, keeping me out for 10-11 months.
‘When I came back, a problem similar to shin splints kept me out for another six months, which also required an operation.
‘I actually remember playing a reserve game behind closed doors and scoring a long-range goal, yet didn’t celebrate, instead bracing my leg because I was in that much pain.
‘I played the whole game, but couldn’t run, I was hobbling about shouting to the bench “I’m okay, I’m okay”. I’d had so many injuries, I just wanted to play and play and play.
‘After the match, I discovered I had two tears in my quads and was out of action yet again. The injuries kept on coming and I left Villa in December 2009 – four months after making my Northern Ireland under-21 debut.
‘I was only 20 but done, that was it, I packed football in. I wouldn’t leave the house for days, I had no interest in anything other than sleeping, playing video games and messing about.
‘What I didn’t know was that I was depressed. I received counselling at the time, going three to four times, but it didn’t do anything for me.
‘It was probably two years later, when I was at Tranmere, that I looked back and realised “Wow, I was low then”.
‘There was no mental health care back then. Physically I was okay and able to do as much running as anyone else, but kept telling myself I wasn’t fit enough, mentally I was ruined.
‘After doing nothing for four months, I returned to football at Hednesford Town in March 2010 because I felt guilty, that was the only reason.
‘When I joined Villa at 15, my mum, dad and brother also moved over from Northern Ireland, getting a house in Birmingham to be near me, now I had let them down. Genuinely, that was why I went back to football, for nothing else. Guilt.’
McGurk featured in the final 12 matches of Hednesford’s Southern League Premier Division season, scoring three times, as they went on to lose in the play-offs to Chippenham Town.
Then, following a pre-season trial at Tranmere in the summer of 2010, he earned a passageway back into the Football League.
As the attacker’s career began to flourish once more, he was named as an unused substitute in Northern Ireland’s goalless draw at Malta in a February 2013 international friendly,
Days later, having returned to Tranmere, he suffered a collapsed lung while sleeping.
A visit to A&E resulted in McGurk diagnosed with spontaneous pneumothorax – and warned there was the slim possibility he could have died.
‘Since the age of 18, my body has been chocolate and, considering the amount of injuries I had over a decade, it became harder to motivate and push myself,’ he said.
‘The set-backs were constant, I never played a full season injury-free anywhere, 37 league games in my second year at Burton was my best return in a campaign.
‘I got some freakish injuries as well, ones that you couldn’t explain. I fell out of love with the game, it got harder and harder to want to get fit again, trying to prove myself once more.
‘It was a merry-go-round of injuries, my body couldn’t take a lot of punishment, yet when you’re young you want to push, push, push.
‘I was doing too much, trying to get back too soon and overloading my body. Compared to others, I needed to do rehab over a longer period, it had to be more gradual, but I never listened.
‘While Injuries weren’t the whole reason why my career went how it did, they played a big part.’
In June 2015, McGurk became the sixth signing of Paul Cook’s Pompey revolution.
Having just won League Two with Burton, he rejected Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink’s offer of a new deal in favour of joining the ambitious Blues.
The likes of Kyle Bennett, Kal Naismith, Enda Stevens and Gary Roberts were already on board when he arrived at Fratton Park.
Yet while the quartet would establish themselves as pivotal figures in claiming the League Two title two seasons later, McGurk had long since departed.
The Irishman netted on his Pompey debut in a Capital One Cup victory over Derby in August 2015, among six goals in his opening 15 appearances.
He then failed to register in his next 21 outings as the Blues lost out in the play-off semi-finals to Plymouth.
McGurk subsequently found himself transfer-listed along with Kal Naismith and Matt Tubbs and forced to train with the Academy.
He added: ‘At Burton, I’d been playing with an adductor problem for three months. I wouldn’t train much, just played.
‘That summer I rested it, but it still wasn’t right, so received an injection in my abdomen. It meant I barely did any pre-season work.
‘When I signed for Pompey, I explained the situation to Paul Cook, whose response was “Yeah, yeah don’t worry about that”. Obviously I came back miles behind everyone else – and he was funny about it.
‘That’s Cook, he’s nuts, an absolute crackpot, he knew all about the injury – and my time at Pompey definitely got off on the wrong foot because of it.
‘He’d be your best mate one day, then come in and cut you off the next, he was a roller-coaster man.
‘But I wasn’t great during my time at Pompey, especially in the second half of the season, which was one of the worst in which I performed throughout my career. It wasn’t through a lack of trying, things just didn’t go to plan, but I still enjoyed my time there.
‘After moving to Cambridge United, we had Pompey at the Abbey Stadium in October 2016 – and I didn’t play for five months after that.
‘After 10 minutes, Amine Linganzi backed into me and the collision was felt in my thigh, I thought I’d been hit by a train. This was the game I wanted to prove a point, to be man of the match, yet I had to come off after 33 minutes.
‘It turned out I had a massive dead leg and a 15cm tear as well. I was meant to be out for six weeks, but developed calcification.
‘It’s when your brain thinks your femur bone is broken, so starts forming bone crystals to try to repair it. Yet it’s not broken, so basically creates an extra bone.
‘Talk about mad injuries.’
McGurk’s Football League career ended in May 2018 at the age of 29, after helping Morecambe retain their League Two status.
Since 2019, he has been employed by building company Persimmons Homes, specialising in extensions and patio work for houses.
The Irishman has combined the full-time job with turning out in non-league football for Nuneaton Borough, Chorley, Coalville and Stratford.
McGurk is now at Midland Premier Division club Walsall Wood, a 12-minute drive from his Sutton Coldfield home and managed by long-time friend Harry Harris.
Their season wraps up this weekend against Boldmere St Michaels, with the ex-Pompey man seeking to add to a haul of four goals in 14 games, which includes a hat-trick against Haughmond last month.
And with children Azzurra and Arlo born within 11 months of each other, McGurk has very different priorities these days.
He added: ‘My career is over and done with now, but definitely eventful while it lasted.
‘If not for the injury, who knows where it would have gone? I just believe that whatever level you played at was for a reason, it is what it is.
‘I became less and less motivated in football as the years went by. After leaving Morecambe, there were Football League offers from Colchester, Crawley and Newport County, but it would have meant relocating from Birmingham.
‘With my missus pregnant with our first child and me losing love for the game, I decided to forget it and play part-time.
‘Even then, there was a stage when I actually packed it up for 18 months, I didn’t do a thing and got a bit chubby, before returning in November. It was the break I needed.
‘People ask “Do you miss football?”. There are bits and bobs, such as the good laugh in the changing room, but, generally, I don’t miss it.
‘It has been and gone.’
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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