Living the dream
At the start of the season, Paddy McNair was plying his trade in Manchester United's under-21s. Faced with an injury crisis, boss Louis van Gaal gave the Ballyclare teenager a call that would change his life, writes Steven Beacom
It's been one of the stories of the football season so far - the unknown teenager from Northern Ireland stepping out of the shadows and into the bright lights to solve a major crisis for mighty Manchester United.
He's been hailed by some of the biggest players around, lauded by legendary manager Louis van Gaal, roared to the rafters by thousands of fans and today flew home from Romania with the Northern Ireland team having been called into Michael O'Neill's senior international squad for the first time for last night's Euro 2016 qualifier in Bucharest.
Stand up and stand tall, Paddy McNair - just 19 years of age and doing his home town of Ballyclare proud.
And doing it at such a pace that Usain Bolt would find it hard to keep up!
A few months ago, McNair was just another kid at Old Trafford, trying to impress the coaches at youth level, dreaming that one day in the future he would be given an opening to impress alongside the superstars.
The chances did not look good when revered Dutchman Van Gaal arrived at the Theatre of Dreams, replacing David Moyes, who had taken on the impossible task of succeeding the iconic Sir Alex Ferguson.
Van Gaal was intent on bringing new recruits with him, including defenders from abroad, pushing teenagers like McNair way down the United pecking order.
Then came an injury jinx. One by one United's defenders started to fall. From Northern Ireland's Jonny Evans to England's Phil Jones to Argentine Marcos Rojo, one of Van Gaal's summer signings. All ended up on the treatment table.
One man's misfortune (or, in this case, several) is another man's opportunity, of course.
When Van Gaal, with precious few other options, named Paddy McNair in his starting line-up on September 27 for a vital home league against West Ham, it was up to the teenager to take it. He did. And then some.
Before that game at OldTrafford, I received numerous text messages from English journalists asking about the boy from Ballyclare. "Paddy who?", "What's his background?", "Where did he come from?", "Is he any good?"
By the end of the match they knew the answer to the last one.
Yes, he was. Although nervous, as you would expect, before making his debut for the United first team in front of almost 80,000 people, in a fixture the club desperately needed to win after a poor start to the campaign, McNair excelled.
The kid did not look like a 19-year-old rookie thrown in at the deep end. Instead, he was a steadying influence in the centre of defence which had been missing during Van Gaal's early weeks in charge.
When United captain Wayne Rooney was sent off for a rash challenge, it was backs against the wall for United as West Ham chased an equaliser.
McNair continued to swim rather than sink under the pressure, producing an astonishing clearance late on when the Hammers seemed certain to score to ensure United won 2-1.
After the final whistle, Van Gaal was full of praise for the youngster. A relieved Rooney was also genuinely chuffed for the Ulsterman.
The England skipper stated: "That was probably one of the bigger tests a young defender can face, up against a team putting in lots of crosses into the box, but he took it and stood up to it. I thought he was tremendous for us."
Spanish star Juan Mata added: "It was unforgettable for Paddy McNair.
"Making a debut with Manchester United at Old Trafford being just 19 is amazing. In my opinion, Paddy has a bright future ahead."
On radio phone-in shows and on social media, the compliments kept on coming from United fans, who love to see young players come through the ranks and make a name for themselves.
McNair had arrived. But how exactly did he get there, out on to that famous pitch on that warm September day to become Old Trafford's latest hero?
Like most kids in Northern Ireland, Paddy loved playing football and early on it was clear here was a child with real talent, encouraged by a supportive family.
In 2004, he eclipsed older boys by being crowned the Belfast and East Antrim Youth League Under-11s Player of the Year. Soon he would start playing for Ballyclare Colts. Good scouts find good players and Manchester United's Northern Ireland-based scout, Tony Coulter, is in that category, having learned from one of the best, his late dad Eddie, who spotted and sent players like David Healy and Jonny Evans to Old Trafford. McNair was 12 and playing in midfield when Tony saw something special in him.
Modestly, Coulter recalls: "It wasn't hard to pick him out. You couldn't help but notice him really. He played in central midfield and he was the best player in his team at Ballyclare. With good coaching at our centre of excellence, he kept on developing.
"It wasn't long before United were taking him across to Manchester during every school holiday period. There is only so much we can do with the players here, but when they got him over to Manchester he got even better.
"He is also a really nice lad from a good family and that has helped him to get where he is."
Signing for the club aged 16 in 2011, United youth coach Paul McGuinness is credited with turning McNair from a midfielder to defender.
He established himself at under-18 level and it wasn't long before he was promoted to the under-21s, though there was a feeling at the club, like many other United starlets in the past, McNair would have to go on loan to a lower-league club to experience first-team action and broaden his football education.
That was forgotten when the injury jinx hit the Red Devils and he has not looked back since.
Van Gaal saw enough against West Ham to keep the defender from Co Antrim in the side for the visit of Everton the following week. McNair was up against Romelu Lukaku, one of the most powerful Premier League forwards around. The Belgium hitman hardly got a kick as McNair once again belied his tender years to produce a mature display. United won 2-1.
Two games, two wins. This Premier League lark was easy!
It wasn't all bouquets, though, because, late on against Everton, McNair suffered a hamstring injury, denying him the chance of a call-up for Northern Ireland's Euro qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Greece last month.
There were concerns that, with Paddy out of action and United's bigger stars returning from their problems, that the relative obscurity of the under-21s beckoned. Hard to take after enjoying the high life.
Fate was to play a hand once more. McNair was fit enough to be a substitute for the recent Manchester derby and when United's Chris Smalling got himself sent off and Rojo sustained a shoulder injury, who did Van Gaal turn to on the bench? The Ballyclare Colt.
City won the game 1-0, but McNair gave another good account of himself in difficult circumstances and was involved from kick-off last Saturday in a narrow victory at Old Trafford over Crystal Palace. Every time Paddy has played on home turf, United have won.
And this week he was finally able to join up with Northern Ireland's squad for last night's game in Bucharest, having previously played at under-19 and under-21 level for his country.
"It's been a crazy couple of months," says McNair, sure to win many caps in years to come.
"I was playing with the under-21s two months ago, then all of a sudden I'm playing in front of 75,000 people at Old Trafford. To be called up to the Northern Ireland squad was a dream come true, too. It has all happened so fast."
You get the feeling, with Paddy McNair, there will be much more to come.
A life so far...
Name: Paddy McNair
Club: Manchester United
Country: Northern Ireland
He says: “When I was growing up I always wanted to play for Manchester United and now I’m doing that. I’m loving every minute of it.”
They say: “He is modest and calm and is doing great for us. I’m really pleased with him.” — Manchester United manager Louis Van Ga