Belfast Telegraph

Manchester United's McNair can ease Northern Ireland's injury concerns

McNair’s crazy spell carries on with dream NI call

Manchester United youngster Paddy McNair has revealed his desire to help Northern Ireland qualify for the Euro 2016 finals in France.

The teenage defender will train with Michael O’Neill’s squad this week for the first time and could make his senior international debut in Friday’s Group F clash favourite with United fans, playing four Premier League games and winning three of them, showing promise every time he has turned out.

That has led to a ‘dream’ Northern Ireland call up at a time when the national team is top of their qualifying table, having won their opening three fixtures, and on course to reach the finals of a major tournament for the first time since the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, before he was born. And McNair wants to do his bit to get his country there.

He said: “It’s a dream come true to be called up. The last time Northern Ireland were in a major tournament was 1986, so if I can help them get to France in 2016 that would be great.”

O'Neill was going to give McNair a taste of the senior international set-up last month when Northern Ireland beat the Faroe Islands and Greece, only for a hamstring problem to dent those plans.

There were fears that injury would scupper McNair's call-up this time too when he was taken off late on in United's 1-0 home victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday, but the substitution was down to cramp rather than anything more serious.

It was in September that McNair jumped from the under-21 ranks at Old Trafford to the big time, enjoying a steady debut for Louis van Gaal's side in a 2-1 victory against West Ham. He played in another win over Everton, before being struck down by United's injury jinx with that hamstring complaint.

He returned to the squad for the Manchester derby and came off the bench as City won 1-0 at the Etihad before resuming his starting place on Saturday in the slim victory over Palace.

"It's been a crazy couple of months," said McNair.

"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.

"When I was growing up, I always wanted to play for Manchester United, and now I've even played in a Manchester derby, so it's been good and I've loved every minute of it.

"It has happened so fast. Last year I think I played 11 games for the U21s so hopefully I'll be close to 11 for the first team by the end of the season."

McNair, who has featured for the Northern Ireland under 19 and under 21 sides, could be thrown into the firing line against Romania because club mate Jonny Evans, Shane Ferguson, who played in defence against the Faroes and Greece, and potential back-up Alex Bruce are all out while the experienced Aaron Hughes is struggling with an ankle injury.

Captain Steven Davis is another who may not make it to Bucharest having sustained a hamstring injury in Southampton's 2-0 win against Leicester and is set to be assessed by his club today ahead of the international squad's departure on Wednesday, while Jamie Ward was not involved with Derby County at the weekend due to a thigh problem, increasing his chances of missing out on Friday's international which sees the top two nations in Group F go head to head.

The Northern Ireland Football League's first official experiment with Friday night football produced a healthy boost in attendance when Cliftonville hosted Warrenpoint Town.

Compared to a Saturday contest between the same sides almost exactly a year ago, the 1288 spectators at Solitude represented a 26% increase, with the Reds also reporting much higher returns in social club takings.

Joe Gormley's second-half hat-trick - which, thanks to results elsewhere over the weekend, saw Cliftonville increase their lead at the top of the Danske Bank Premiership to three points - wasn't the only thing which brought a smile to the face of Gerard Lawlor, chairman of both the Reds and NIFL.

"Whether it was the Friday night thing or our offer of allowing under 11s to attend for free, or maybe a combination of both, we certainly got some very good numbers through the turnstiles," he explained.

"It's something we as a club would bear in mind for selected fixtures in the future but it's all about finding the right game on the right date and assessing other attractions - there's no point going up against Ulster Rugby, for example - before we make any kind of decision."

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