Northern Ireland youngster Paddy McNair making his mark on big stage at Manchester United
Manchester United's Paddy McNair has been backed by Northern Ireland managers past and present to continue his rapid progress at Old Trafford.
Perhaps 12 months earlier than even he anticipated, the 19-year-old broke into the first team last September and has now played 15 games under Louis van Gaal, the most recent of which was his best to date when he excelled in the 1-0 defeat to Premier League champions elect Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last weekend.
Van Gaal has been impressed by the attitude of the boy from Ballyclare, especially when after being substituted in the first half against Southampton in December, he took that blow on the chin, dusted himself down, got to work in training and showed character when chosen again.
As well as the Dutchman's growing faith in him, McNair, 20 next week, has a new contract in his pocket and a Northern Ireland cap, handed to him by Michael O'Neill against Scotland last month.
O'Neill, rightly earning rave reviews for his results and man management in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, will be at Everton on Sunday hoping to see McNair keep his place for United's trip to Goodison.
"I thought Paddy McNair was excellent against Chelsea last weekend. It was great to see him go into a big game and environment like that and play so well," said O'Neill.
"That performance should give Paddy lots of confidence moving forward, not just for the rest of this season but also next season."
Another regular watcher of McNair, ex-Northern Ireland boss and Old Trafford favourite Sammy McIlroy, is confident the teenager has a bright future ahead at the club.
"I'm a big fan of Paddy and believe he has a big future at United and at international level. I'm confident he will continue to improve," said McIlroy, who won 88 caps.
"He's still learning but he's a great prospect and I'm looking forward to watching him become an even better player in the next few years. His performances have been fantastic and he has shown great versatility as well, performing in defence and midfield."
O'Neill and McIlroy, who will both attend tonight's movie premiere of Shooting for Socrates at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, are itching to see McNair's countryman Jonny Evans return to club duty following his six-match suspension, imposed by the FA after they found him guilty of spitting at Newcastle's Papiss Cisse. Evans will dispute that to his dying day.
McIlroy said: "I felt Jonny was very unlucky to be hit with that heavy punishment. It's good for United he's back because he is a quality player."
A keen observer of United, McIlroy also keeps a close eye on Northern Ireland and has been mightily impressed by how O'Neill has inspired the team to four wins in their opening five Euro 2016 qualifiers, putting them in a strong position to reach next year's finals in France.
O'Neill believes the structural problems leading to the demolition of the Kop Stand at Windsor Park won't derail that bid, even though all four of Northern Ireland's home goals in the campaign so far have been scored at that end.
There is concern that without the Kop, the atmosphere, so important to Northern Ireland's success, will be badly affected for the crucial June 13 clash at home to Romania, but O'Neill believes the stadium will still be rocking with the 4,000 fans normally behind the goal placed in the Railway and South Stands, with the ongoing construction work accelerated to allow that to happen.
"I don't think the atmosphere will be diminished too badly," said O'Neill. "I know our supporters will get behind us. You could put our fans into Windsor in deckchairs and they would still make a good atmosphere.
"The important thing is for the players to put in a good performance and for us to get a good result. I think the players will take the situation in their stride."