Manchester United defender Paddy McNair shows he's destined for stardom
Making an impact at a club the size of Manchester United for any young player is usually a gradual affair.
League Cup and friendly appearances in the first team soon allow for the odd cameo role from the bench in the Premier League.
Even the great Cristiano Ronaldo, when he arrived from Sporting Lisbon, wasn’t thrust straight into the first team.
But for Northern Ireland starlet Paddy McNair, when Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal came calling last September, it was a case of sink or swim.
Plucked from football obscurity in Manchester United’s under-21 programme, having had no senior experience, even on loan, to shore up the defence of one of the biggest clubs on the planet, that had been blighted by injury and suspension, it would have been easy for the then 19-year-old to become overwhelmed by the demands on his young shoulders.
But McNair, while naturally nervous, was not at all fazed by the situation. Indeed, in his debut match against West Ham United he gave an assured display in defence, even clearing the ball off the line to make sure Manchester United secured a 2-1 victory.
McNair started the season a boy, but having played 18 times for Manchester United and kickstarted his senior international career with Northern Ireland, the now 20-year-old from Ballycorr in Co Antrim is very much a man.
McNair recalls: “I remember in the Leicester City game when Jonny Evans got injured and Tyler Blackett got sent off, a few people texted me saying ‘you’ll be in next week’, but I thought ‘no chance’.
“Six days later I was playing. The manager told me two days before the game and I must admit, those were two long nights.
“I had never been out on loan before, I’d never played a senior game before so I didn’t really know what to expect, but it went well so I was very happy.
“I had nice words of advice from Jonny (Evans) and Darren Fletcher. But I don’t think my team-mates wanted to speak to me too much in case it got too much, so they just left me to my own thoughts.
“I’m quite a quiet person anyway so I don’t think they wanted to give me too much to think about. I just got on with it.”
Of course, there were blips along the way for McNair, especially when he was hauled off at half time during United’s defeat to Southampton.
But McNair, typical of his character, refused to dwell on that and was back playing in the United first team 10 days later against Newcastle United.
McNair says: “I haven’t watched the game back, to be honest I can’t remember much about the game, I just forgot about it.
“The manager said to me afterwards ‘just get on with it’. I started 10 days later against Newcastle and it was forgotten about. I just got straight back into it. I love playing for van Gaal, I really enjoy it and hopefully that will continue for many more years to come.
“When you see the young players he has given a chance to in the past at the likes of Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, it’s nice of him to show faith in me with a new contract.”
That new deal, which McNair signed in February, will keep him at the Theatre of Dreams until at least June 2017, offering security and reassurance. It’s a far cry from life on the family farm in Ballycorr, when McNair, the youngest of four children, would practice in the garden for at least four hours every day.
Just a ball and the wall was all he needed to perfect his game.
McNair concedes: “My dad knew I was never going to work on the farm, I never had any interest in it whatsoever.
“I just played football all day, literally. We had a garden with walls around it, and I just kicked the ball off the walls all day. I practised four or five hours a day. When people came past my house, they would always remark to my mum that I never stopped practising because I was always out in the garden. There wasn’t much else to do, I wasn’t on a housing estate or anything.”
When McNair wasn’t practising by himself, he was playing for the BB or his school.
Then, when he was 14, he moved to Manchester and at 16 signed scholarship forms with Manchester United.
He was initially picked as a midfielder before being converted to a defender by youth coach Paul McGuinness following a growth spurt.
However, McNair has never lost the desire to dribble like a midfielder, even when playing in defence.
Growing up, his heroes were not defenders, but Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho.
Thankfully at Manchester United, under van Gaal, McNair is encouraged to come out with the ball as much as possible.
“I quite enjoy playing both in midfield and defence, I’d be happy playing in either area of the pitch,” adds McNair. “I think I’m a ball-player rather than a ball-winner.
“I just love having the ball at my feet. I know I’m a centre back but I love dribbling and I like trying to take people on, centre backs shouldn’t really be doing that but I do try.
“You see all the top teams like Barcelona playing out from the back — we are a top team too.”
McNair, after a whirlwind season, has had little time to reflect on his achievement.
When the league season finished, he was straight into international duty. Not that he is complaining. This time last year, he was a United under-21 player and had made only one appearance for the Northern Ireland under-21 team.
But following Saturday night’s Euro qualifier against Romania, McNair now has the chance to relax and actually take a breath.
“Everything has happened so fast but it’s been really good. I could never have imagined this time last year playing 18 games for the first team.
“Seeing Jonny Evans play for Northern Ireland and Man United when he was young shows it can be done and it gave me a bit more hope.
“Moving forward, I’d like to try and nail down a place in the United team, just try and play as many games as I can and hopefully the trophies come.”
McNair may have been an unknown quantity this time last year but he’s made an impact on both van Gaal and Michael O’Neill.
When opportunity came knocking, McNair made the most of his good fortune.
Belfast Telegraph Digital