Paddy McNair desperate to stake Northern Ireland claim after misery of Sunderland relegation
After being fast-tracked into the Manchester United first team as a raw teenager by Louis van Gaal, Paddy McNair is accustomed to seizing the moment.
McNair was just 19 when van Gaal, the former Ajax, Barcelona and Holland coach, threw the versatile defender-cum-midfielder into a centre half role at Old Trafford and dared him to sink or swim.
Just a few months later, international manager Michael O’Neill drafted the Ballynure lad into his senior Northern Ireland squad for the Euro 2016 qualifier in Bucharest against Romania. McNair spent two years in the Red Devils’ first team panel before the desire for regular first team football led him to quitting Old Trafford for Sunderland in 2016. Even as he was making up his mind to leave United, formidable boss Jose Mourinho was trying to persuade him to stay.
At the Euro 2016 finals in France, McNair, who’d only made his competitive international debut in the final few games of the qualifying campaign, was honoured to be selected to start the first match against Poland after impressing in the international friendlies before the tournament.
Still only 23, McNair is now ready to help the next wave of Northern Ireland recruits achieve their dream on this two-match Central American tour.
Young guns Paul Smyth, Gavin Whyte, Jordan Thompson, Shayne Lavery, Conor Hazard, and Bailey Peacock-Farrell have all been drafted into O’Neill’s squad to face World Cup finalists Panama tomorrow night in the 32,000 capacity Estadio Rommel Fernandez stadium, and Costa Rica on Sunday evening.
With Northern Ireland having so many senior international absentees, including midfielders Steven Davis, Ollie Norwood and George Saville, McNair should be given a key role in the centre of the park in both games, and he maintains that if O’Neill’s rising stars are given an opportunity they should grasp it.
“It is a dream to play for your country and I would be chuffed for any of them if they were given a chance to play any part in the game,” admitted McNair, who trained with his new international team-mates for the first time in Panama City yesterday and this morning.
“They all deserve their place in the squad and this could be a trip they will remember for the rest of their lives and I really hope they manage to get that opportunity. I’m looking forward to playing myself. There may be a list of players out but that just gives me the chance to play in both games and try and impress Michael so that I can try and stake a claim for the matches coming up in the autumn.”
McNair, who has been plagued by injury for the last two years, returned from a cruciate ligament injury in the early months of last season but then was struck down by groin issues.
He had a strong finish to the season and scored four goals in five games for the Black Cats but it wasn’t enough to stop Sunderland heading through the trap door to League One. With suitors expected to be interested in offering McNair a higher level of football this summer, the former Ballyclare Colts star could have easily opted out of this trip and enjoyed a risk-free summer.
But McNair insisted that only injury would ever stop him representing his country.
“Ever since I was a young lad I tried to go to every Northern Ireland game, I was a big fan,” said McNair, capped 18 times.
“Any time I get to play for Northern Ireland it is a dream and when I put the green shirt on it is a proud moment.
“I think I had a strong finish to the season with Sunderland, sadly it wasn’t enough to stay up. But my focus is now on these two games.”