Football/Soccer

Northern Ireland's Mr Versatile Paddy McNair out to get Slovakia job done

Northern Ireland's Paddy McNair applauds the fans after he scored a late winner away to Belarus last year.

ANY which way but lose. Perhaps more accurately, anywhere but lose.

Northern Ireland's Jack of most trades, Paddy McNair, is aiming to master another opponent tomorrow night as Slovakia come to Belfast for the Nations League Path B/ Euro Play-off Final.

In a modern game where most players are pigeon-holed in one particular position, the 25-year-old is capable of performing well in a variety of roles. Right back, centre back (including in a back three), wing-back, defensive midfield, central midfield, attacking midfield… He'd probably give goalkeeper or striker a go if required.

Indeed for someone perceived as a centre half when he first came to wider notice, at Manchester United, the 25-year-old has added goals to his game in recent years, including on the international stage, with four in the last dozen matches.

His versatility, he reckons "just came naturally to me", although he then admits it was partly an attempt to get notice at Old Trafford:

"When I was in the reserves at Man U we had so many midfielders at that point, I think we actually had about 10 centre midfielders, and I was one of the tallest so I went to the back and played centre back and midfield. Since then I've done that throughout my career.

"To be honest, at the start of my career I didn't really enjoy as much switching between the two, but now I do actually quite enjoy it. It's great to have that in my locker.

"Sometimes I might not have played if I wasn't so versatile. At the start of my Northern Ireland career I was playing right back as well as midfield. I wouldn't have started the Greece game [in October 2015] if I couldn't play right back. In certain situations it definitely has helped me out."

Michael O'Neill's decision to start him against the Greeks, in the match which sealed qualification for Euro 2016, was an expression of faith in the then 20-year-old's ability.

He and his colleagues duly delivered victory, and are now on the brink of another qualification having come close to reaching the last World Cup.

McNair smiles at the good timing of his career so far, saying: "It's been a brilliant time for me and Northern Ireland since I first came into the squad. I missed the bad days when we were nowhere near qualification.

"I always remember, before the Greece game, we were running around the pitch the day before the game and Aaron Hughes said to me 'Flip, you've been in the squad for six months and I've been in the squad for 20 years and now you're getting a new stadium and a chance to go to the Euros'.

"It's a brilliant situation to be in and we're just really looking forward to it."

However, he hasn't had it all easy. Almost four years ago, after moving that summer to Sunderland, he ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament, ruling him out for almost 12 months.

"I played under Michael at first and then I got a knee injury which set me back a year to 18 months from where I should have been. That injury gave me a chance to step away from it as things happened really fast for me.

"I was playing in the under-23s and then I was in the Premier League [with Manchester United] and qualifying for the Euros. It was a high then obviously a big low when I got the injury.

"I worked hard to get back from that and the last two-and-a-half years I have really kicked on and I am happy with the way I'm playing for club and country. At 25 if I can qualify for another major tournament that would be unbelievable."

The injury hit him harder than he realised, mentally as well as physically. "Looking back now I was more down than I realised myself. Sunderland were great with me and really helped me through the rehab.

"I had Duncan Watmore with me as well. He had his cruciate injury at the same time so we did our rehab together. He is actually training at Middlesbrough at the minute so it is good to see him again.

"It was tough but I always had the taste of the Euros, playing at Windsor Park and really good nights and I had that in the back of my mind that it was what I wanted to get back to and kept working hard. Even after I came back from the injury I picked up niggles here and there. Since then, touch wood, I have been injury-free and I am really enjoying it now."

Indeed he's been hailed as 'the best player in the Championship', albeit by his Boro boss Neil Warnock, and is revelling playing alongside George Saville for club and country.

"George has been brilliant this season. I think he was 'Player of the Month' in the Championship and deservedly so. He is a great lad to have around the place and he is an important player for Northern Ireland. I can't speak highly enough of George."

The two Middlesbrough midfielders will be aiming to fire NI to the Euros, McNair confirms: "Especially in the Bosnia game [the play-off semi-final], there were definitely goals there for me and George, we just didn't take them on the night.

"The main thing is that we are getting there and we are in the right positions to get the chances. If we keep on getting in there one will definitely fall for us. Hopefully that will be on Thursday night, that would be brilliant."

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Football/Soccer