Fergie keen on McShane
SCOTSMEN are not noted for being generous so when Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, a proud son of Govan, starts dishing out praise it's not done lightly. Recently, in a major interview with one of England's top football writers, Ferguson started comparing a 17-year-old Irish youngster from Wicklow to Roy Keane.
He was talking about Keane's tremendous mental strength and pride and how the Corkman understands the work ethic of life when he revealed there is a young player on United's books from the same mould. "The boy McShane has similar attributes to Roy. There's a toughness about McShane," said Ferguson.
Paul McShane from Kilpedder has only been at Old Trafford since July 2002 but he is already being marked down as a player with tremendous potential. The red-headed centre-half was the youngest member of the Manchester United team which won the FA Youth Cup in 2003 - the club's first victory in the competition since Phil Neville captained the side to glory in 1995.
This year he is the captain of the FA Youth Cup team. He has already broken into the reserve side, and scored for them, and is part of United's Champions League squad of 26 players.
Ireland U-19 manager Sean McCaffrey drafted McShane into his squad this season for the European Championship qualifers in San Marino and saw the Wicklow lad recently score in a friendly against France. Like Ferguson, the international manager admits to being impressed by Ireland's latest Red Devil.
"He is a great young fellow and Ferguson is spot on about his work ethic," says McCaffrey. "He's got a great attitude and listens to everything. He takes it all on board and will question if necessary. He is so easy to work with. The big strength that Paul has is that he is not carried away by reputations. He does not get dazzled by mixing with big names at Manchester United and he treats everybody with courtesy."
Although his preference is for the centre-half position, McShane can play anywhere across the back four and has played at right back and left back this season for the Irish U-19s. Given what he has achieved in the game so far it would be easy for McShane to start having self-deluding notions of grandeur but his thoughts remain refreshingly simple.
"I am just a defender," he says. "My first job is to defend. I like to get on the ball and play it around but I wouldn't get too cocky because you will only get caught out."
He stares at the ceiling for a few moments when asked who his favourite centre half is and then admits he can't think of one he's in awe of. "There's not that many great centre halfs around really that are hard and no one gets by them. Kevin Moran was fearless in a tackle. The defenders who are around now, some of them are good players, but I like a gritty centre half who will get stuck in for the team."
The respect for Moran reveals a childhood steeped in sport and in particular, the GAA. His father Sean played football and hurling for Raheny and Dublin in the 1970s while his mother Anne's grandfather was the famous hurler Bob Mockler. His sister Fiona is a PE Teacher in London while his brother John is studying to be one in Wales.
MCSHANE was an accomplished footballer with Newtownmountkennedy GAA Club and captained the Wicklow U-14s before Manchester United spirited him away to England.
After starting his schoolboy soccer at the age of eight with Greystones, he moved to Newtownmountkennedy before switching to St Joseph's Boys at the age of 13. Joey's have a link with Eircom League side Bray Wanderers and Tony McGuirk was one of the coaches from the senior club who would spend one night a week helping Liam Browne and Kevin Forsythe with the coaching of the U-13s.
McGuirk remembers that particular group having a number of outstanding players and McShane was one of those who caught his eye. "He was very good in training. He never missed a session and was always attentive. He was very dedicated and hard working. He was captain of the team, on and off the field, and if there was a little presentation to be made he would make his little speech. He's not shy."
On the pitch at Joey's, McShane formed a solid defensive partnership with James Power and McGuirk remains baffled as to why the scouts didn't also come calling for him. "He helped Paul to develop and he may never get the recognition that he deserves."
McGuirk is now coach to the U-19 international squad and his path has once again crossed with McShane. He admits to being impressed at the way he has progressed. "He has become a nice, confident, mature young man and that is down to his parents," observes McGuirk.
Having been a regular member of Irish underage squads since U-14, McShane was in constant demand from clubs eager for him to go on trials. The phone at his home in Kilpedder was hopping off the hook as, over a two-year period, 18 clubs came calling in search of his signature.
"There were a few, but I didn't count them," admits McShane. "I went over to a few and there were others asking me to go over but I had seen enough. It's all basically the same."
Visits to Leicester City, Leeds, Man City, Wolves, Sunderland and Blackburn left him with a fair few air miles and he admits he was leaning towards Elland Road when the call came to visit Old Trafford, the club he supported. While there he met Roy Keane and he admits the Corkman played a major role in his final decision.
"I talked to Roy Keane when I was over on trial and he told me that this was the best place. I told him it was between United and Leeds, because I had liked Leeds a lot and I thought I was going to sign for Leeds before I went to Man United. Keane just said: 'This is the best place'."
North Wicklow has produced plenty of promising young professional footballers over the past few years so there was plenty of advice available to his parents on the pitfalls and nitty-gritty of contract negotiations but they left the final decision to their son. Eighteen months on, McShane has absolutely no regrets about picking Manchester United ahead of Leeds.
"It's just the best place to be. I weighed up everything. The facilities are brilliant. The people are top class and everyone is the club is friendly and down to earth. I also saw that youth players were getting their chance in the first team."
Having persuaded him to sign for United, Keane has now put a protective wing around McShane in much the same way he did when a previous Irish fledging, John O'Shea, joined the club in 1998. "He is always telling me that he is keeping an eye on me. When I've played in the reserves he has come and said 'well done' and when I played in the Youth Cup last year he was congratulating me after each match." McShane was the first Irish-based player since O'Shea to sign for United and the Waterford man is another great source of help and advice.
"I can talk to John O'Shea like a mate. When I see him we can have a good chat about things, like when he was with Brian Kerr and Noel O'Reilly in the youth team. We have a lot in common."
He has also struck up a friendship with a United scout, Ollie Murphy, which allows them to share a joint passion.
"Ollie is also Irish and during the summer we go to the Irish Centre in Manchester to watch the GAA championship matches."
When McShane joined United in July 2002 he arrived at the training ground in Carrington with a stress fracture in his back. While the rest of that summer's intake were doing their pre-season training he was sharing a treatment room with Gary Neville, Quinton Fortune, Rio Ferdinand and David May.
"I had little chats with them and they were giving me a bit of stick, especially David May. It was good because it allowed me to get used to the banter. Some of the banter over there is quite harsh. I think I fell on my feet really. I was working really hard with the physios but watching from the sidelines allowed me to take everything in."
There is a sense that everything McShane does is calculated to help him achieve his ultimate dream and he admits that he didn't suffer from any of the emotional turmoil that usually afflicts Irish youngsters who head for England at 16.
"I don't understand people being in bits. I can't relate to it. I try and think when I have been homesick and I can't think of any time. You miss certain bits and it is good to get home but I have never had it bad," he admits.
He was discharged from the treatment room at the end of September. Without a pre-season under his belt the 16-year-old McShane was expected to struggle but stunned everybody at United with his fitness levels and walked off with the 'man of the match' award when he made his debut for the U-17s away to Liverpool.
"It was brilliant moment. To put on the jersey was amazing and getting 'Man of the Match' was an extra bonus. Everything just took off from there."
A few more games for the U-17s followed before promotion to the U-19s and the FA Youth Cup team. Manchester United and the FA Youth Cup are intertwined. The Busby Babes won the first five competitions with teams that included Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Liam Whelan, Shay Brennan and Jackie Blanchflower. In 1964, United captured the trophy with a team that included George Best, Willie Anderson and David Sadler while 1992 produced David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville.
United have won the trophy more times than any other English club and it's the main target for the club's underage set-up every season.
"Man United just emphasise how much they want to win it every year. They want to the best club from the youngest age all the way up."
McShane was the youngest player in the United team when they captured the trophy in 2003, beating Middlesbrough over two legs. "We hadn't won it in a few years so it was brilliant to win it again. It's good to be in the same category as those other players who won it before. All my mates back home watched the final against Middlesbrough. I couldn't believe how many people had watched it. When I went home for the summer people were coming up to me and saying well done."
Despite being the baby of the team, McShane had no fears about stepping up an age group. "I like playing against older lads because it gives you a test. Even on the green in Kilpedder I would be playing with older lads. You get used to it. My older brother John was kicking me around the garden all the time," he laughs.
Ferguson attends the Youth Cup matches and isn't slow to offer pieces of advice to the likes of McShane. "He called me over before my first match against Newcastle and told me that there was a 6ft 23ins forward playing and he wanted me to mark him out of it. He was just joking but he can be serious as well. He is brilliant. Against Rushden and Diamonds he told me that if we didn't win by four goals we were to keep going across the sea to Europe and not come back. We only won 2-1 but thankfully he was only joking."
McShane made pre-season in 2003 and then captained United's youth team to victory in summer tournaments in Austria and Northern Ireland. Between July and the start of October he played 27 games for club and country before being sent home for a week to rest after he complained of a pain in his foot.
"They said it was my body telling me I have had too much football."
REFRESHED after a week in Wicklow, he returned to a first outing with the reserves against Birmingham City. Making the reserve team had been one of his goals for the current season and he admitted getting frustrated when it wasn't happening. "I know I am better than the players in there but I have just got to take my time. I really wanted to get into the reserves this season and I was upset when I wasn't getting in. But I was told to relax and take my time."
Irish international striker Clinton Morrison and Trinidad's Stern John provided the opposition for his reserve debut which he described as a good test and McShane's next outing came as a substitute for Wes Brown in a friendly against Bristol Rovers.
His last outing, just before Christmas, was against Middlesbrough where he gave away a penalty but redeemed himself with the equaliser in a 2-2 draw. McShane signed a professional contract on his 17th birthday which lasts until the end of the 2004-05 season. With 18 months to go he's happy with where he's heading.
"My long term ambition is to get into the first team but I don't like to think that far ahead. I'm just going to take one step at a time. I want to win the youth cup again because I'm captain so that and a few reserve games is my aim for this year."
McShane is a player of tremendous potential but still has a long way to travel on a path mined with pit-falls. But if Alex Ferguson reckons he has the drive of one Roy Maurice Keane, McShane won't be found wanting.