Northern Ireland teen Paddy McNair set for Man United call-up as defensive crisis grows
Under-fire Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal is set to hand an SOS call to an untried teenager from Northern Ireland in a bid to solve a defensive crisis.
When Paddy McNair turned up for training at Manchester United's multi-million pound Carrington complex on Monday morning his mind was on preparing for a match with the club's under-21 side a full week away.
That fixture against Tottenham, which will be played in front of just a couple of hundred people, is now the furthest thing from his mind.
Instead, when he goes back there this morning the 19-year-old from Ballyclare will be dreaming about a first-team debut for the Red Devils tomorrow afternoon, where 75,000 fans will be watching.
When Paddy McNair turned up for training at Manchester United's multi-million pound Carrington complex on Monday morning his mind was on preparing for a match with the club's under-21 side a full week away
United manager Louis van Gaal hasn't had his sorrows to seek in the last seven days. As if it wasn't bad enough that his team threw away a 3-1 lead against Leicester City last Sunday, before losing 4-3, the Dutchman now has a defensive crisis on his hands.
Northern Ireland centre-half Jonny Evans is definitely out through injury, as is Phil Jones. Chris Smalling is facing a fitness race and Tyler Blackett, who himself has been promoted from the under-21 team this season, is suspended after being sent off at Leicester.
There may be nothing but bad news for the boss, for McNair though there are only good things in the offing. After being an unused substitute in the shock Capital One Cup defeat to MK Dons a month ago, a shirt with his name and the number 33 has been made up in readiness for his first team debut against West Ham United.
It is a day that McNair has dreamed of for the last seven years, since he was picked out playing for Ballyclare Colts and invited to train at the local Manchester United School of Excellence.
"Patrick was only 12 when I first became aware of him," said United's Northern Ireland scout Tony Coulter, who has succeeded his late father, the well-known Eddie Coulter, in what is viewed as a key role by those at Old Trafford.
"He came to the Centre of Excellence and it wasn't too long before United were taking him across to Manchester during every school holiday period.
"It wasn't hard to pick him out. You couldn't help but notice him really. He played in central midfield and he was the best player in his team at Ballyclare.
"When we brought him in he was the best player in his age group and with good coaching he kept on developing.
"There is only so much we can do with the players here, but when they got him over to Manchester he got even better."
In the beginning Tony and his father were looking at potential. Burgeoning talent can often fail to fulfil the promise that is shown in the early days and many youngsters tipped to have bright futures either come home after not making it in England, or never get that far in the first place.
McNair, who was handed his first start at under-21 level for Northern Ireland little more than a fortnight ago having made the step up from the under-19 ranks, was always different though.
There is no doubt at United – and there never has been – that he has the ability to make it at Old Trafford. What the coaching staff at the club haven't worked out just yet though is in what position he will do it.
He signed for the club at the age of 16 as a midfielder, but for most of the 2012-13 season he played at the back.
It was the same last year and it seemed that his future career path would be as a defender.
It was thought that the youth coaches wanted to see him back in the heart of midfield this season, but now van Gaal is set to put him into the first team as a centre-half.
"Once players sign for United and go over to Manchester we let them get on with it and we only hear every now and again from the coaches that 'the boy is doing well'," added Coulter.
"I do know that the under-21 coach, Warren Joyce, was very pleased with Patrick last season and he was expecting even more from him this year.
"Obviously Louis van Gaal has noticed him now too, which is great and I hope that what has been said about him making his first-team debut is true."
And Coulter, who has worked with every one of the young players who have gone from Northern Ireland to Manchester United for well over a decade, is also expecting big things from the highly-rated youngster.
"We have had Jonny Evans, Corry Evans and Craig Cathcart come through the Centre of Excellence and make it into the Northern Ireland international team after being signed by United and Patrick is right up there in that bracket," said Coulter.
"He is a really nice lad from a good family and that has helped him to get where he is."
And McNair's rise to the top could gain even more momentum after Saturday's game. If he does make his United debut Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill may find it hard to resist promoting him to his senior squad for the Euro 2016 qualifiers against the Faroe Islands and Greece, when it is named on Tuesday.