From modelling to marauding - Boro defender Paddy McNair is tailor-made for NI attacking midfield role

By Mark SterlingBBC Sport NI
Paddy McNair
McNair was an injury worry ahead of Northern Ireland's squad being announced last week

"I was told it was the four best looking lads in the team that had to do it, so I wasn't too surprised when they called me up."

Paddy McNair was only five caps into his Northern Ireland career in March 2016 when he found himself standing alongside Gareth McAuley, Jonny Evans and Oliver Norwood modelling the squad's official suits for that summer's Euros.

Thirty-seven appearances later, and exactly six years since he made his debut against Scotland, McNair will be a key player for manager Ian Baraclough when Northern Ireland begin their World Cup qualifying campaign with a daunting trip to Italy on Thursday.

Not as influential as McAuley was, or as Evans still is, but, at 25, the Middlesbrough man has a lot of years left to further enhance his growing stature as an international force.

And, while his remark about being selected for the official suit photoshoot ahead of France was very much tongue in cheek, the Ballyclare native recognises his climb up the squad hierarchy since then.

"For my first few games, I was starting the odd match or coming on from the bench," reflected McNair, who has recovered from an injury he picked up for Boro last week.

"But now, I have 42 caps and am a much more experienced player. I don't think there are too many in the squad with more caps than me. When I go there I feel like an important player and that I can contribute well to the team.

"I've been in the squad for seven years now and am really good friends with a lot of the lads. When you first come into the squad you are a little bit nervous and don't want to say too much, but now it is like going away to play with your mates."

Paddy McNair
McNair looked up to experienced players Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans when he first joined the NI squad

Conversation with O'Neill that led to more advanced role

McNair has flourished in the Championship with Middlesbrough since joining in 2018, having spent two years at Sunderland after first leaving Manchester United for the North East in the summer of 2016.

This season in particular, while predominantly playing as a centre-half, McNair has been integral to Boro's push for promotion, earning strong praise from manager Neil Warnock, who has not hidden the fact he prefers him at the back.

"Yes, I've seen a few things he has said in the press, he has sort of made that clear," the laid-back former Manchester United man continued.

"He starts me every single week and that is the main thing, whether it's at centre-back or midfield I honestly don't mind, as long as I'm playing. Against Swansea recently I played the first 60 minutes in midfield and then dropped into the back three."

While starring for his club at the back, it is as a midfielder - and an increasingly more attacking one at that - that McNair has been one of Northern Ireland's most consistent performers in recent years.

He points to a conversation he had with then-manager Michael O'Neill a year after his debut as a turning point.

"When I first came into the squad I played a couple of games at full-back at the base as the holding midfielder," he said.

"I remember speaking to Michael and telling him I feel more comfortable playing box-to-box as that is what comes naturally to me. I think it was the match against Belarus at home just before the Euros when he first played me there and, since then, that was where he played me."

Benefitting from trusted triangle on right

Paddy McNair
McNair's Middlesbrough are sitting ninth in the Championship table

McNair's marauding runs from midfield have been one of Northern Ireland's key attacking assets in recent matches, his ability to arrive in the box seeing him grab four goals since 2019 as well as forcing the own goal in the 2-1 play-off final defeat by Slovakia.

His attacking play has mostly come from a position to the right of a midfield three that has been anchored by captain Steven Davis, with club team-mate George Saville often to the left.

While admitting results under Baraclough do not attest as much, McNair believes the understanding the trio have developed has benefitted him, as has his triangular relationship down the right with Stuart Dallas at full-back and Corry Evans or Niall McGinn on the right of the front three.

"You strike up a good bond with your team-mates. When I go forward and get into the box then I know either Steven or Sav will sit and, if it is on the other side and Sav is in the box, he knows that I will sit deeper," he noted.

"When Stuart Dallas plays right-back I have a good understanding of where he wants me to be and it is the same when we have Corry or Niall on the right. I have played with them for a number of years now and you get to know each other's games, which makes life easier for everyone."

Those relationships do not just happen automatically, however, as McNair explains.

"It wasn't like that straight away, especially under Michael at the start. We watched a lot of video clips and there were a couple of games when we weren't doing things as well as he would have liked.

"We had to put them into practice on the training field and I think over the last 18 months to two years, you can really see it working. Hopefully that will continue."

Those attacking instincts will no doubt be tested in Parma on Thursday night, but, as Warnock knows well, midfielder McNair can more than lend a hand in defence too if required.

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