Paddy McNair defends for his life against West Ham
Before making his Manchester United debut against West Ham United at Old Trafford, 19-year-old defender Paddy McNair listed his career highlight as playing alongside Northern Irish compatriot Jonny Evans in an Under 21 game. He cites Evans as a significant influence on his career.
McNair, who arrived at United as a No 10 but was encouraged by coach Paul McGuiness to drop back, has made steady progress and established himself in the U21 team last season. A 93rd-minute winner in a key game against Reading and a bullet header against Norwich City recently were highlights, but there were no expectations around the club that he would be featuring in the first team this season.
Nor was there any anticipation that Louis van Gaal would not be able to call upon nine of his players, including four centre-backs, as was the case on Saturday, the scarcity of talent exacerbated as United sold or loaned 14 players in the summer.
After United’s 5-3 defeat to Leicester City, Van Gaal’s defence – or the players he had to play there – was under more scrutiny. Desperate for his side to stop leaking goals, he said: “We have a saying in the Netherlands of ‘het lek boven krijgen’, which means ‘finding the leak and fixing it’.”
That was harder to do with most of his stoppers injured, but he opted not to play the experienced Darren Fletcher out of position, nor Daley Blind, who can play centre-half. “I don’t like having too many left-sided defenders or left-footed players in defence,” Van Gaal said of Blind.
West Ham’s sizeable attackers will have seen an opportunity when the diminutive Marcos Rojo and rookie McNair were selected.
Among the keenest United watchers, eyebrows were raised as he chose McNair above Tom Thorpe, who is considered a superior centre-back but does not have McNair’s height. He came on in injury time.
McNair’s ability to listen and take instruction is believed to have impressed his boss, with his passage into first team training eased by the encouragement of Evans.
His first touch came in the first minute – an unnecessarily high ball to Di Maria, which nevertheless found the right man. McNair had little to do in the first 22 minutes as his side took a 2-0 lead, but much more as West Ham became the dominant side. McNair gave and received instruction – sometimes from teammates urging a simpler ball.
He was confident bringing the ball forward and was high-fived by Rojo for his chasing but his truest test came in the second half, with United down to 10 men and West Ham dominant and pushing for an equaliser.
As the minutes ticked down and United defended for their lives, twice McNair ended West Ham attacks. In the 82nd minute, he headed a cross away from goal and he was as relieved as his teammates when an 89th minute Kevin Nolan effort was adjudged offside.
United held on for victory and assistant manager Ryan Giggs made straight for McNair at the final whistle. He deserved the ensuing congratulations.
McNair is unlikely to be a regular, but unlikely also to forget his debut.
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