Euro 2016
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Northern Ireland need McNair to change defensive guard

Paddy McNair was born little more than 13 months before the last major international football tournament was hosted on British soil, Euro ’96.

Aged just 19, he has been fast-tracked, admittedly more by necessity than design, into Manchester United’s first-team picture this term, and is now on the cusp of earning his first senior cap for Northern Ireland.

Michael O’Neill and his side are 6/4 with Coral to qualify for the Euro 2016 finals in France, yet McNair may be seen in international action prior to their next competitive fixture versus Finland with a debut against Scotland.

Friendlies, even one between two of the Home Nations that make up the British Isles, are billed as the perfect time to blood new talent into international football, but this outing in particular may herald more for Northern Ireland.

Aaron Hughes is six caps shy of a century, but also one of two 35-year-old defenders on the latest roster selected by O’Neill. Should the Brighton and Hove Albion veteran turn out at Euro 2016, with its expanded 24-team format, then it would mark a major achievement for both Northern Ireland and Hughes personally so late in his career.

Half-centurion Gareth McAuley, another mid-30s man among the Greens’ defensive ranks, is a player I never thought would become an international regular when watching him from Sincil Bank’s Co-op Stand at Lincoln City as a teenager over a decade ago.

The Red Imps were McAuley’s route into English football, and from there he has forged a fantastic career taking in Midlands and East Anglian clubs Leicester City, Ipswich Town and West Bromwich Albion, where he is enjoying his fourth season of Premier League football.

Such a feel good story notwithstanding, McAuley, Hughes and Chris Baird are coming towards the end of their careers, and all have been fantastic servants to their country. A cumulative caps haul in excess of 200 is testament to that, but this European Championship qualification campaign, successful or not, is a watershed for Northern Ireland.

Newcastle and Southampton youth graduates Hughes and Baird will join McAuley in being replaced by a trio that came through Old Trafford’s academy. Jonny Evans, banned at club level for an unsavory spitting incident with Papiss Cisse, should become the Greens’ defensive leader, with McNair and Craig Cathcart, now with Championship promotion contenders Watford, playing to his right.

Going into their Qualifying Group F game with Finland, Northern Ireland still hold a two-point cushion on an automatic place for Euro 2016, making odds of 7/1 for them to come top of this pool very generous indeed. Should O’Neill and the Greens go to France, expect young McNair to force his way into first-team thinking, if his development continues apace.