The big interview: Sunderland’s Paddy McNair on the family farm, watching Joey Barton, World Cup dreams & treatment room craic with Duncan Watmore

Sunderlands Paddy McNair undergoes treatment in the first half of the game against Hull City at the Stadium of Light.
Sunderlands Paddy McNair undergoes treatment in the first half of the game against Hull City at the Stadium of Light.
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For Paddy McNair there was no sinking feeling, no sudden realisation his season was over.

He had felt the pop, but had no problems playing on. Sunderland beat Hull 3-0, a second win a row.

McNair was playing, vindicating his bold refusal to acquiesce to Jose Mourinho’s demands he left on loan.

In the tunnel afterwards there were kind words with friends in the Hull camp, McNair assuring them that the knock he picked up in the first half didn’t seem to be serious.

It was not until a day later, when the swelling began, that the picture became clear.

McNair was the latest in a scarcely credible list of injury disasters for the Black Cats. Some in the treatment room were familiar to time on the sidelines, for McNair it was a first.

Months later and there is light at the end of the tunnel.

McNair is running again, back on the grass.

Injury allowed for reflection, and a welcome Christmas at home, the family farm in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland. He was not able to be much help, walking the dogs but ‘not rounding up the cows or sheep or anything.’

Now, though, he is ‘sick of holidays’. At 21-years-old, he has travelled to a major championships and forged a promising career in the top tier.

Injury has put that into perspective and the hunger to get back is great.

“I think you can just sort of reflect on the last few years, what you’ve done. Even watching the games, when you’re playing you don’t realise how good it is to be playing, how well you’re actually doing,” he said.

“So when you step away from it, you realise that and it makes you want to come back even stronger.

“You play with so many lads when you’re younger, when I moved over to United at 14, there were about 30 in the group, I think only two or three are still playing now.

“It just shows you how competitive football is and how hard it is to be a professional footballer, so you get a bad injury like this and you appreciate it more I think.

“I still speak to a few lads, not everyone, that’s part of football, you go your own ways, but I still speak to a handful, still at United or playing for different things.”

A torturous lay-off has at least allowed for a welcome friendship to grow.

Both McNair and Duncan Watmore were making a breakthrough, key, hard-running cogs in a 4-3-3 that was paying off for David Moyes, when the same injury struck.

They have been there for each other every step of the way, their first real career setback.

“That’s been one of the best things about it, every day you came in and it is something different, you’re not sure what you’re going to be doing.

“So it’s not like you wake up in the morning, and think, ‘Ah, going in and doing that again’. Some days they’ve taken me and Duncan down to the beach,” he said.

“Obviously, Duncan has done the same injury as me so that’s really helped, doing everything the same, I’m helping him, him helping me.

“I couldn’t really imagine doing it on my own, it sounds bad, but I think Duncan’s happy I’m doing it with him and I’m definitely happy to have him.

“I got my operation a week ahead of Duncan, so I was winding him up, telling him I was a week ahead, you know.

“There’s a good bit of craic, some days you know I came in and it’s like, you’re devastated, you know. Some days he’s like that too so we can push each other along.”

Sunderland’s future is uncertain, but for McNair there is much cause for optimism.

The break from playing has allowed time to look ahead, to think about the development of his game.

Two goals in the League Cup against QPR have whetted his appetite and he intends to return an all-action midfielder.

On the international front, Northern Ireland’s quite remarkable revival shows no sign of slowing down. McNair has been in touch with Michael O’Neill, the man behind it all, and Russia next summer still remains on the cards.

“I think I’ll play midfield going forward, Sunderland signed me as a midfielder, I play there for Northern Ireland as well.

“I know I played a lot at centre-back under Louis van Gaal, that was his opinion of my best position, but the majority of coaches and managers think I’m better in midfield,” he said.

“I don’t really just want to be just a sitting player, sitting in the centre circle. I want to get about, when I was younger my hero was Steven Gerrard, a brilliant player.

“All the teams in the Premier League have brilliant midfield players so you just learn little bits. Even Burnley last week, Joey Barton, he’s completely different to say, Paul Pogba at United, so you just can see those other parts of the games that they do.”

“With Northern Ireland, it’s brilliant so it is, we’re playing so well at the moment, especially on Sunday night there against Norway.

“I think it just shows how far the team has come. I think it was three years ago, Norway came and beat us 3-0, comfortably.

“On Sunday night we just didn’t give them a sniff the whole game.

“We’re confident, obviously we expect Germany to win the group, but that second place is what we’re after and get into the play-offs and hopefully the World Cup.”

Between now and then, the final stages of recovery.

Whisper it quietly, but before long there may also be a long-awaited return to the golf course. Sometimes, it’s the little things in life.