Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 3 December 2020

Dwight McNeil: Burnley's throwback winger looks forward to a bright future

The 20-year-old footballer on his breakthrough under Sean Dyche, living with his parents during lockdown, and being the youngster in the Clarets' squad

Marking Dwight McNeil is a task that has proved beyond some of the Premier League’s more accomplished right-backs.

Either Kyle Walker or Joao Cancelo will be charged with halting one of the game’s most dynamic young wingers when Burnley visit the Etihad Stadium next Monday. The Manchester City pair are at least qualified for a tough task, unlike McNeil’s recent training partner.

Surely a 43-year-old postman, albeit one who used to be a prolific non-league goalscorer, stood no chance? “He did well, to be fair,” said the Burnley attacker. A by-product of lockdown was that his father, Matty, took on the duty of impersonating a top-flight defender in a field behind a school. “He is getting on a bit but his fitness levels are still there, bless him. I really appreciated him helping. Me and my dad would do loads of training drills that we used to do back in the day.”

McNeil still lives with his parents, which, given his lack of footballing commitments in the last three months, has had its issues for them. “I have been on my PS4 with all my mates,” he said. “About 3 o’clock in the morning, they were coming in, saying: ‘Can you keep the noise down? I have got work in the morning’. I start laughing.”

McNeil’s prowess at Fifa has provided his only competitive football since starring in Burnley’s draw with Tottenham on 7 March. He was the Clarets’ representative in the Premier League eSports Invitational, reaching the semi-finals before meeting Wolves’ Diogo Jota. “I didn’t mind going out to the winner,” he said.

It is the closest Burnley have come to defeat since January. Sean Dyche has spent three months as the reigning manager of the month. The stoppage came at a bad time for them. “We know what was going on in the world but in a football sense we were on a great run,” added McNeil.

So was he, dating back 15 months in which he began 47 of Burnley’s 48 league games as they took 67 points. Before then, McNeil recalled: “We had 12 points from 19 games last season.”

Then a teenager with a solitary league start to his name became a catalyst. A break has allowed him to recognise as much. “Games come around quick so I had time to reflect on how well I had done.”

It has been a rapid rise. His first goal came against West Ham in December 2018. He has made debuts for first England Under-20s and then the Under-21s. He was due to line up against Turkey at Turf Moor in March. “Disappointing, I would have enjoyed playing in front of my home fans for my country,” he said.

Yet, 2020 has contained highlights for a man who was released by the club he supported, Manchester United. Burnley registered their first win at Old Trafford for 57 years. “I will always remember that day especially growing up a United fan,” he said. “I was talking about it with my dad. Jay Rod [Jay Rodriguez] scored and celebrated right in front of where we sat in the Stretford End.”

McNeil grew up idolising Ryan Giggs. Another inspiration was also at Old Trafford. “Robin van Persie when he went to United, even though he was a striker,” he explained. “I mainly look at the left-footed players [like Arjen] Robben.” The greatest, for him, however is Lionel Messi.

Some of England’s finest now stand in his way. “It is everyone’s dream to get a call-up for the senior team of their country. I have trained with them a couple of times and I have really enjoyed it,” said McNeil.

His form merits recognition from Gareth Southgate. The problem is that Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho can all play on the left wing. Competition for places may be stiffest there. “A lot of great players,” McNeil said. “It is just one of those things.”

McNeil finds himself in a different select group. He has delivered the sixth most crosses in this season’s Premier League. Trent Alexander-Arnold tops the list, followed by Kevin de Bruyne. “It’s good to be in the company of those great players,” he said. “One of my main strengths is crossing.”

He was only six weeks old when the 20th century ended but accepts the description of an old-fashioned winger. “People have said that, [I am] more direct and go on the outside more than the inside but it also helps with our style of play and having two big men up front.” Brief as his career is, it already includes seven assists for Chris Wood’s goals. “I thoroughly enjoy setting him up,” McNeil added.

Dyche’s instructions are simple. “When I came in last year, he told me to just play how I normally play in the [Under] 23s, getting the ball, trying to make things happen with crosses into the box. This year he told me to keep it basic. Now nearly every day in training he tells me to smile. I am laidback and like having a laugh on the training ground. He calls me and Johann [Berg Gudmundsson] the smilers because we are the most relaxed in the group. I don’t like it when he tells me to smile…”

It speaks, though, to the bond at Burnley. “I missed everyone,” said McNeil. “In the future, looking back at it, I think you will realise even more how special the team we have got now is.” He feels a part of it, even though he is much the youngest. Precocity has its perils and he has no peers at Turf Moor.

“We are an experienced group,” he said. “I remember going into the dressing room last year. I was 18. Chaz [Charlie Taylor] was the second youngest and Chaz was 25. The age gap to me was massive but the lads made me feel really welcome straight away.”

That generation gap is reflected in conversations and the soundtrack. “All the lads are married or have got kids,” McNeil said. When he, Taylor, Kevin Long and Erik Pieters have their daily discussions about the Fifa computer game, they get comments from colleagues with other commitments. “They let me off because I am so young at 20, I am doing what a young man can do, but they are married so they have got to look after the kids,” McNeil added.

It is not the only area of conflict. “Some of the stuff they are playing in the changing room, I am saying: ‘What is this music?’ I have not heard this before,” McNeil said. “They are all thinking I haven’t got a clue about music and then when I have got my music on in the coach going to the game, Corky [Jack Cork] is saying: ‘What are you listening to?’ Their stuff is a bit different to the hip-hop and rap I listen to.”

His older teammates’ taste include “a couple of Oasis songs. I see where they are coming from, why they listen to it, they like listening to the lyrics and stuff.” Some of Burnley’s players, like some of McNeil’s opponents, are nearer his father’s age than his own. Perhaps, though, it is opponents who should turn to Matty McNeil for advice in dealing with Dwight.

Updated: June 14, 2020 04:01 PM

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