Simon Evans column - McNeil best homegrown midfield prospect since Steven?
When a talented young player emerges at a club, there is almost always a sensible wish from their managers to ‘talk down’ their potential, manage expectations and reduce the pressure on the player.
Sean Dyche has said all the right things about Dwight McNeil, appreciating his performances but avoiding the superlatives. But it has been so long since a crowd-pleasing, young, homegrown, player has broken through into the first team at Burnley that I think we can be forgiven a little excitement.
I’d say that McNeil is the best midfield prospect to have come through at Burnley since Trevor Steven.
Of course there have been other good young midfielders emerge from the youth ranks since Steven made his Clarets debut nearly 38 years ago. Chris McCann had the qualities to go on and become a Premier League regular before injuries wrecked his progress. He is still only 31 and without those knee problems he would surely be playing at a higher level than he is now for Atlanta United in Major League Soccer. Richard Chaplow was another young midfielder with huge potential and went on to play for West Bromwich Albion and Southampton before he too ended his career in the States.
But McNeil has already shown the potential to be something special.
He has grown in confidence with every appearance. He caught the eye in pre-season with a fine goal from distance against Preston North End. He made an impression against Olympiakos in the Europa League and held his own in the subsequent Premier League home game against Manchester United.
Since breaking into the side after Christmas he has really come into his own however. He was excellent in the 2-0 home win over West Ham United, with his first competitive goal crowning a fine performance and was highly effective again in the win at Huddersfield. He has looked comfortable on the ball, he can beat a man but also knows when to play the simple pass. Although he will rue that miss on Saturday at Watford he possesses a fierce shot. But what makes him truly stand out is his crossing ability.
He has the skill to get past a defender and deliver a dangerous ball but can also cross early, in the style of Kieran Trippier, making use of a different angle and also adding the element of surprise.
He is dangerous from set-pieces and he is deceptively quick – his slightly awkward running style conceals his pace, something that another player with a Burnley connection, Chris Waddle, made great use of during his illustrious career.
McNeil is a different kind of player to Steven, who was much more a wide midfielder than a winger, but he shares with him a lightness of touch and elegance on the ball.
Wingers are a rarity in the modern game where full-backs or wing-backs are expected to provide the width and the crosses, while covering a huge amount of ground down the flanks. But Dyche likes a winger, as the signings of Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Robbie Brady and Aaron Lennon prove. The recent absence of that trio has provided McNeil with his chance but it would be no surprise if the youngster keeps his place even when the senior widemen return.
It is worth remembering that Steven didn’t play in the top flight for Burnley, cutting his teeth in the third division title winning team in 1982 and then enduring a relegation campaign from the old second division the following seaso. McNeil though is learning his craft at the highest level and that shows a maturity and belief that his youthful demeanour sometimes hides. It is one thing coming into the first team in the lower divisions, learning from your mistakes before getting the chance to step up a level but it is another thing all together to have to take those initial steps in front of big crowds in globally televised matches.
Indeed before he went on to earn 36 England caps and win titles with Everton, Rangers and Marseilles, Steven struggled in his early time at Everton following his move to Turf Moor, finding the step up to the top flight a tricky one before his class eventually emerged.
On Tuesday, the Rochdale born McNeil should line-up at one of the biggest stages of all - at Old Trafford against Manchester United, the club who let him go from their academy at 14.
Burnley fans know already that McNeil has the potential to be a special player and it would be no surprise if, after Tuesday, United supporters leave the ground wondering if their club, which has produced so much talent over the decades, let one slip through the net.
* Simon Evans is Football Correspondent for Reuters news agency. He has reported on football across Europe, including eight years covering Italy’s Serie A from Milan. He co-authored ‘The Rough Guide to European Football’ book. After ten years covering sport in the United States, he returned to England in 2017, covering football across the country, particularly in the North West. A lifelong Burnley fan, Simon grew up in the area where he now lives again.