Dwight McNeil is now a £35m Premier League star for Sean Dyche’s Burnley – but he could have joined Lancashire neighbours Blackburn Rovers instead.
Underrated and understated, hard-working but blessed with a technique that continues to fly under the radar; in many ways, Dwight McNeil is the perfect embodiment of Burnley Football Club.
Ever since he burst onto the scene with an astounding performance in a Europa League qualifier against Olympiakos in the summer of 2018, McNeil has been turning heads and whipping pinpoint crosses on the banks of the River Brun.
He’s one of the first names on Sean Dyche’s team sheet these days and a Man of the Match performance in Saturday’s 3-0 thrashing of West Ham was arguably his best yet in claret and blue. A first ever England cap, after making his debut for the U21s recently, cannot be far away.
But, like so many, McNeil’s career began with a sliding doors moment.
Look away, Blackburn
If it wasn’t for the eleventh-hour intervention of Greg Walsh, an experienced scout who has watched McNeil grow from a tenacious teen into one of the Premier League’s breakthrough stars, young Dwight could have been making a name for himself at Burnley’s bitter rivals instead.
“I used to go and watch Dwight when he was at Manchester United. He was always a very good, technical player. I got to know his dad (the former Stockport and Macclesfield stalwart Matty) and we became friends,” said the former Manchester City and Birmingham talentspotter, who was working as a scout and Northern Coordinator for Watford at the time.
“Matty rang me up out of the blue in 2014 and told me Dwight was being released by United. I said I’d have him at Watford and Matty replied; ‘No, we want him to stay in the north west’.
“Now, he was set up to go to Blackburn Rovers but I intervened and sent him to Burnley. I said; ‘Don’t go to Blackburn, go to Burnley’ because Blackburn were on a downward slope at the time.
“It’s one of those little things in your life that can go one way or the other. He could have gone to Blackburn and it might have all fallen apart.”
Proving the doubters wrong
McNeil has always displayed a maturity beyond his years, a trait his gravel-voiced gaffer at Burnley certainly appreciates, and it’s hard to believe now that Manchester United ever doubted his potential for a second.
Five years on, The Sun reports that the 13-time Premier League champions want him back – though they will have to pay £35 million to rectify their mistake. Is anyone getting Paul Pogba vibes?
“United thought they had stronger players at the time. Dwight was devastated (to be let go). United always had their golden boys,” explains Walsh.
It’s tempting to wonder whether a lack of explosive pace counted against McNeil at Carrington.
That never held a certain David Beckham back at Old Trafford though. And, like the legendary number seven, McNeil has shown that you don’t need speed to become a top class winger. Half a yard is all he requires to shape up one of those trademark whipped crosses.
This rather old-school approach to wingplay has resulted in four assists in 12 Premier League games this season already for the 19-year-old. The latest, served up on a garnished plate for a Chris Wood to gleefully gobble down, set Burnley on their way to a comfortable win against Manuel Pellegrini’s Hammers on Saturday.
But don’t expect to see McNeil get carried away with life in the limelight and swagger off the Burnley bus with a garish Louis Vuitton washbag under his arm or a diamond encrusted snapback. Imagine Sean Dyche’s face, for a start.
“The thing with Dwight is that he’s very down to earth. He’s always had a great attitude. I came down to Burnley the training ground and he came straight over and shook my hand. He’s a phenomenal kid!” Walsh enthuses, clearly proud of the youngster.
“Off the field, he’ll take a lot of time for anyone. He’s a really nice kid.
As with any overnight sensation, speculation is starting to rear it’s ugly head. Leicester City, Everton and Wolverhampton Wanderers are interested, according to TEAMtalk, while Juventus and Arsenal have been linked as well.
Walsh, however, thinks that Burnley fans can sleep easy tonight. Dwight is loving life in claret and blue after all.
“Knowing the McNeils like I know them, if Dwight’s happy somewhere he’ll stay here. If he’s happy at Burnley I don’t know why he would leave. I would be very surprised. I don’t think he’s is the type of kid who’d want to go.”
Blackburn’s loss, it seems, will be Burnley’s gain for the foreseeable future.