'It was a no-brainer' - Why is 35-year-old journeyman Paul McShane playing for Man Utd Under-23s?

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On July 23, just a few hours after Manchester United had confirmed the signing of Jadon Sancho, they made another transfer announcement. 

Red Devils supporters were expecting a new centre-back to arrive as rumours swirled regarding a move to Raphael Varane, and though the latest new arrival does play at the heart of defence, his was not the name on the lips of most United fans.

That is not to say that the return of Paul McShane to Old Trafford is any less important in terms of shaping the club's future than the first-team signings made over the summer, though.

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McShane, who came through the United academy system before leaving in 2006 to enjoy a nomadic career throughout the English game, has been brought back to the club in an 'innovative role', which will see him both play alongside and coach the club's next cohort of youngsters.

Despite being 35, he will play exclusively for Neil Wood's Under-23s team, with no chance of him being called-up to the first team, even with the injury issues facing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as he prepares to deal with both Varane andy Harry Maguire being out in the coming weeks.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” McShane tells Goal. “To come back to Manchester United, and also to make that transition from playing to coaching, it’s a great opportunity for me.

"Last season, when I played it wasn’t enough for me to just keep turning up as a player, I felt I wanted that little bit more responsibility and to get involved with the coaching side of things, and this allows me to do that but also have the beauty of still playing.” 

But wasn’t he worried about the stigma of being the ‘old one’ playing in the youth team? Especially when he had offers on the table to continue playing in the Football League for at least another season. 

“It didn’t cross my mind at all actually, I was just buzzing to get involved,” he explains. “The first time I thought about it was when an opposition player told me I must be rubbish if I was still playing reserve level football at 35-years-old. I don’t think they quite got the role!” 

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Since arriving in pre-season, McShane has featured six times for the U23s, as one of three over-aged players allowed to play in each game.

But he is not about to start banging Wood’s door down demanding more minutes.

“I’m not here to play, I’m not here to get in the first team, so it’s not an issue that I don’t play certain games,” he says. “I’m here for the coaching side.

"The beauty of it is that I can still play, so I can get a different perspective on things in training sessions and in games, and I can help lads when we’re in the thick of the action.” 

Though it might be odd to see a player of McShane's age playing at such a level, United are not unique in this regard.

Brighton were the pioneers in this regard when they brought in Andrew Crofts in 2019, with the ex-midfielder now the U23s coach at the Seagulls. Southampton, along with United, have followed suit in recent months, with 32-year-old defender Olly Lancashire filling the role at St. Mary's.

In the games that McShane has played, he has already shown the benefit of his leadership and experience in what is a very young United U23s team.

Opposition managers have noted the impact his presence has had on Wood’s side. and United sources could not speak more highly of the way he has integrated himself into the set-up and become a trusted point of contact for the younger players at the club’s Carrington training base.

McShane is not short of advice to pass on, either.

In his first stint at United, he trained under Sir Alex Ferguson and shared the pitch with the likes of Roy Keane, Nemanja Vidic, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rio Ferdinand.

And though he never made a competitive appearance for the club, those years of growing within United’s academy make him the perfect tutor for the current crop. 

“Being here from such a young age, I felt as if I took the standards that I learned here throughout my whole career," he says. "When I was going and playing for different clubs, I always tried to keep the standards myself, but I also couldn’t understand why other people weren’t striving for those standards because they were just ingrained in everyone at United.

“I think I’ve brought that back now, because if you lack the intensity in training you’ll get found out on match day. One thing I’m about is making sure you give everything you’ve got every day, and if you give away a ball or two it doesn’t really matter, everyone does that.

"But when you’re lacking in intensity and you’re lacking a bit of mentality to be the best you can possibly be, that’s where it hits me in the pit of my stomach. So I try and help lads with that and show them the standards that are needed to become a professional footballer.” 

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McShane knows all too well what it’s like to give the ball away in training. His idol Keane ensured he would never forget that. 

“Training with him was quite an experience, because he didn’t take it easy on you," he recalls. "I remember being lashed out at a few times by Roy for giving the ball away on more than one occasion.

“He held no prisoners, no matter what age you were. I always remember him saying it was tough love but it was quite tough as a 17-year-old getting hammered by Roy!”

McShane, an Ireland international who played for Sunderland, Hull City, Barnsley, Crystal Palace and Reading, amongst others, might not have the same terrifying demeanour as his compatriot Keane, but he is not afraid to be ruthless in his criticism as he tries to help his new team-mates reach their potential. 

“I made a career out of having a decent mentality. I wasn’t as technically gifted as most players, I had to work really hard for what I got and I knew I had the edge on people with that in the end,” he explains. “I try and drive that into players.

"Sometimes it might be a bit of a harsh word here or there, but they’ve got to realise that if they have the technical abilities and the mental abilities as well, then they’re going to the top.

"We can see in Cristiano Ronaldo that he’s got that balance and he’s the greatest player in the world.” 

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The advice McShane took from Ferguson that he is passing down is for the young players to to enjoy the journey, a gem that has stuck with the veteran since the Scot said it to him in his early playing days.

He does not, though, have to pass on what he picked up from training with Ronaldo, because the class of 2021 are now able to see it for themselves first hand. 

“I think Cristiano’s presence alone will help a lot of people," McShane admits. "He might not have to say anything, it’s just the way he acts around the training ground, how he applies himself in training and in the gym and staying on top of his fitness. I think that will help lads.

“The young lads will have to look at him and learn as much as possible off him, because, as I’ve said before, he’s cracked it and he had that work ethic and the ability to go along with it.” 

Ronaldo and McShane are both at the start of their second stints at the club, but on entirely different paths.

While the Portugal international is preparing to fight for titles in the Premier League and Champions League, the latter is busy in video meetings, training and one-to-one mentoring of the younger age groups.

Sources say training standards improve when McShane directly participates in a session, and the different perspective he can give on player performance from being on the pitch in games is proving vital for staff.

It is the beginning of what McShane is hoping will be a successful coaching career, but for now his playing days are not over, with a trip to one of his former clubs ,Sunderland, up next in the EFL Trophy on Wednesday. 

It is a competition United have opted to play over the past couple of seasons, as it allows them to give experience to the youngsters of playing against senior players that Premier League 2 just cannot offer.

And whether McShane will be offering his leadership on the pitch or from the sidelines, the message will remain the same. 

“We’re going there to win, not just for a kickabout. This is the mentality of Manchester United, we’re turning up,” he says. “It’s a great competition to be in, you can get all the way to Wembley, so you’ve got to want to win.”

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While Wood’s team are very young, they will have confidence in their ability to go toe-to-toe with the League One outfit, having beaten Bradford City last time out after narrowly losing to Lincoln City back in August.

A number of the players involved have already trained with Solskjaer’s first team, and McShane can see a bright future for a number of those he has worked with in the past few months.

“I’ve seen a few people here who definitely have the potential to make it into Manchester United’s first team, but if it’s not here, then hopefully they’ll go on and make careers for themselves elsewhere,” he says.

And what next for him?

“I don’t know how long I’m going to play for, but I see it as a transition into coaching," he concludes. "I always thought that I would finish playing at the end of this season for good and go into a full-time coaching role, but at the minute I’m so packed out with my schedule I have no time to think about what’s next.

"For now, I’m buzzing to be back at the club. It’s been an exciting role so far and hopefully it continues.”