Dwight McNeil: The England Under 21 international who wants to become Burnley's answer to Cristiano Ronaldo

Burnley's Dwight McNeil takes on Everton's Andre Gomes
Burnley's Dwight McNeil takes on Everton's Andre Gomes

Hitting free kick after free kick is a habit that most set-piece takers in the game abide by, and Burnley’s Dwight McNeil is no different.


Practice makes perfect and getting in to that routine of striking the ball, gauging distances, positioning, weight, technique and trajectory will only come to good use on match day.

Portuguese winger Cristiano Ronaldo was famed for it, staying behind for hours after training sessions in order to polish his art.

The five-time FIFA Ballon d’Or winner, now with Serie A giants Juventus, is one of the most renowned set-piece specialists on the planet, netting 54 times from dead-ball situations.

McNeil was just eight when the 34-year-old, at the back end of his Manchester United career, netted one of his most iconic efforts in the Premier League.

It was in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford in 2008. Portsmouth, now in League One, were the pawns in his masterpiece. David James was the victim of his excellence.

It was a strike that led Robin Marshall, a professor of physics and biology at the University of Manchester, to declare: ‘It’s intrinsic skill combined with exploiting chaos’.

Ronaldo’s party trick is a work of art. It’s a talent that had former United youth player McNeil hooked from the word ‘go’ at Carrington.

But he wasn’t the only one. United have woven a rich tapestry of experts in that field; David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and Denis Irwin, to name but a few.

McNeil could follow. It’s more ‘mannequins for men’ than ‘jumpers for goalposts’ now for the teenager, who was released by United as a 14-year-old.

Alongside midfielder Ashley Westwood, on the state-of-the-art grounds at the Barnfield Training Centre, McNeil brushes up on his potentially game-changing attribute, repetitively steering the ball towards an empty net. It’s by no means an obligation, it’s simply a labour of love.

“At United I basically got told that I wasn’t good enough to be on set-pieces,” said the 19-year-old. “Here, with the Under 18s, I mainly took in-swingers and it was Duffo who helped me a lot. I’ve always been good at crossing the ball from a young age.

“On Friday’s me and Westy always take free kicks. Westy will go a bit closer and I’ll take them from further out so I can try and find my range. Me and Westy always practice.

“On Friday we’ll do shooting first and then we’ll stay outside and just take free kick after free kick. We get told not to do too much because we’ve got a game the next day, but we always take free kicks after training.

“Sometimes there’ll be a keeper, but we have mannequins as a wall and we just keep taking them and taking them.

“We were quite a way away from the first team at my age. We were on the opposite side of Carrington. We hardly had a chance to see them. In the games, at the time when I was there, you could see Ronaldo.

“Now there’s [Paul] Pogba and [Marcus] Rashford, who’s got the knuckle, but mine’s more of a whip. I can always improve on my set-pieces. I used to do it from close range with Westy and then he told me to go further back.

“Now I’m trying to hit them from 25/30 yards out, which is good if you can have that in your locker. It’s good to have.”

For now, though, while he exudes the confidence and mastery to find success from set-pieces, it’s not his finesse from a standing position that’s currently catching the eye and setting tongues wagging.

McNeil is making a name for himself with the ball at his feet, running at players. You can almost sense the dread of opposition full backs when he’s carrying the ball in to their territory, you can see the fear in their eyes.

His ability to travel with the ball so tight to his boot appears effortless, the way he glides past players - many who are highly thought of internationals - is a trait that’s exciting supporters and his productivity, regardless of whether he’s been shoehorned in to a corner, is an indication of just how good McNeil can become.

“One of my favourite players was Ryan Giggs,” he confessed. “I’d always have his number on my back.

“I always watched him, dribbling, using his left foot, he was unbelievable, crossing, taking people on, scoring. I think he was a great role model for me growing up.

“A bit later on, when Messi started to come through, it’s all been about him. I think he’s the greatest player of all time.”