NEIL WARNOCK claims Paddy McNair is ‘the best player he has ever managed’ – and expects the Middlesbrough centre-half to be playing European football in the next two or three seasons.

Warnock has overseen a number of radical transformations since his appointment as Middlesbrough manager in the summer, but McNair’s emergence as a top-class central defender has perhaps been one of the more surprising.

The Northern Ireland international has spent the vast majority of his Boro career playing in midfield, and might well have stayed there had an exodus of senior defenders in the summer no coincided with some pre-season injury issues that forced Warnock to field McNair in his backline.

Initially, the 25-year-old played as one of three centre-halves, and it was assumed he would step back into midfield if Warnock opted to revert to a flat back four.

Instead, he has remained in defence and rapidly established himself as a key Boro performer alongside fellow centre-half Dael Fry.

His performances have earned rave reviews, and Warnock has been racking his brains to consider whether he has ever managed a better player. His conclusion, despite a 40-year career that has featured 18 different managerial positions, is that he has not.

“I can’t think of one better (than McNair), I really can’t,” said the Boro boss. “I keep thinking, but I can’t come up with anyone.

“I’ve had goalscorers – (Adel) Taarabt and (Victor) Moses and people like that, individuals who can do a bit of magic. But as a player, as a pro, as a person, I’ve never had a better specimen than this.

“The really exciting thing is that he’ll get better than this too. I’ll be surprised in the next two or three years if he’s not playing in Europe at the very top. He’s the best I’ve ever seen.”

Speak to McNair, and it quickly becomes evident that the former Manchester United trainee still regards himself as a midfielder playing out-of-position at the back.

His versatility will always be a major asset, but for as long as he is playing under Warnock, he had better get used to the idea of lining up in the back four.

“Is he a defender? Without a shadow of a doubt,” chuckled Warnock. “He thinks he’s a midfield player, but I’ve told him he’s an average midfield player. He’s an excellent centre-half though!”

Warnock has made reinventing players something of a speciality since moving to Teesside, with contract extensions for both Marc Bola and Anfernee Dijksteel underlining the extent to which their fortunes have been transformed this season.

The 72-year-old still gets a massive kick out of improving young players, and has a lengthy track record of moulding careers and putting people on the right track.

Djed Spence is one of his latest projects. The 20-year-old boasts an abundance of natural talent, with Warnock convinced he is capable of making it to the very top. His laidback approach to life has already got him into trouble on more than occasion though, and his manager has been delving into his memory bank to provide an example of a player who found himself in a similar situation as he tried to take his career to the next level.

“I’ve been telling Djed about my time with Victor Moses,” said Warnock. “He never tracked back and wouldn’t put in a tackle. He had so much ability, I thought what a waste, a bit like Djed at times.

“I told Djed about Victor. I told him we played Cardiff once, chucking it down with rain, horrible night. I pulled Victor to one side and said, ‘You have to make your mind up and decide what you want to be, you could go to the top or the other way’. Ninety minutes later, man of the match, unbelievable. I told him, ‘You’ll never forget this night’.

“Moving on, he went from Palace to Chelsea and played for Nigeria. He went to the African Nations, he wins Player of the Tournament. After the last game, I text him: ‘Can you remember Cardiff, Victor?’. Within five minutes, he must have just come off the pitch, he’d text me back: ‘I’ll never forget that, gaffer’.

“Djed could be anything. He could play at the very top or he could be non-league in five years. There’s only Djed who can answer that. That’s why I told him the story.

“I got so much pride seeing Victor playing, winning that, and playing for Chelsea at wing-back - he couldn’t tackle a bag of crisps when I first had him! It’s great when you see things like that.”