x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No more waiting in the wings for Sunderland's James McClean

The 'hungry kid' has come to the party early since Martin O'Neill took over, and wants to represent Republic of Ireland.

James McClean, right, made his debut for Sunderland under Martin O’Neill in December.
James McClean, right, made his debut for Sunderland under Martin O’Neill in December.

A revival in the north-east of England has its roots in Northern Ireland. Sunderland have been transformed in Martin O'Neill's brief reign at the Stadium of Light, given added pace and penetration on the left flank by his compatriot James McClean.

The manager hails from Kilrea, the winger from nearby Derry but his excellence has meant there are no charges of favouritism.

"He is not in the team because he is from the same part of the world as me. If that was the case I would have my brother in, who is two years younger than me and still wants to play," joked the 59-year-old O'Neill.

In any event, the reality is rather different. McClean was bought by the former manager Steve Bruce, signed after impressing for a League of Ireland Select XI in the Dublin Super Cup, a pre-season tournament where he faced Manchester City and Glasgow Celtic.

Bruce's initial plan was to keep his £350,000 (Dh2 million) recruit in the reserves until Christmas to allow him to acclimatise to his new surroundings.

Instead his debut came two weeks earlier, on December 11: with Sunderland trailing 1-0 to Blackburn Rovers in O'Neill's first game in charge, the new appointment sent his countryman on. After an injection of old-fashioned wing play, the manager had made a winning start and the 22-year-old McClean a favourable impression. He fitted in straight away.

"I was more nervous making my debut for Derry City in front of 3,000 than I was here," he said afterwards.

It proved the start of a run in the side. A first goal came in January's 4-1 win at Wigan Athletic; a valuable assist in Saturday's FA Cup draw against Middlesbrough.

In the process, a criticism of Sunderland's squad - that it lacked an out-and-out left winger - has been removed. Comparisons with O'Neill's long-term assistant, Nottingham Forest's European Cup-winning winger John Robertson, have followed, particularly with both players' ability to bend a cross around a defender.

O'Neill, pointing out that Robertson is right-footed, has deflected them while emphasising his player's attributes. "James is upright and very strong," he said. "He is good in the air."

And yet, O'Neill acknowledged McClean was an unknown quantity when he arrived.

"I didn't know anything about him," he said. A reserve-team match against Manchester United helped persuade him of McClean's merits.

"All of a sudden there was this hungry kid, bursting a gut on a night when there were 70mph winds ruining the game," he said. "He's courageous as they come and physically strong. The first time he gets the ball, he goes at his man and takes him on."

It is a habit that is earning him a growing band of admirers.

Rewind a few years, however, and fewer were convinced. McClean made a solitary appearance for Institute, the main semi-professional club in Derry. But, given a trial by Derry City, he took his chance. His rapid rise began.

"It meant a lot to be representing Derry as it was my hometown club, and it was something I always wanted to do," he said.

It also meant he was playing in the League of Ireland, not its Northern Irish counterpart: Derry, or Londonderry, is a predominantly Catholic city in Protestant Northern Ireland, a province divided by religion.

Fifa granted Derry City permission to join the League of Ireland in 1985, where they have played ever since apart from a brief hiatus in 2009.

Then Derry were expelled from the League of Ireland for financial irregularities. Lincoln City, an English League Two club, tried to sign McClean. He spurned their advances and continued to play for a reformed Derry.

His affinity for his native city, a place near the Irish border where he grew up a Catholic, Celtic fan, explains one of the major decisions for his career.

After representing Northern Ireland at youth level, McClean rejected a place in the senior squad for the match against the Faroe Islands in August.

He would rather represent the Republic of Ireland.

"If I don't get called up, then I'll live with that but I have confidence in my own ability that I will get a call-up at some stage with the Republic of Ireland," he said.

Giovanni Trapattoni, the Ireland manager, is a great advocate of continuity, and is expected to stick with the players who helped his side qualify for Euro 2012.

But he went to watch McClean play against Chelsea last month, saying: "James wants to play for us and that is important for me."

A season that began with the winger a League of Ireland player could end with him playing for the Republic in their first major tournament for a decade.

 

sports@thnenational.ae