McClean facing new challenge with big second season.
By Colin Young
I was privileged enough to watch James McClean at very close quarters on the Republic of Ireland’s long and doomed trip to the Euro finals in Poland. Sadly we didn’t see each other much.
For McClean, it all started just a few days after the end of a busy Premier League season for a newcomer who had a virtually uninterrupted six months of league and cup action.
He played 22 games, usually non-stop, scored six goals, most goal of the week contenders, and terrorised defences who knew absolutely nothing about him. They soon learned but still couldn’t cope with his boundless energy, drive and ability.
Martin O’Neill may come from the same Derry streets but he admitted he hadn’t heard of McClean when he headed over to Hetton-le-Hole for a reserve fixture against Manchester United, just hours after he had been introduced to the media at the Stadium of Light. He probably knew more about the location of the reserve team matches, and its association with Bob Paisley et al.
It was an awful night. I remember it because I was there and, aside from watching him in the televised tournament in Dublin which had sealed his move to Sunderland, I hadn’t seen him in the flesh. I had heard a lot about him from colleagues over the water and he caught the eye in the horrendous gales simply because he just never stopped trying to do something different.
O’Neill, who has been known to like a winger in his time, had stumbled upon the biggest no-brainer of his career. McClean played a few days later against Blackburn. You know the rest.
Even Ireland’s stubborn manager Giovanni Trapattoni couldn’t ignore McClean’s arrival in the big time.
He was rightly selected for the Euro 2012 Finals squad, despite Trapattoni’s apparent belligerence to any public or media clamour for his inclusion beforehand. The Italian then called him in for extra training to get used to his rigid, defensive system.
He also started to use him on the right, which was a development welcomed by O’Neill and the player. It will be a valuable addition to his capabilities and is certain to be used this season by club and country.
Despite any fatigue, McClean looked to be enjoying himself. Although he wasn’t alone in tiring of the Italian’s repetitive training sessions over the six weeks.
But he looked relaxed and pleased with his run-out against Bosnia before we set off for week-long the training camp in Tuscany.
Sadly, he never had the chance to really show his talents on the field in June. For all his enthusiasm on the training ground he was never going to oust Damien Duff or Aiden McGeady from Ireland’s starting line-up, no matter what the results. Trapattoni proved that when McClean didn’t even play in the final pointless game against Italy.
His fleeting 15 minutes, which confirms his allegiance to the Republic, was at the end of the Spanish humiliation and he had no chance to impose himself on the dying embers of that 4-0 defeat.
A new-look Ireland, with Keiren Westwood looking to instill himself as the new number one, head to Serbia on Wednesday where McClean will start and have the chance to cement a place in Trapattoni’s squad for the World Cup 2014 campaign which starts next month with a trip to Kazakhstan. A journey into the unknown on so many counts.
The Ireland manager doesn’t travel to Premier League matches, but relies on his few scouts, assistant Marco Tardelli’s air-miles, DVDs and live action on his TV at home in Milan.
He’ll still have a close eye on McClean’s second season.
And he won’t be the only one.
O’Neill was asked by the press last week about McClean and admitted it’s a big one for the 23-year-old and he has high hopes for him.
Premier League scouts have already started to scrutinise his strengths and weaknesses, so Premier League managers have detailed instructions for their Premier League full-backs to deal with him.
I have been lucky enough to write a background article on James’s up-bringing, his first football club, Trojans FC, back in Derry, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in Britain and Ireland and his development at Derry City.
Derry vice-chairman Sean Barrett told me: "I know his background. He comes from a rough, tough environment where there’s a lot of poverty. People don’t have jobs."
And what lies at the heart of his story is McClean’s absolute single-minded determination to play football, harness his ability and physical strengths and just get better at it. His success, so far, is all down to him and now he must grasp the opportunity to develop.
Incidentally, Sean also told me about the reaction in Derry after his debut against Blackburn.
"The whole town was watching," he said. "I was in tears. He sent me a text afterwards which I’ve kept. He put: `What do you think to that big man?’"
The piece is full of little gems like that and will hopefully be published in the Daily Mail in the next week leading up to Saturday’s kick-off. (Plug over)
Last season McClean just seemed to brim with enthusiasm and confidence and at times displayed a ’couldn’t care less attitude’ to any setbacks in games. He was joy to watch and just didn’t know when to give up. He will need that in abundance this season.