22-year-old James McClean has burst onto the scene at Sunderland since the arrival of Martin O’ Neill as manager, who has favoured the Irishman on the left hand side of midfield. McClean’s impact has been almost instantaneous, putting in a good second-half shift on his and O’ Neill’s debut against Blackburn, while also doing well over ninety minutes against Manchester City
The former Derry City man joined Sunderland in August for what could turn out to be a bargain £350,000. He wasn’t lacking experience however, having come into the Premier League with over seventy games to his name in the League of Ireland, as well as eighteen goals, and at 22-years-of-age he isn’t exactly a kid joining a Premier League youth team like many Irish players before him. McClean managed to establish for himself a fairly impressive career in football before making the coveted move into top flight English football. Sunderland’s faith has been repaid in the wide-man, as he looks set to make the left midfield berth his own for the remainder of the season.
On Tuesday night, McClean scored his first goal for the club – a rebound from a header which had been saved – in a 4-1 victory at the DW Stadium. He marshalled the left hand side in sublime fashion, supporting makeshift left back Jack Colback as much as he could.
McClean’s performances in the Premier League may have come at an important time for him and the Republic of Ireland. Despite playing for the Northern Irish U21 team, McClean opted to play senior football for those in the south under Giovanni Trapattoni. The experienced Italian manager, who has just led Ireland to their first international tournament since the 2002 World Cup, was genuinely pleased that McClean chose to switch his allegiance, citing the player’s passion to be a successful international player as an honourable attribute. Given that he appears to be in Trapattoni’s good books, unlike a handful of players that have failed to make the grade during the Italian’s reign, McClean may be in the running for a Euro 2012 position – even despite his relative inexperience on the international stage. Although Trap may not be inclined to venture far from the squad that appeared during qualification, it’s without doubt that McClean will earn the consideration of a spot in the squad if he keeps up these sort of performances.
When sports reporter Lisa Fallon asked the Italian manager about McClean, he got out a folder with a newspaper cutting of a news report on the player’s switch of allegiance, and spoke positively on his decision to play for the Republic of Ireland:[audio:http://ia700806.us.archive.org/24/items/TrapattoniOnJamesMcclean/trapMcclean.mp3]
Another reason why the Sunderland winger may feature in Ireland’s plans is his worth ethic on the field. Trapattoni loves hard-working players who will give their all for the cause, and McClean fits the mould brilliantly as a tireless worker down the left flank. In his short spell in the Sunderland line-up, McClean has displayed tremendous marauding abilities to get forward, a skilful touch on the ball paired with an often pinpoint cross into the box. But equally as eye-catching have been his defensive capabilities, never neglecting his duties or failing to cover the player at left-back.
After his debut goal for Sunderland, I’m perhaps a couple of days late featuring McClean – as it goes without saying how much of a “one to watch” the former Derry man is going into 2012, both at club level with Sunderland and on the international front with his adopted national side.
From an Irish point of view, we’ve had a number of players crop up over the last couple of years that have had to wait for their opportunity in a green shirt – James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman, for instance – and it’s foolish to think McClean will immediately oust Damien Duff, Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt as options on the left hand side for Ireland. But considering his already positive relationship with the Irish manager, we may well see McClean in a green shirt before the year is out. And if things continue to bode well for McClean at Sunderland under Martin O’ Neill this season, a Euro 2012 spot may not be beyond the realms of possibility.
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