The idea of an outfield player making the cut for a competitive tournament without playing in one of the said tournament’s qualifiers is nothing new for the Republic of Ireland: David Kelly in Euro ’88, Bernie Slaven and John Byrne in Italia ’90, the ‘Three Amigos’ of Gary Kelly, Phil Babb and Jason McAteer in the 1994 World Cup, and Steven Reid in the 2002 World Cup.
However, even with Giovanni Trapattoni vowing not to tweak his squad, never has such intrigue, controversy and surprise (given his seemingly ‘sudden’ emergence, having taken the ‘magic plane’ to Sunderland and the United Kingdom, to the League of Ireland aloof Trapattoni and Marco Tardelli) surrounded James McClean’s possible inclusion. The calls for McClean do not seem unjust either, with the 22 year old Derryman putting in some dazzling displays for Sunderland in recent weeks and replicating the kind of form that made him one of the League of Ireland’s standout footballers of the decade with Derry City.
With McClean possessing Trapattoni’s favoured traits of commitment, physicality, a fantastic work-rate and the ‘rabbit out of the hat’ ability that the Italian has always expected from his wingers down through the years (Franco Causio, Liam Brady, Zbigniew Boniek, Angelo Di Livio, Simão, Patrick Jezek and Aidan McGeady), it all seems so clearcut. However, McClean, who has never played for the Republic at any level, embodies the never-ending rivalry between the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and the Irish Football Association (IFA) over player eligibility, which intensified with the cases of Tom Aherne, Reg Ryan, Davy Walsh and Con Martin in the 1950s and Darron Gibson, Daniel Kearns, Shane Duffy and McClean in the 2000s. Also, having made just seven appearances for Sunderland, McClean’s emergence in the Premier League may have come too late as he faces a difficult battle to dislodge Damien Duff, McGeady, Stephen Hunt and Seamus Coleman to claim one of four winger slots available.
James McClean was born in Creggan, Derry on 22 April, 1989. With Creggan located just minutes from Donegal and built to house the Catholic majority in Derry, it was perhaps no surprise that McClean was born into a nationalist family who were lifelong Celtic fans. McClean, a wiry youngster who spent his free time playing football with friends and possessed numerous pairs of different coloured boots (a ‘habit’ that continued throughout his career) amalgamated from birthday presents in his childhood, began his youth career with Creggan’s local club, Trojans FC. It was a reflection of McClean’s promise, just a few years later, when he joined Institute as a teenager. Given that Institute would go on to help launch the senior careers of the likes of Ivan Sproule (2003-2004) and Darron Gibson (2004-2005), McClean, unsurprisingly, also dreamt of a career in the United Kingdom.
However, by the age of eighteen, McClean had made just one appearance, against Glentoran in 2007, for Institute and owed to a belief that he lacked the potential development to make Institute a profit, a decision made due to a lack of scouts and offers for the winger but which was inevitable given his lack of first-team opportunities, Institute did not renew McClean’s contract in the summer of 2009. Fatefully, at the time of his release, Derry City, who were limited financially and instead looked to trials for local free agents, held an open day for local players and youngsters Patrick McEleney, Shane McEleney and David McDaid arrived in the same summer. While it may seem strange that a professional club would turn to what was, despite a lack of senior playing time, an Institute reject, McClean impressed in his February trial to such a degree that Derry’s manager, Stephen Kenny, referred to the eighteen year old McClean as a “very exciting prospect for the future.”
What followed was an incredible three-year development, beginning initially with Derry’s reserves behind Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn in the first-team squad, and McClean started his career with Derry as he meant to go on: scoring the opening goal on his debut against Bohemians on 41’in the 4-1 League Cup quarter-final win on 1 July, 2008. While the League of Ireland’s standard, professionalism and competitiveness is often unfairly criticised, the dedication of the players, particularly at professional clubs, can never be doubted and McClean was no different: remaining a pioneer away from home, which he had been all his life, and spending his free time playing Football Manager despite the obvious social distractions. McClean, who had played for Northern Ireland at schoolboy level, was also part of the 2008 Milk Cup winning side and scored in the 3-1 opening win over the USA. The youngster went on to make 30 appearances for Derry in 2009, with Kenny putting his faith in the nineteen year old following McCourt’s move to Celtic, but just as McClean’s career seemed to be taking off, yet another setback occurred.
Derry were expelled from the League of Ireland in November, 2009 for breaching the Participation Agreement, after offering secondary contracts to members of their squad. From this, McClean’s future, not to mention Derry’s, was now up in the air and League One side Lincoln City offered him a contract. However, after the ‘new’ Derry City were granted a First Division license in February, 2010 and key influence Stephen Kenny renewed his contract, McClean, who was now Derry’s undisputed winger with McGinn also departing for Celtic, decided to stay. McClean was inspirational in Derry’s immediate return to the Premier Division: forming a telepathic relationship with striker Mark Farren and scoring ten goals in thirty First Division matches.
Call-ups to Northern Ireland’s under-21 team followed and while McClean showed no obvious discontent, having decided against commuting to the south to play for the Republic’s schoolboys as a youngster, he had always found the obligation to stand for God Save the Queen before youth matches as a nuisance. So, McClean always retained the option, particularly given his Catholic and nationalist upbringing, of one day playing for the Republic of Ireland. Also, McClean’s indecisiveness occurred in an era where the gentleman’s agreement, whereby players would not be ‘poached’ past the age of seventeen, was ending.
At 20 years of age, Derry’s 2011 season back in the Premier Division was the ultimate measure of McClean’s incredible development. Such were his performances, he repeatedly tore apart the league’s finest full-backs, including Pat Sullivan, who would go on to become Shamrock Rovers’ most consistent player in their brilliant run in Europe from June to December, 2011. McClean inspired Derry to 3rd place and finished the season with seven goals (including a stunning finish against Galway United on 15 April) and ten assists in the league. Despite niggling injuries limiting him to just sixteen league appearances, McClean was nominated for the PFAI’s Young Player of the Year award. McClean, though, was not called up to Northern Ireland’s squad for the Carling Nations’ Cup and this, along with the talented Chris Turner, epitomised Nigel Worthington’s preference for players playing in Northern Ireland’s lesser standard Premier Division and Worthington only calling Alan Mannus, Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn, despite their undoubted ability, when they left the League of Ireland.
Northern Ireland were embarrassed in the tournament, conceded ten goals and failed to score in any of the three games. Worthington, realising his mistake but also McClean’s eligibility for the Republic, aimed to make-up for his error by calling McClean up for the Euro 2012 qualifier against the Faroe Islands on 11 August. McClean, though, was hurt, had no guarantee of a cap and decided to withdraw from the squad. Ironically, this came in the same week that Gerry Armstrong, a Catholic who grew up in Tyrone and starred for Northern Ireland as a player from 1977-86, was appointed as player liaison manager. The IFA were hurt, even if Alex Bruce had just cynically declared for the North having previously won a cap for the Republic in a friendly against Ecuador in 2007, and cried fowl. David Healy, Northern Ireland’s record goalscorer, believed McClean had “abused the shirt” and taken “advantage of our wee country” (reference to the North’s nickname and mural in East Belfast depicting Healy’s infamous goal against England on 7 September). However, it was not a cynical case of McClean walking straight into the Republic’s squad and McClean would later comment that:
I know I am way down the pecking order for the Euros and that there are a lot of players ahead of me, but it could happen and it would be the best achievement of my career to make that squad. There is a big squad there already with the Republic and a lot of wingers who are capable of playing, lads who have played for the team already.
But other players in the past have done it, come into the frame for the finals after not playing in the qualifiers, so you never know.
I can only imagine what it would be like to play for Ireland at a tournament like that. I remember the last time they were at a finals, in 2002, everyone in Derry was watching the team then, and for me to make the squad would be unbelievable.
McClean, though, was unmoved by the controversy and with Trapattoni ‘randomly’ pulling out a newspaper cutting of the Derryman’s decision, following a question by journalist Lisa Fallon in a press conference before the Euro 2012 qualifier against Slovakia on 2 September, it was clear McClean’s decision would not be futile. Of course, his standing increased in the Republic with the controversy, but non-League of Ireland fans certainly took notice of McClean and his wizardry against Nedum Onuoha of Manchester City and Adam Matthews of Celtic in the Dublin Supercup on 30 July. From this and earlier scouting of the League of Ireland, which Sunderland were synonymous for with Daryl Murphy, Roy O’Donovan and David Meyler, the Black Cats paid £350,000 (15%, £50,000, of fee was voluntarily paid by Derry City to Trojans FC, who developed McClean’s skills as a child) for McClean on 9 August.
Even at 21 years of age, which is traditionally late for an Irishman to play for their first English club, it was a brave decision for McClean. After all, the case of Jay O’Shea springs to mind: a man who starred for Galway United, inspiring them to safety in 2009, and dazzled in the League of Ireland but who left for Birmingham City aged 21 and was handed just a few minutes off the bench against Manchester United on 16 August, 2009 in his two years with Birmingham. Now with MK Dons, O’Shea’s prospects have improved somewhat but he was signed on trial, with the reward of just a one year contract, and has made just three appearances this season. For McClean, though, he had already rejected Peterborough in January, 2010 on the grounds that he did not believe he was yet ready and Stephen Kenny spoke of McClean’s maturity and determination:
He has listened to the coaching staff and is willing to go that bit extra in order to improve with us here. James is never happy at being okay: he always wants to go that bit extra to improve and be the best he can be.
Basically, having seen the cases of Meyler, Kevin Doyle and Conor Sammon, players who were not stars at their League of Ireland clubs but who had rapid developments in England due to hard work, ‘late’ age, a lack of homesickness and brilliant determination, McClean was right in believing that another six months with Derry would give him that crucial mental preparation for an inevitable move in the summer of 2011. There is no question of League of Ireland stars’ technique, Keith Fahey is one of Ireland’s best playmakers, but the step-up in concentration and fitness is huge. However, not even Doyle, Fahey or one Roy Keane adjusted to the rigours of Premier League life so quickly. Yes, McClean clearly had the self-determination, physique and professionalism that were self-shaped in the League of Ireland but his development in England has been nothing short of meteoric.
The key, obviously, was Martin O’Neill’s appointment on 3 December as the conservative Steve Bruce had yet to utilise McClean and had planned a loan move for the Derryman in the New Year. O’Neill, a fellow Derryman and a brilliant man manager like Stephen Kenny, wasted no time in evaluating his squad and after witnessing McClean’s stellar performance in the reserves’ 6-3 victory over Manchester United on 8 December, O’Neill remarked:
James gives you absolutely everything: he was picking the ball up in the howling wind and even though he lost it a couple of times, he then came on really strongly. He’s got a great attitude and I couldn’t fault him. He’s as courageous as they come and physically strong. Hopefully he’ll try to force his way into the side, now the PL would be very new to him but even so, he was impressive.
From this, McClean came on in the 74’ against Blackburn for his first-team debut on 11 December, with the score at 0-1, and his first move, beating Grant Hanley down the flank, ignited the disillusioned Sunderland crowd and set the tone for Sunderland’s fightback with goals from David Vaughan and Sebastien Larsson on 84’ and 92’. He then started Sunderland’s next game, a 1-0 win against Manchester City, before netting a semi-fortunate header and a fantastic looping header in starts against Wigan and Peterborough (watched by Marco Tardelli) respectively. Interestingly, showing McClean’s incredible determination, fitness and defensive qualities, the 21 year old was the top Sunderland player for distance travelled at 15km against Wigan. So, while this also reveals that McClean is occasionally guilty of keeping his head down too much and regardless of whether O’Neill can convince the one-time brilliant winger John Robertson to again join his backroom staff, this will surely be eradicated with the more top-level matches McClean plays.
Even though they were not League of Ireland products, it is certainly worth bearing in mind the man of the match starts Liam Miller and Willo Flood both made to their careers in the United Kingdom, with Celtic and Manchester City respectively. However, with McClean being Ireland’s most inform top-level player at the moment, going through so much aggravation in declaring for the Republic and with Trapattoni watching McClean in a rare personal scouting outing at Stamford Bridge on 14 January it seems inevitable that James McClean is, at the very least, the perfect successor to the soon to be 33 year old Damien Duff for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.