Clean slate for Ireland hero McClean

Ireland’s recent run of excellent World Cup qualifying results has been in no small part due to James McClean. The Derry man has become one of manager Martin O’Neill’s most valuable weapons, with his direct play and strength proving a real handful at international level. The manner of his goal against Austria reminiscent of vintage Wayne Rooney at Manchester United, strong, single-minded and hungrier than the opposition. Many areas of their games are similar, and McClean feels his early footballing life is responsible for these attributes:

My education was street football. I didn’t join Derry City until I was 18. I didn’t have the coaching, the set-up, the platform that players in England have from an early age. I wouldn’t change my football education from what I did or when I went across for anything. I grew up very quickly. I was playing League of Ireland football, which is very tough and physical, from an early age. That stood me in great stead for when I did go across”

That no-nonsense attitude has helped propel Ireland to the top of Group D of their World Cup qualifying group, and for McClean it symbolises a new era for him. With international credentials and being a regular starter at West Brom his situation is an enviable one for many players. However McClean isn’t one to rest on his laurels.

“I want to keep improving and hopefully score a few more goals, get a few more assists. That would go a long way towards getting that recognition. I’m in a good place now. I’m playing football, I’m happy off the pitch as well. I’m in a good place and hopefully that’s showing.”

However things have not always been so pretty for McClean. Leaving Derry City in 2011 for Sunderland was a huge step up in both notoriety and standards. He found first team opportunities difficult initially under Steve Bruce, which must have left him frustrated.

“If I’m being honest, Steve Bruce was the manager but he never signed me. He didn’t see me play. It was Niall Quinn that signed me. I was on the bench for the first 11 or 12 league games under Steve Bruce. I’m playing on the reserves, I’m playing on the bench every week, what more do I need to do to play. He just said at the time the results weren’t great, he was under pressure and I didn’t have enough experience”

However under the stewardship of the the aforementioned O’Neill, McClean began to find his feet at the elite level, bagging 5 goals in his debut season and winning Sunderland’s young player of the year award in 2012. A subsequent move to Wigan didn’t prove as fruitful as they suffered relegation to England’s third division, however McClean was presented with a route back to the top by Tony Pulis and West Brom, something he grasped with both hands.

“I’ve been lucky enough to play under a lot of very good managers, Tony Pulis is one of them. Tony gave me the opportunity to play Premier League football again which is something I always wanted to get back doing. When that opportunity came I told myself I’m going to give everything to repay his faith and not only that, but I’ve a lot to prove. I feel I’m a Premier League player — and not just a Premier League player but a good Premier League player. I want to prove to people that I am.”

McClean’s star is at an all time high and securing qualification for Russia 2018 would certify him as a key figure in modern Irish sporting folklore. Ireland have a new talisman to get behind. Loved by the fans and respected by his peers for speaking his mind, Wayne Rooney must wish the comparisons between himself and McClean would extend that far, unfortunately it is not so.