“He gives you absolutely everything and on Thursday night in the howling wind he was picking it up, and although 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 he’s quite physically strong at the minute.”
James McClean was receiving immediate praise from his new manager and he hadn’t even made a start for Sunderland. Luck of the Irish? Not if you go by Gary Player’s adage “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
The man from Derry didn’t let his chance slip by either, even though he was given a measly 14 minutes to impress against Blackburn. His pace and craft on the left wing was remarkable. Oozing confidence as he whipped in a series of dangerous crosses, the Rovers defence became unsettled and quickly crumbled.
McClean did not have a goal or an assist but he had made the desired impact. Twice in the next three games, he made substitute appearances. Prior to 2012 though, he had only played 47 minutes of Premier League football, hardly experienced by any means.
Of all games to make his first start, O’Neill decided it would be against the league leaders, Manchester City. He repaid his manager’s faith with a solid performance and only a few days later came his first goal, albeit a tame header against Wigan. This was followed by another two performances against Chelsea and Peterborough.
For someone at such an early stage in their career, McClean’s talent is exceptional. However, O’Neill must take credit, showing his exceptional man management skills again. He played under perhaps the greatest manager in the history of English football in Brian Clough.
Having been knocked back by Clough when requesting first team football at Nottingham Forest, O’Neill appreciates that good things come to those who wait. James McClean will acknowledge this too.
Maybe it’s fate that O’Neill has returned to the place where Clough’s playing career finished. His former boss had a magnificent goal tally with 54 goals in 61 appearances but no trophies. They would arrive later. Leading Sunderland to domestic honours or a top six finish would rank among O’Neill’s greatest achievements and concurrently satisfy the romantics, finishing one thing Clough never did.
With his new manager showing such faith in him already, McClean must be dreaming of a long career in the Premier League already. The man who switched allegiance to the Republic of Ireland over the summer must keep his feet on the ground. Knowing the management style of O’Neill, he’ll ensure this happens.
Should his encouraging performances continue, then it won’t be too long before Giovanni Trappatoni calls him up to the Ireland squad. To have the opportunity to play under two managers of such calibre is something McClean should relish. With Damien Duff coming into the tail end of his career, there is certainly an opportunity for the 22-year-old to break into the side, if not this year, then in the next few years. McClean and Aiden McGeady on either wing is an exciting prospect for Irish fans.
So although the road ahead is long, the converted Irishman could become a pivotal part of O’Neill’s Sunderland. Whilst one man doesn’t make a team, judging by the determination his manager talked about and the skill he has shown, James McClean has all the attributes to succeed at the top.
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