McClean is as ready as he will ever be
In many ways, Sunderland’s James McClean seemed the perfect fit for the game on Sunday but the manager looks certain to ignore the winger while Ireland have something to play for.
The 23-year-old was the only outfield player not to warm-up during the 3-1 defeat to Croatia and that in itself was a firm indication that he is not considered a viable option while there are valuable points to be won, or as seems more likely to be the case, lost.
Further evidence came directly from the manager yesterday when he said he had a “duty” to protect McClean, who has featured only twice in friendlies since his call-up for the Czech Republic game in February, from the pressures of competitive football.
Like only he can, he explained: “He will come in the future. Not when we change this, or this, or this. We have this situation. James McCarthy? We have a concrete team. We can, in the future.”
The Italian then added: “I have a duty. It’s his first game. When, there is the senior, the experienced players. In this situation, there is tension. You can understand how much more tense a young player can be. It’s important we give them the quiet opportunity. Not when we need their performance, under pressure. It’s a heavy weight on his shoulders.”
That seems a logical stance to take with most players, but McClean has previous and has spoken at length about how the faith his club manager showed in him when throwing him on for his debut in the dying minutes of a game in which they were trailing Blackburn was a real boost to his confidence.
“The manager just told me to ‘go on, do your own stuff, play your own game, you’ll be grand’,” McClean told the Irish Times in January. “I’d waited all my life, so I was relishing it.”
The former Derry City winger had been burning up the reserve games at Sunderland for some time and Martin O’Neill hauled him into the first team squad at almost the first opportunity. With 14 minutes remaining against Blackburn, Sunderland were a goal down. When the final whistle sounded he had contributed hugely to a resurgent late flurry by the hosts as they ran out 2-1 winners.
He went on to make 26 appearances and score six goals before the season ended and he joined up with the Ireland squad. On his international debut, the welcome he received at Lansdowne brought the house down, yet once again he showed no fear as he tore down the left channel, fired in at least one delicious cross and helped Ireland salvage a draw from a game they were losing before his 12 minute cameo.
McClean isn’t young. He’s 23. In footballer years, these days, that’s mature. What’s more, his late arrival into the upper echelons of the game has allowed him to remain grounded and shaped him into an incredibly mentally strong character.
On Sunday, with full-back Dario Srna bossing his right wing, McClean’s physicality, speed and directness might have been just the ticket. He’s no surprise package, every team in the tournament has done its research, but there’s a difference between planning to stop a player and actually doing it.
McClean may yet feature in Poland, but only, it seems, if Ireland fail to get anything out of the game against Spain and there is nothing to play for against Italy back in Poznan on Monday.
By then, unfortunately, it will be too late.