James McClean says that captaining Ireland in what will be his 50th appearance for his country will be a proud moment for him and his family but he points to last summer's game against Italy as being a far more significant start in career terms. Martin O'Neill's decision to select him that night in Lille felt, he says, like a demonstration of faith and his form for his country ever since has been helped by the status that it gave him.
“That really gave me a lot of confidence,” he says as he finishes training at the Red Bulls complex in New Jersey, “particularly with the way that the game went. I’ve pushed on from then. I always want to play from the start, whether it is here or at club level, I just want to play football and now I’ve been given that chance here by the manager. I feel important and I think that as a footballer that’s key: If you feel important, you are going to take a lot of confidence from that.”
Without singling too many players out, there has been players in the past who pulled out of games with injuries but always seem to be fit for their club side on the Saturday
Three goals in five campaign appearances is the 28 year-old's stand out statistic since but there is an underlying sense of his rapidly growing importance to the side. The performances have come, he believes, because he has got to start games and stay on for the bulk of them, something he has struggled to do for much of the season just finished at West Brom. There, he ended up playing 90 minutes in just two of the nine matches in which he featured since the international break in March.
“I was playing at the start of the season, playing well, scoring goals and feeling good. But I got a suspension for one game; I came away on international duty and went back with a lot of confidence but when I went back the team were playing well, players in my spot were doing well . . . Of course it was frustrating, it was disappointing but you can either sulk or get on with it. It wasn’t an ideal season (for me in England) but it was a good season as a club.”
The frustration he felt there might go some way towards explaining why, when O'Neill called to tell him he was giving the squad's Premier League players an extra week off rather than bringing them to America, he told the manager that, if was it was all the same to him, his preference was to travel.
“I want to play for my country and I want to get as many caps as possible,” he says by way of explanation. “If I am fit and feeling good then I want to play, no matter what time it is, I want to play. Without singling too many players out, there has been players in the past who pulled out of games with injuries but always seem to be fit for their club side on the Saturday.
“That’s never been me, if I am feeling fine I want to play, I am available for selection and I want as many caps as possible. I got six days away and that was more than enough. I was saying it to the lads there a minute ago. I’m fit and available so I’m here and ready.”
“It annoys me very much, I am not going to lie; do you know what I mean? How can you be unfit for a game in midweek but you are fit for the game on Saturday? It’s not just a one-off thing, it seems to happen a lot, either you are proud to represent your country, that should be a great honour, go and play, be delighted to pull on the jersey, be proud to be there and if you don’t want to be here, don’t be there.”
More than once he insists he will not get ahead of himself in terms of whether he starts and get to reach the landmark of 50 international appearances. But a few feet away O'Neill is pretty much confirming what he had suggested back in Dublin on Monday, that McClean will wear the armband against Mexico.
“You strive every day to be the best you can be,” he says as he finally allows himself to publicly acknowledge what it will mean to him. “I push myself and challenge myself and see how far you can go. It’s gone well and if I get the 50th cap it would be a proud moment.
"Obviously your debut," he says, when asked for his highlights of the previous 49. "And your first goal. My first was actually in the MetLife as well so if I happened to get my 50th cap there as well . . . if you had told me that the MetLife stadium would end up being an important place in terms of my career I'd probably have laughed at you but that's just the way it's gone. And I'm over the moon."