James McClean likely to captain Ireland for Mexico friendly

Martin O’Neill praises eager winger’s attitude after request to travel with side to US

Potential Republic of Ireland captain James McClean in training ahead of his club’s friendly against Mexico on Thursday. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

Potential Republic of Ireland captain James McClean in training ahead of his club’s friendly against Mexico on Thursday. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

 

More often than not the mere mention of James McClean and his incurable enthusiasm brings a smile to Martin O’Neill’s face. Not least his eagerness to lead his country on to the pitch in Thursday’s friendly against Mexico in New Jersey. “He’ll think he’s nailed on for it, you know,” the manager laughs when the issue of the captaincy is raised.

The absence from the squad of both the injured Séamus Coleman and the player who deputised for him as captain against Iceland in March, Robbie Brady, has given O’Neill a decision to make over who gets the armband for the meeting with the Mexicans.

“James and I will have to discuss it, but he’s a possibility – it’s his 50th cap, for a start, and because he’s got that great discipline about him.” Deadpan at first, but O’Neill couldn’t hold back the grin.

Over his shoulder his fellow Derry man is charging around in training like there are World Cup qualifying points at stake, and not just a slot in the starting 11 for an end-of-season friendly at the MetLife Stadium.

But the game, of course, in tandem with Sunday’s friendly against Uruguay in Dublin, is part of a triple-header than culminates in the World Cup qualifier against Austria a week later. And McClean doesn’t want to miss a kick.

While some of his team-mates opted out of the trip to America, preferring to use the time to rest their weary bones following the end of their club seasons, O’Neill said the winger asked to be included in the squad.

‘Brilliant attitude’

“He did, yes. I know he hasn’t started some of the more recent games for West Brom, but he’s a really fit lad. I thought he might want a break, but he wanted to come. So, delighted. I wasn’t really surprised – I might even have been surprised if he didn’t want to come. But when I asked him he said he wanted to get the 50th cap – I hadn’t realised it was 49 he’d played.

“He wants to get as many as he possibly can, which is great. His attitude is brilliant. In the way that you could say Jon Walters was very much our player for the Euros in the qualification stages, James has taken on that mantle in this campaign.

“And he’s matured as a player, no question about that. He’s thinking more about it, about his game, rather than having a naturalness about it. The minute we lose the ball he takes up some great defensive positions. Now he needs to know when to go from that defensive position to the man who’s the most dangerous, that’s the thing he has to learn. He’s trying to do it at club level and for us. But his attitude is very infectious, there’s a great enthusiasm about him, I genuinely think it rubs off on the other players.”

The captaincy?

“If he starts the game, he will be considered,” he smiles again.

Another player whose enthusiasm O’Neill salutes is Cyrus Christie, the Derby County right-back who won his eighth cap against Iceland when he filled the gap left by Coleman. It is, conceded the manager, a big ask of anyone to replace the Donegal man in his side, but Christie is doing all he can to be an able deputy.

“He wants to do it. He went away at the end of the season and took a week in America to go and train to get himself in to real good and proper shape, so that might say something about the lad.

‘Plethora of centre halves’

“He trained constantly for that length of time and then joined us in Fota. I don’t question his attitude at all. He has a tough task trying to replace Séamus but I’ve got a lot of faith in him and I think he can do it.”

“Séamus is actually coming in on the Thursday before we play Austria, and that will be great, I think the players will look forward to it. Séamus isn’t quiet on the field, but he is a quiet man. If there’s a reluctance from a player in this kind of situation to come in, then it doesn’t really work. But Séamus was the one who put forward the idea a minute before I was going to ask him. Just the very fact that he’s there will give the players a lift, it’s important that he is around – and he wants to be around, which is the biggest thing.”

With, as O’Neill describes it, a “plethora of centre halves” in his squad, he’s giving some thought to playing three at the back against Mexico, with wing-backs either side. “It’s not something that we’ve really done, but this game will give us a chance to experiment. Having that many centre halves with us at the moment might be the opportunity to do it so that it’s not foreign to them if we needed to change systems during the course of a game.

“The one thing that centre halves hate doing is going out wide, so it might teach them a little bit. We’ll have a look at it, see if it goes alright. I think the most important thing for us is to try and be flexible, if we can be, and if we have to make adjustments then the players have actually done it before.”

The game against Mexico could, then, prove to be an experimental exercise. McClean, you suspect, won’t care whether he’s a wing-back, in midfield, out wide or up front. Just so long as he’s wearing that armband.

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