JAMES McCLEAN enjoyed a peaceful sleep last Sunday night, the Sunderland left winger having made his presence felt during the ‘Black Cats’ stunning last minute victory over Manchester City.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
And what would cap a magnificent 48 hours for the 22-year-old would be his inclusion in the team which lines out against Wigan Athletic tonight in the D.W. Stadium.
James, clearly happy with his contribution in what was a professional and disciplined backs-to-the wall performance, was involved in the lead-up to Ji Dong-Won’s 93rd minute winner.
Indeed, had the Korean not netted the game’s only goal, then the Creggan Heights man may well have had something to say in the dressing room afterwards to Sunderland striker, Stephane Sessegnon, who opted to go it alone despite the fact that McClean had been unmarked in front of goal following a second half counter-attack.
“I must admit I was annoyed that he didn’t pass the ball to me when I was unmarked,” reflected James. “I would have been left with a tap-in but when we netted the winning goal, all that was forgotten,” laughed the lively winger yesterday.
Delighted with his first start for Sunderland since his £350,000 summer move from the Brandywell, James was unhappy when forced to exhibit a defensive display.
“The game-plan was not to sit back and allow them come at his,” he remarked. “But with the quality Manchester City have, it was always going to be a big ask for us.
“Add in the fact that they would have moved three points clear at the top of the Premiership had they won the game, it was always a big incentive for them.
“But I felt we did what we had planned to do. We got in their faces and battled for every ball. I felt we kept our shape throughout the game and while we worked very hard defensively, I think we unsettled them and frustrated them.
“To nick a winner near the end was just out of this world. The stadium erupted after Ji scored the goal with almost the last kick of the game. It was a fabulous result for us and the mood in the dressing room afterwards certainly highlighted that fact,” he added.
Asked if he had been nervous when informed that he would be starting the game, James admitted that Martin O’Neill’s decision to name the team on Sunday didn’t give him too much time to think about it.
“It was interesting for me, because the same thing happened when I made my Derry City debut against Bohemians in the League Cup a few years ago.
“I didn’t know I was playing until I arrived in the dressing room, so I had no time to think about it and just got on with it.
“However, against Bohemians I not only made my debut, but I also scored my first goal and to have repeated that feat for Sunderland would have been out of this world. The chance was there for me, but it didn’t materialise and, as I’ve said, as long as we won the match, I can’t have any complaints.”
The Creggan man was also the first to admit that injuries and sickness within the first team squad played an integral role in his graduation to the first team starting XI.
“I was aware of the situation with the other first team players and as I had already made four appearances as a substitute, deep down I really hoped the gaffer would give me my first start.
“I felt I had a chance, but I was not prepared to take anything for granted. When I was made aware that I was getting my chance, I was determined not to be over-awed. I wanted to keep my head down, work hard and hope for the best.
“I played the full match, which was brilliant as it’s another step forward in my hopes of securing a first team place, so I was very happy. The fact that we won the match made the occasion all the more significant and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the reaction of the crowd after the goal.
“I think everyone was very nervous. We did well to hold out on occasions, but it just goes to show you the character that is in this team.
“Everyone was prepared to work their socks off from the first whistle to the last and in my view, we were deservedly rewarded in the end.”
Was he aware that Ji was in an offside position when receiving that incisive pass from Sessegnon?
“I didn’t even think about it. Maybe he was but, at the same time, what about the Everton penalty decision which cost us the previous week. What goes around comes around, so I think we deserved that bit of luck,” he answered.
McClean’s rise to prominence on Wearside has been particularly prominent and while it was former boss, Steve Bruce, who signed the player, it’s clear that Sunderland’s new supremo, Martin O’Neill, has confirmed that faith in James’ ability.
“Making my first start was always going to be important. Indeed, the new manager was the one who put me on from the bench in my four previous appearances. I’d like to think he has faith in me and I’m aware that he has spoken favourably about me in the past.
“But I think I’ve got to continue working hard on my game in order to confirm that faith. Obviously I’m absolutely thrilled to have played in front of over 40,000 people in the Stadium of Light against Manchester City. It was surreal, a fabulous experience and an experience which I really hope to build on.”
Looking forward to this evening’s trip to the DW Stadium, James, predictably, refused to take anything for granted.
“I think I did okay against City, but what I think is not important. I’ve really settled in well since arriving from Derry City. I’ve got to love the place and I think that shows in my play.
“I put everything into our training sessions and realise that if I’m to be the best I can, I can never get complacent and I’d be the first to tell you that I’ve still got so much to learn.
“I will always try to impress. I’ll make sure I’m fully aware of what the coaches want me to do and, to be perfectly honest, I’m enjoying every minute of it.
“The Wigan match has come up very quickly, so I’ll keep my head down and my fingers crossed. Naturally I’d love to keep my place, but that’s not going to be my decision. If I’m not selected to start, then I’ll be hopeful of getting a place on the bench. I’ll continue to work hard and do what I’ve been told.”
He thought he handled his first start well and while he was not witnessed attacking his opposing full-back with pace and trickery, James was happy to step back and defend his flank when called upon.
Composed, confident and alert he certainly was and the fact that he refused to panic when in possession was certainly noticed by the match commentators.
“Defensive Master Class?”
“I was confident,” he answered. “I’m very confident in my own ability and I think the key was not to panic when I had the ball. I was aware of the high profile and quality players in the opposition but during the match that didn’t matter to me.
“I tried to do what I had been told and I think I did okay.
“I thought I handled myself well as I believe I’m involved with a very good squad. Okay, Man. City have hammered United at Old Trafford this season, they are a big, strong side with so many lively players.
“But, believe me, Sunderland are not that bad. Yes, we had to defend on occasions, but we really got at them and worked our socks off, so credit to every player. We defended as if our lives depended on it and I think it was a ‘master class in the art of defending,” he declared.
He also insisted that Sunderland had not planned to settle for a share of the spoils.
“Remember the goal, there was four or five of us racing forward. I think that shows great character after putting in such a hard shift for 93 minutes. Our supporters were absolutely brilliant as the game wore on and that proved pivotal in our performance,” he maintained.
Having made his debut against Blackburn, during what was yet another thrilling late, late victory, James continues to enjoy life at the top level.
And should he be included this evening, he could actually face a former colleague at the Brandywell, with Conor Sammon possibly leading the Wigan Athletic attack.
In fact, James played with the Dubliner at Derry City when making his debut against Bohemians. And while McClean netted the opening goal in that League Cup encounter, Sammon added a brace in Derry’s 4-1 win.
“I was on the bench when Wigan won at our place with a late goal, but I was not involved in the match. I saw Conor during the warm-up but I don’t think he actually recognised me.”
That game, of course, was Steve Bruce’s swansong at Sunderland while McClean’s future began to blossom shortly afterwards under fellow Derry man, O’Neill.
“Hopefully, Conor will recognise me on Tuesday night if I get selected. If I am involved in the game, I’ll be letting him know I’m there,” laughed the winger.
For James, the next step in his Sunderland career is to net his first goal for the club.
“I’d love to net my first goal sooner rather than later but my job, first and foremost is to provide. I’ve always managed to get my fair share of goals when playing at the Brandywell and, fingers crossed, that will also continue at the Stadium of Light,” he concluded