MARTIN O’NEILL gave James McClean his big break in the Premiership in 2011 when manager of Sunderland and now the pacy winger is repaying his fellow Derry man in spades on Ireland’s road to Russia 2018.
McClean clearly flourishes under the guidance of the current Ireland boss with his eight international goals all coming under O’Neill’s managerial reign!
The West Brom winger has netted three times in the last two games against Moldova (2) and Austria as he emerges as a pivotal player in Ireland’s World Cup qualifying campaign.
After tearing a back muscle, McClean needed an epidural to ensure he would be fit for Saturday’s 1-0 win in Vienna which makes his latest heroics all the more remarkable.
It’s that determination and willingness to play through the pain barrier which appeals to the Ireland boss who applauded McClean for his ‘man of the match’ display in the victory over Austria - a win which propelled the Irish to the top of Group D.
O’Neill said McClean has once again ‘proven his worth’ but added that at the ‘ripe old age of 28, he’s improving.’
McClean’s not 28 until next April but the Creggan man would agree that he’s certainly matured as a player and is delighted to have cemented his place in O’Neill’s starting XI.
He’s widely recognised as a man who would run through a brick wall for his country and give everything for the cause, but he wants to be known for his quality on the ball as well.
And he believes now that he’s started to deliver more goals and assists to his game, people will start to see that his all round game has been greatly enhanced.
“I’m 27 now and I feel like I’m maturing a lot as a player which obviously comes with experience over the years,” said the Derry man.
“I feel I’m finally, especially with Ireland having been around for while now, starting to really cement my place in the Ireland starting line-up and that’s somewhere where I want to stay.
“I’ve always been seen as a player who gives it my all, which is true, but I also want to show that I have a lot of qualities as well.
“I’m not just someone who works tirelessly and I think I’m starting to show that now. Of course I will run until the death and give everything to the cause but at the same time I want people to see that I’m a good player as well and have a lot of other qualities to my game where I feel I can contribute.
“The more goals and assists I add to my game the more people will see that.”
I’ve always been seen as a player who gives it my all, which is true, but I also want to show that I have a lot of qualities as wellJames McClean
While he was delighted to net such an important goal on Saturday night - one he rates as his most important - he won’t get too carried away, knowing that football can bring you back down to earth with a bump just as quick.
“It’s always nice to score a goal but in the same sense I don’t want to get too ecstatic because the nature of football, if you get too carried away it has a knack of biting you. So I’ll not get too carried away. Hopefully I can keep the knack of scoring goals going for another while yet.
“I’ve chipped in with a few goals here and there throughout my career. Obviously I’d like to score more but I’ve got five this season for club and country and it’s only November.
“It’s about trying to progress and scoring and creating more goals than I did the season before.”
As he received the decisive pass from Wes Hoolahan at the Ernst Happel Stadium three minutes into the second half, he could hear Roy Keane’s voice screaming in his head as he went to bear down on goal.
He dare not miss the target was his sole thought and so he was delighted to hear the ball hit the net.
“It’s all about maturing as a player. I’ve always had the pace and it’s about knowing the right time to use that pace. Knowing not to get too ahead of the ball or too far behind it. I’m learning more about the game.
“So for the goal I knew I had the pace to get there and when I got to it, it was about having a good first touch that set myself up and then it was about hitting the target. If you hit the target you always have a chance so it was sweet to see it hit the back of the net.”