JUST OVER three years ago, a happy-go-lucky, flame-haired teenager strolled from Creggan Heights to Brandywell Stadium with his boots dangling over his shoulders not aware of what was about to unfold.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
On his arrival at the dressing rooms, he was informed by manager, Stephen Kenny, that he was about to make his Derry City debut against Bohemians in the League Cup competition and from that game onwards, James McClean has never looked back.
Having given an experienced full-back in Owen Heary the runaround during the match, the teenager netted the opening goal four minutes before the break as the “Candy Stripes” went on to record a 3-1 win on their way to their 9th League Cup victory with Conor Sammon and Kevin McHugh adding second half strikes.
Fast forward to 2011 and last night a more mature James McClean boarded a plane to Newcastle on his way to signing a three years full-time contract with Sunderland (pending a medical) for a fee understood to be in the region of £350,000 - £150,000 more than the Brandywell club received for Niall McGinn following his move to Celtic in 2009.
Last week James opted to play his cards close to his chest following what had been a turbulent time for the player after a move to Championship club, Peterborough United, broke down while an expected approach from Wigan Athletic never actually materialised despite widespread speculation in the Press.
“I was stunned when the Peterborough move broke down,” he admitted. “To be honest, I was very impressed with the club and very impressed with their manager, Darren Ferguson, who showed me around when I was over.
“But things didn’t work out. I was hopeful that the interest from Premiership club, Wigan, would materialise but it didn’t and I was left in no-man’s-land, wondering what to do next.
“It certainly had an effect on me, but I opted to keep my head down and continue to work hard hoping that something would be worked out so that I could further my career ‘across the water.’ The opportunity to play in the Dublin Super Cup helped and it was after the first game against Manchester City that things began to look up again,” smiled James.
He had been informed by his agent that Sunderland had a representative at the game and, after the match, he was also informed by his agent that he would be recommending him to Steve Bruce.
“I decided to keep my mouth closed and say nothing to anyone about Sunderland,” continued James. “That way, if it didn’t work out, I would not be embarrassed so I kept quiet about it.
“Then, on Friday last, when we were in the team hotel for the pre-match meal against Galway, Stephen (Kenny) told me that I would not be starting the game as the club had agreed a transfer fee with Sunderland.
“I was stunned again, but I was very disappointed not to be playing against Galway. Stephen said he would put me on the bench and only use me if I was needed, but I got the feeling I wouldn’t be playing as Derry had dominated the game.”
But given his recent experiences, he refused to take anything for granted until the necessary forms had been signed.
“I have to undergo a medical on Monday (yesterday) and then discuss personal terms before joining Sunderland. I’m aware that the clubs have agreed a transfer fee, so I’ll wait and see what develops and, hopefully, I will be returning home to get packed and travel back over to England before next weekend.
“If everything works out, it will be a dream come true for me. To play in the Barclay’s Premiership is every footballer’s dream and if I get the contract, I intend to keep my head down and continue to work hard trying to improve my game.
“The bar will have been raised quite a bit as regards fitness levels, but I’m ready for that and I will be doing all in my power to make an impression and, hopefully, make good progress in a massive club such as Sunderland.”
The Irish connection associated with the club was also a contributing factor with Niall Quinn as the club’s chairman not to mention the significant number of Irish players who have been involved with the club, plus the fact that John O’Shea has also arrived from Manchester United.
“It would be perfect for me,” insisted James. “It would not only be a dream come true, but Sunderland have so much to offer. A massive support, a great stadium and, of course, Premiership status, it’s what I’ve always dreamed about.”
Of course, he realised that he would have to be very patient as a big challenge lay ahead.
“The priority is to get the chance and if I get it, then it’s all down to me. I’ve no problem working hard - I’ve always done that at Derry - and if it all works out for me, I hope I can get the breaks I need,” he answered.
McClean was also quick to point out the importance of Stephen Kenny, the Brandywell backroom staff and the senior players.
“Without their coaching, guidance and expertise I wouldn’t be going to Sunderland, make no mistake about that. I’ve learned so much over the past three years.
“The ups and downs at Derry were brilliant and awful with the club going bust, relegated to the First Division but then bouncing back again. But during it all, I knew that I was improving as a footballer. I’ve listen and learned to what I had been told and the senior players in the club played no small part in my progression.
“They were always helpful and supportive to me and all the other young players. We’ve all moved onto another level from the First Division, but I was involved in a brilliant group and now I feel I’m ready and willing to move on again.”
Having actually signed for Lincoln City after the club had gone into liquidation, James was happy that he managed to get that contract cancelled as he was not ready for such a move as a 20-year-old.
“I was very naive when I signed the form for Lincoln. I didn’t really understand what I was getting into but thanks to people at Derry, I got it sorted out and two more years at the Brandywell has made me more mature and I feel I’m now ready to push on and try to make a career out of the game,” claimed James.
“As I’ve already said, I’m taking nothing for granted and once I get the medical out of the way, I don’t see any problems. It’s definitely the move I wanted and I will be doing everything in my power to make it work.”
Now under the control of Dublin-based agents, Platinum One, James will be represented by Eamon McLoughlin and Graham Barrett and he’s been comfortable with the guidance he has been receiving.
“This is all new to me, but the agents are dealing with everything on my behalf and I’m hopeful that I will be a Sunderland player this week.”
He also harbours hopes that a Premier Division winners’ medal could be winging its way to the Stadium of Light come November as James can see his home club claiming the top domestic award this season.
“I may not be involved and I know that Gareth McGlynn could be out for six weeks, but two players do not make a football time. Just as it was back in 2008, there are young players anxious to get their chance and having watched the club’s young players perform, there will be more coming through,” he noted.
“I honestly believe the players at the Brandywell are more than capable of winning the Premier Division title this season and I really hope they do that. If that proves the case, then I think I’ll be receiving a league medal and it’s something that I would cherish, so I’ll obviously be keeping an eye on things.
“I don’t see any reason why the club cannot go on and win the title. We’ve played all the teams at least twice and no team has ever dominated us. We have a good mix of youth and experience and given a bit of luck, I can see us causing a major shock by finishing on top of the table. All the players believe that and it would be great to see Derry winning the main award after gaining promotion to the Premier Division.
“It’s never been done before and that’s a great motivation for the playing staff. Obviously, we would need a bit of luck, but I know what’s there and the quality of the people in charge. It can be achieved and I really hope that proves to be the case,” he concluded.