JAMES McClean may have staked a claim for an international debut with the Republic of Ireland, but one of his former team-mates has since entered the radar of new Northern Ireland boss, Michael O’Neill.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
While McClean is hopeful of receiving a call-up for the Republic’s friendly international against the Czech Republic in the Aviva Stadium on February 28th, Derry City’s Daniel Lafferty could well be involved in another international friendly at Windsor Park where N. Ireland will entertain Norway.
And former Celtic player, Lafferty, has no problem declaring for ‘the North,’ indeed he is flattered at the speculation and would be “delighted” to sample international football under O’Neill.
Commenting recently, the former Shamrock Rovers manager maintained that good players existed in the Airtricity League, pointing specifically to Lafferty’s progress at the Brandywell.
O’Neill said: “They have good young players in the League of Ireland - Daniel Lafferty at Derry City for example.”
Of course, O’Neill watched Lafferty at first hand in Tallaght Stadium in October last year, during a pivotal game in the race for the Premier Division Championship, a match Rovers won 1-0 with Lafferty producing a superb performance at left-back.
“Daniel has played in our under-21 team and has come through our underage system. It’s important to recognise that he is someone who could come in and play in the senior team and he may get the opportunity to do so sooner than people think,” added the N. Ireland boss.
“He’s on the radar of clubs in the U.K., it’s irrelevant where he plays, if he’s available for N. Ireland, I’ll watch him,” concluded O’Neill.
Delighted and flattered to have his name mentioned publicly by the N. Ireland boss, Lafferty insisted he would do all in his power to take advantage of a call-up.
“Of course I would go for it, if asked,” said the 22-year-old last night. “For me, selection for international football would signal progression and I would be delighted to be called into the Northern Ireland squad,” he declared.
“N. Ireland have a good manager in place and I’m flattered to be linked to a possible call-up, I’m delighted that my name has been mentioned at that level.
“As a player, it’s my hope to test myself at the highest possible level but being linked with a possible call-up for N. Ireland has come as a shock to me.
“As I’ve said, I’m flattered but if I did get called up, I would see it as one of the highlights of my career .
“I would take pride in playing at such a high level as I don’t think it would do me any harm to have that accolade on my C.V.,” added Daniel.
Refusing to take anything for granted, Lafferty will return to pre-season training tomorrow, with his first competitive match against either Cliftonville, Portadown, Lisburn Distillery or Glentoran in the forthcoming Setanta Sports Cup campaign.
“I’ve been out of the competitive game for two months now and while I’ve managed to keep myself ticking over, I’m anxious to get back.
“I can’t afford take anything for granted as far as my career is concerned, but my priority at the moment is to get back to full fitness at the Brandywell and prepare for life under our new management team of Declan Devine and Paul Hegarty.
“I would welcome any progression in my career and if an international call-up did materialise, I’d grasp the opportunity with both hands.”
Commenting on his former team-mate’s decision to declare for the Republic, Lafferty wished James all the best for his future career.
“He appears to have the world at the feet at the moment. He’s made his own decision and that’s a matter for James. He appears to be concentrating on his career at Sunderland rather than an international career and he’s probably right in that regard.”
Lafferty and McClean formed a particularly strong left flank at the Brandywell having already played together when in the Northern Ireland Under-21 squad.
“Before we met up at Derry City we both played for the Northern Ireland Under-21s in European Qualifying games and challenge matches and his improvement has been superb. I think he can go a long way,” continued Lafferty.
Lafferty also suggested that, unlike former international boss, Nigel Worthington, O’Neill was well aware of the quality of players which exist in the Airtricity League.
“Michael has managed Rovers for two years, so he will be fully aware of the quality in the League of Ireland. He will also be fully aware of the quality of player that exists at Derry City.
“So many northern based players operating in the League of Ireland have been overlooked in the past and maybe Michael’s experience south of the border will change that.
“I believe the bigger the pool of players identified, the better for N. Ireland. It hasn’t happened in the past, so maybe now it’s time for N. Ireland to have a look at what’s available as the search for players appears to have been broadened and I, for one, welcome that move,” he concluded.
Two From Two!
McClean, meanwhile, netted his second goal in as many games to help Sunderland progress in the FA Cup at the expense of Peterborough United who, incidentally, attempted to sign him before he opted for the “Black Cats.
The man from Creggan Heights has thrived in his three successive starts since breaking into the side under Martin O’Neill, and hopes he can maintain his seamless transition to the first-team.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying my football at the minute. The manager has shown faith in me and it’s up to me to keep working hard to stay in the team. We want to progress in the cup as far as we can and playing Middlesbrough in the next round at the Stadium of Light is certainly a fixture our supporters will welcome,” he said.
Reflecting back on his performance and, of course, his goal against “Posh,” McClean was happy.
“Two headers and two goals in two games is not bad,” laughed the winger who scored his first Sunderland goal in last Tuesday’s 4-1 Premiership victory at Wigan.
“I’ll take the goals when they come and, hopefully, I can chip in with a few more before the end of the season.
“I was unlucky with the shot in the first half when it hit the bar. But I want to get into the right areas to help the team.
“Overall, I think we produced a professional performance against Peterborough and came away with a good win. We know we’re on a good run of form at the moment and the confidence is high.”
While Lafferty could find himself preparing for the match against Norway on February 29th, many commentators believe his former team-mate could make his international bow in Dublin 24 hours earlier against the Czech Rep.