JAMES McClean remains much too focused on his career at Sunderland to be drawn into an international tug-o-war.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
Having returned home on Wednesday after netting his first goal for the “Black Cats” in the 4-1 victory over Wigan Athletic 24 hours earlier, the 22-years-old was surprised that his name was regularly mentioned during the official appointment of Michael O’Neill as the new N. Ireland boss in Belfast this week.
After all, he has yet to be selected for the Republic but remains a supporter having followed the “boys in green” throughout his career to date.
During a courtesy visit to the “Journal” Offices yesterday, James was shokced his name had been mentioned during the Belfast Press Conference, but he did admit having had a telephone conversation with the new ‘northern’ boss over recent days.
“Michael O’Neill rang me up for a chat, suggesting that he did not wish to put pressure on me in relation to my career,” answered James. “We had a chat about my international future and we agreed to keep in touch. It was a very friendly call and I appreciated the fact that he contacted me,” added the Derry man.
However, James made it abundantly clear that international football is NOT on his radar at the moment.
“Playing international is very much on the back burner. That’s what I told Michael. My total focus is to play well at Sunderland and try to keep my place in the first team, that’s the priority as far as I am concerned.
“I told Michael that if the international situation developed and I had to make a decision, then I would make it at that time. However, at the moment for me it’s all about Sunderland and trying to improve as a player.”
When questioned on why he opted not to join the N. Ireland senior squad when called up for the match against the Faroe Islands, McClean said he would have preferred to play for the Republic.
“I declined to join the N. Ireland squad and said at the time that if I was to play international football, I would prefer to represent the Republic as that was one of my ambitions and that hasn’t changed.
“I have not been selected by the Republic, but should I progress at Sunderland and the Republic express an interest in me for the international team, then that would be another dream come true for me. The only way that situation will come about is if I’m doing well at Sunderland.”
With the Republic having qualified for the European Championships this summer, James didn’t feel there was a realistic chance of gaining selection into Giovanni Trapattoni’s panel.
“I would be telling lies if I suggested that international football was not in my mind, but it’s not at the moment. That said, I do set myself personal targets.
“At Derry City I set myself a personal challenge to get selected for the Airtricity League team that would play in the Dublin Super Cup and I achieved that. Now that I’m playing in the Premiership with Sunderland, I’ve set another personal target, to represent Ireland in the fullness of time.
“But I’m not going to kid myself about the ‘Euros’ as they are coming up this summer, but playing international football is something I can work towards.”
He argued that his decisions in football were “footballing decisions” and were never based on politics.
So why opt to play for the Republic having represented N. Ireland at international level?
“When growing up as a young player, it’s a big thing to be selected for international youth football. Northern Ireland did give me that opportunity and I certainly appreciated it.
“It was about playing football, nothing else. Had the Republic of Ireland selected me to play at underage level, I would also have played. That, however, never happened, so I was happy to represent N. Ireland when called upon.
“I appreciated it and felt involvement at that level would help my chances of progressing my career. That what it was all about, it was always a footballing decision and nothing else.
“As a boy, I have always supported the Republic of Ireland international team. And now that I’ve been signed by Sunderland, it’s only natural that I think of international football - again to progress my career - and at senior level I would prefer to play for the Republic of Ireland. It’s a football decision.
“There’s been talk about politics, but that doesn’t interest me in the slightest. I’m a footballer and I want to be the best I can be and play at the highest possible level. I’m not interetest in politics,” he maintained.
Meanwhile, James is now hoping that he will be involved in the Sunderland side which travels to Peterborough for tomorrow’s FA Cup game.
“The gaffer always plays his cards close to his chest and having played two games in quick succession last week, he may opt to rest a few players.
“For me, I’m ready and willing to go again, I want to play in every game and given that Peterborough didn’t wish to take a chance on me before Sunderland arrived on the scene, I may well find an extra bit of motivation if selected to play on Saturday,” concluded James.