JAMES McCLEAN says he’s still hurting from Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2016 exit at the hands of France, nine days on from the lights went out at the Stade des Lumieres in Lyon.
Reflecting back on that memorable campaign, the West Brom winger believes Ireland could have emulated Wales and gone further in the competition if it wasn’t for, what he described as, ‘10 minutes of madness’.
Leading 1-0 thanks to Robbie Brady’s penalty kick, Ireland conceded twice on 58 minutes and 61 minutes and saw Shane Duffy sent off four minutes later. So it was actually seven crazy minutes which turned the game on its head and saw the brave Ireland team go home at the last 16 stage.
And as McClean watches the final stages of the tournament from the comfort of his own home, he can’t help but wonder what could have been had they held their nerve for that crucial second half period against the host nation.
“I’m sure in time when the dust settles I’ll see it as a success and look back and see that it was a great achievement,” said McClean.
“But right now it still hurts and is a bit raw. Bar 10 minutes of madness we could have been in the quarter-finals and then you never know what could happen after that - you would be two games away from the final.
“I’m a proud man and I’m sure when I sit back and reflect in a few weeks time I’ll be proud of what we achieved.”
McClean apportions no blame on fellow Derry man, Duffy who made the last ditch challenge on French goalscorer, Antoine Greizmann to warrant a red card.
“If he had of scored it was 3-1 and game over. At 2-1, with 10 men or not you still have a chance. Anybody else would’ve done the same in that situation.”
With fellow Group E teams, Belgium and Italy reaching the quarter-finals and Irish conquerors, France making it to the semi-finals against Germany, who Ireland defeated in the qualifying group, McClean believes his teammates can take great confidence from their recent performances against the top teams in Europe.
“We beat Italy and were leading against France,” he said. “Belgium were also in our group and reached the quarter-finals as well.
“We had Germany and Poland in the qualifying group and they also reached the latter stages of the competition so it just show you the level of competition we’ve had during the qualifying campaign and then in the tournament itself. So I think it’s a remarkable achievement.”
The Creggan man is one of the senior members of the Ireland squad now as he approaches his 50th international cap.
And he believes both himself and Duffy can emerge as key members of the team going into the World Cup qualifying campaign.
“I’m a few caps off 50 now so I’m one of the more experienced men. Duffy is just starting his international career but he will be a rock at the back for many years to come.”
With Blackburn Rovers defender, Duffy attracting attention from a number of Premiership clubs, including McClean’s West Brom, the winger believes the former Foyle Harps man can be a success in the English top flight.
“I think he will be a success whichever club he joins,” said McClean. “He’s 6ft 5’’ and is one of the best winning balls in the air I’ve played with or against He seems to win everything.
“He’ll throw his body at anything. He’s got all the attributes to do well in the game, so I don’t see why he can’t make that move. “I’m sure he’ll get a move which will be good for him and the Ireland set-up and also Derry to have another man playing at the top level.”
McClean invited young supporters to a ‘meet your hero’ at the Bay Road Soccer Centre last Friday afternoon where he signed autographs and posed for photographs.
He was surrounded by scores of excited, wide eyed young people in awe of the Ireland and Premiership star.
And he said he was delighted to ‘give something back’ to supporters and hoped that he could prove an inspiration.
“It’s not often you get to meet a professional footballer at that young age. It would give you a buzz. I never got that opportunity but it’s a nice situation now that I can help put a bit of excitement into the younger generation of footballers in Derry and hopefully give them something to look up to and strive towards.
“Football is nothing without fans. I think it’s important to give something back. It would be worse if no one turned up but it’s proof that you’re doing something right.
“It’s very humbling. And if I can inspire at least one young person from Derry, then for me, it’s been a success.
“Hopefully these young people can go on and achieve some sort of success or greatness of their own.”