JAMES McClean couldn’t have asked for a better day to make his Barclay’s Premiership debut in front of a packed Stadium of Light which welcomed another Derry man, Martin O’Neill, as Sunderland’s new team boss.
ARTHUR DUFFY reports
The 22-year-old former Derry City winger from Creggan certainly hit the “Heights” when given a 15 minutes spell which helped turn a 0-1 deficit in the 84th minute, into a 2-1 victory which ended the Black Cats’ five game winless run in what proved a highly dramatic finish against Blackburn.
While McClean didn’t actually play a role in either of his new club’s two late, late goals, his insistence on demanding possession of the ball; delivery threatening crosses into the danger area and, of course, posing Blackburn no shortage of problems during his cameo appearance, should have done him no harm at all.
And while O’Neill was predictably delighted with the late turnaround which maintained his record of never having lost the first game when taking over a new club, he heaped praise on the winger having presented him with his debut.
“Just at the moment when probably we all needed a lift, on comes James McClean and his first move was probably the first time the crowd have seen him in action - he was so positive,” smiled the new boss.
“He played brilliantly in the reserves against Manchester United after a sluggish start in difficult conditions on Thursday evening, but he certainly had the crowd on their toes with his ability to cross the ball,” he added.
“He wants to get at players - he is so positive and he is young, immature - and that was great, and the crowd certainly took to his enthusiasm when he came on.
“He is anxious to make an impression and he could prove to be a proper player given time.”
For James, it was a dream come true as he sat on the first team bench for the ninth time since joining Sunderland on a three year contract for a fee of £350,000.
In fact, all Derry City supporters were also smiling when he came on, the powers that be at the Brandywell now expecting a cheque for £10,000 following his debut.
And if James continues to play in the first team - substitute appearances included - the “Candy Stripes” will continue to earn £10,000 per game up to a total of £100,000 - not bad business at all given the player’s first involvement at such a high level.
James, however, while enjoying what has been a rollercoaster ride since Sunday afternoon, appears to be taking things in his stride, quick to point out that a 15 minutes appearance as a substitute is one thing, playing for 90 minutes at a high tempo is something else.
“It’s been absolutely brilliant,” said the player yesterday afternoon, having boarded a plane on Sunday night from Newcastle bound for Belfast and another quickfire visit home.
“We’re off until Wednesday, so I opted to get back home for a few days and take things easy,” he smiled.
But did he believe he really had a chance of making an appearance against Blackburn after his new manager had watched him play in the 6-3 victory over Manchester United last Thursday night for the Sunderland Reserves?
“There had been speculation in the newspapers in England about me possibly making my debut, but since no-one told me officially, I didn’t pay any attention to the ‘paper talk.’ After all, it’s been mentioned before and it didn’t happen, so rather than be disappointed I’d rather wait until the manager makes a decision.
“To be fair to Steve Bruce he’s often told me that if circumstances had been different I would have made my debut and could have been playing by this stage but it didn’t happen.
“Steve signed me and, obviously, I’m very grateful for that, but I’ve got to move on now and try to impress the new gaffer who gave me a chance last Sunday.
“Martin O’Neill gave me the opportunity I had been waiting for. He’s now the new manager and it’s clear that his presence has lifted everyone at the club. Now it’s down to me to repay him for giving me my debut so I think it’s very important that I continue what I’ve been doing, keeping my head down and working hard.”
From Creggan Heights and the eldest child in a family of six, James has come a long way over the past four months but he was delighted that both Derry City and his former Derry & District Youth team, Trojans, had benefited from his transfer to the Wearside club.
“The transfer to Sunderland was a dream come true for me, there’s no doubt about that. Things have been going really well and I’ve settled in well at the club.
“It’s great that I can get home for a break on international weekends and things like that, but I’m always in touch with people in Derry, particularly my former team-mates at the Brandywell.
“Eugene ‘Studs’ Ferry is my new chauffeur as he regularly picks me up at the airport, while the rest of the lads continue to give me good advice and their support has been brilliant,” declared the winger.
“Obviously, Stephen Kenny’s guidance when I broke through into the Derry City team has been significant while the Derry backroom team have also been very helpful and very supportive of my ambition to make it across the Channel.
“We still text and talk to each other regularly and that won’t change,” he claimed.
Derry “Boot” Boy
As James’ former playing colleagues would testify, the player has long been fascinated by football boots - having bought quite a few new pairs when at the Brandywell - and things do not appear to have changed much in that regard.
Indeed, in his first meeting with Martin O’Neill, the new boss immediately commented on the player’s footwear when the new manager was been shown around the training facilities by International Development Director, Niall Quinn.
“I just happened to bump into them last week at the training ground. We met as I was walking through the door and Niall Quinn introduced me to the new now boss, who immediately noticed my boots!
“He started to give me a bit of stick about my boots - ‘I don’t think you would have been playing with those boots for Derry City,” he joked.
“I have a black and orange pair now, I’ve decided to tone down a bit, but we had a laugh and a quite chat. But I new he was coming to watch us play in the reserve game last Thursday night, so I had to be at my best.
“It was a bad night, but I think I did okay and we won the match, so I was happy with my performance but, at the same time, I was taking nothing for granted.
“Next thing I knew, I was on the bench again - which was great - but then he called me with about 15 minutes to go when we were losing 1-0. He told me to play high on the left and not to be nervous. He said I should continue to do what I had been doing in the reserve match and that’s what I tried to do,” continued James.
“I think I did okay, I got a good cross into the box seconds after I came on and I was really into it. I wanted to be involved as much as possible and, thanks to two late wonder goals, everything was alright in the end. It was a fantastic experience playing in front of such a huge crowd and, fingers crossed, I’ll get another opportunity sooner rather than later.
“We travel to Spurs on Sunday I think, but as long as I’m involved in the squad I will be very happy. Everything is down to the manager and it’s up to me to be ready and willing if he needs me.”
Having scored goals regularly for the Reserve team, McClean’s graduation to the first team squad after such a short spell, has been hugely significant.
According to Niall Quinn, the Derry man “bowled Steve Bruce over” when he first watched him play and, if Sunday’s short appearance is anything to go by, O’Neill appears to be on a similar wavelength.
But James has no intention of changing his happy-go-lucky way of life and his modest and quiet personality.
“I’ve experienced a few changes alright over the past four months, but I think I’ve coped with things as well as I can. It’s nice to be flattered in the newspapers and, of course, I love to be part of it but I’m the type of person who will keep his feet on the ground, continue to work hard in every training session and focus on my football - I’ve been doing that for years,” he maintained.
He points to the importance of his fitness levels and strength, both physically and mentally.
“That’s so important at this level. As I’ve already said, I take nothing for granted. I’ve played for 15 minutes on my debut and I was happy enough with my performance. So it’s a case of onwards and upwards as I now try to establish myself in the first team but I realise I have quite a lot of work to do on that front.”
There’s no doubt that Sunderland will have attracted quite a few new supporters on Foyleside given James’ success thus far and, hopefully, his positive progression will be maintained as he continues to live out his childhood dream.