JAMES McCLEAN believes he’s matured enough to become a ‘key player’ in Martin O’Neill’s Ireland squad after enhancing his reputation with yet another man of the match display against Wales last Friday night.
McClean, who turns 28 next month, has certainly earned his place in the team having started all five qualifiers and currently leads Ireland’s scoring charts with three goals, including that precious winner in Vienna against Austria. In fact he's played all but the final five minutes of that game in Austria during the opening five qualifiers.
“I’ve been around for the squad for five years and I feel I’ve got enough experience to make myself a key player,” said the Derry man. “You can only do that by putting in the work for your club and taking that into internationals. I’m not a young lad anymore. I’m thankful to be getting the opportunity.”
The West Brom winger reckons Ireland can capitalise on their ‘very strong position’ in Group D and finish the job during the second half of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign which kicks-off at home to Austria on June 11th.
He was influential in the scoreless draw with Wales at the Aviva - a result which left the ‘Boys in Green’ in second place, level with leaders, Serbia on 11 points.
And having already played Serbia in Belgrade and Austria in Vienna, McClean believes Ireland can go into the second half of the campaign with real confidence.
“In the grand scheme of things it was a good point for us,” said McClean. “We’re still undefeated, we’re joint top of the group. We’ve played Serbia and Austria away and drew with Wales who haven’t gained any ground on us and we’ve got most of our remaining games at home.
“So the onus is on us to really kick on in the second half of the campaign and hopefully we can do that. I’m very confident we can but talk is cheap. We need to put that into action.”
The West Brom winger, who wore the No.5 shirt in memory of his good friend and former Derry City teammate - the late Ryan McBride, was in inspired form on the night and set the tone with a robust tackle on Real Madrid superstar, Gareth Bale after just four minutes.
He felt Ireland shackled the Welsh danger man superbly on the night but admitted it would have been difficult to take if Bale had of clinched the win when his stunning second half strike shaved the post.
Indeed, Bale should have been handed his marching orders for a nasty challenge on John O’Shea minutes before Ireland skipper, Seamus Coleman sustained a broken leg following a horrendous tackle from Neil Taylor.
“That’s just my game anyway, whether it was Gareth Bale or whoever,” McClean said of his tackle. “I wanted to put 110 per cent into the game, that’s the bare minimum. That’s what I’m paid to do and honoured to do.
“Bale was quiet enough but it just goes to show the class of the man. He had a quiet game but almost won the game with two bits of magic. It just goes to show you can never switch off, but I thought we were very good in containing him.
“We could have been a lot better on the ball ourselves. I thought Wales were a much better side on the ball but given the injuries we had, and the big players we had missing, I felt we did very well. It was a workmanlike performance.
"It was definitely a game which lacked quality. It was like a derby type game. Neither team wanted to lose and cancelled each other out. It was a bit dirty, a bit gritty.
“On another night we could’ve won it if luck was on our side but it wasn’t to be. We’re still in a very strong position and looking forward to doing our bit in the second half of the campaign.”
McClean, who remained with the Ireland squad ahead of tonight’s friendly fixture with Iceland in Dublin, isn’t expected to play with some of the fringe players, including Banagher man, Eunan O’Kane hoping to be handed game time.
Up next at club level for McClean is a trip to Old Trafford to take on Man United and he’s delighted the big games keep coming.“The big games are coming thick and fast but that’s why you are a footballer to play in these games so hopefully I can keep my place and look forward to another big game.”