THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

20 January ~ Although they face a Swansea team high on confidence, Sunderland have every reason to be optimistic ahead of tomorrow afternoon's match. They are creeping into the top half of the table. O'Neill has them playing like his old Aston Villa team – determined, resilient and with a habit of grabbing late winners. He has also demonstrated his knack for picking out a quality winger. Where his minor successes at Villa were built on the attacking ability of James Milner, Ashley Young and Stuart Downing (all overseen by O'Neill's assistant manager, best friend forever and former left-winger John Robertson), James McClean has become central to the renaissance at Sunderland.

Joining the Black Cats for just £350,000 in August, the winger was already halfway through a highly impressive season for Derry City in the League of Ireland, where he routinely looked a class above his peers. With over 70 appearances and 18 goals for the club, he was not short of experience or ability, but it was widely expected McClean would need time to adjust to the rigours of the Premier League. At the very least Sunderland's coaching staff were initially concerned over the possibility of burn out, with McClean playing non-stop since February. But no such worries – word quickly filtered back to Derry that McClean, a non-smoker and non-drinker, was considered one of the fittest players on the club's books.

McClean's biggest obstacle to first-team football was Sunderland's poor form. Bruce seemed reluctant to offer playing time to an untested player. But with O'Neill's blessing, the left-winger's powerful running, willingness to take on full-backs and knack for scoring all kinds of goals has been welcomed in the Stadium of Light.

He is even tipped to force his way into the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012 squad. Giovanni Trapattoni, usually a conservative selector, has spoken of calling him up for February's friendly against the Czech Republic, though it will be a tough ask to displace Damien Duff or Stephen Hunt from the final 23.

One international manager definitely keen on the player is Michael O'Neill, the new Northern Ireland boss. He has mentioned the idea of tempting McClean – who played youth football for the north – back into the fold, although the winger has since reaffirmed his desire to play for the Republic.

It is only a matter of time before McClean makes an impression at international level and becomes yet another success story for the League of Ireland. He joins Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan as the latest Irish player to cross the channel with little or no problem in adjusting to the pace of the Premier League.

While many of these players (and countless other Irish imports in the Football League and Scottish League) have undoubtedly benefitted from improved coaching and facilities at bigger clubs, they are testament to a growing pool of quality and professionalism within the Irish domestic game which, unfortunately, has yet to be translated into financial stability or improved crowds for local clubs.

League of Ireland fans can only hope the locals glued to the Premier League come to realise it is worth paying attention to the quality of football available at home – if only to see who will be next to make a successful leap to the big time. Ciaran McCauley

Comments (13)
Comment by Duncan Gardner 2012-01-20 17:09:39

"[Michael O'Neill] has mentioned the idea of tempting McClean – who played youth football for the north – back into the fold, although the winger has since reaffirmed his desire to play for the Republic"

Michael needn't bother. The bloke's a timewaster. Apart from his "youth football" (actually seven U-21 caps as an adult), he accepted a place in a recent NI senior squad before changing his mind two days later. The South can have him, can't see it before Euro 2012 though.

Does reflect well on the standard in the LoI.

Comment by Diable Rouge 2012-01-20 17:50:58

"It is only a matter of time before McClean makes an impression at international level and becomes yet another success story for the League of Ireland. He joins Shane Long, Kevin Doyle, Stephen Ward, Seamus Coleman and Wes Hoolahan as the latest Irish player to cross the channel with little or no problem in adjusting to the pace of the Premier League."

What's most notable about the majority of these players (and Keane and McGrath previously) is that they eschewed the usual route of going to England as a teenager, with the resultant high attrition rate that ensues, in favour of developing their skills domestically. Perhaps if this current trend becomes a regularity, the League of Ireland clubs can demand fair transfer fees, the greater financial stability for clubs borne out in European progression. Enda Stevens will probably become the next LoI graduate.

Comment by The Awesome Berbaslug!!! 2012-01-20 18:43:31

The only chance of him being in our 2012 squad is if there are a whole host of injuries. Indeed it might even be difficult to get into a squad for friendlies, because trap is only interested in the players who got us there. So theoretically if some young Irish player were to score 20 premiership goals between now and the end of the season, he probably wouldn't get in the squad.

Comment by JM Footzee 2012-01-21 00:57:05

Diable Rouge - Stevens agreed to sign for Aston Villa some time ago, but was allowed to complete SR's European campaign.

Comment by A Doctor Speaks 2012-01-21 01:23:20

'The South', who they?

And how is any Irishman a 'timewaster'?

Comment by Diable Rouge 2012-01-21 08:19:23

"Diable Rouge - Stevens agreed to sign for Aston Villa some time ago, but was allowed to complete SR's European campaign."

Which is precisely why I mentioned him - he only arrived at Villa Park in January, so should be the next to break into a first XI.

Comment by bearlion 2012-01-21 09:16:57

Ha ha - "O'Neill's Sunderland". The name change is starting to stick

Comment by Analogue Bubblebath II 2012-01-21 20:06:29

McClean will not be going to Euro 2012 under any circumstances unless the FAI are able to get clearance from the IFA. He played for the North a number of times at U21 level and his eligibility will not be cleared unless the IFA co-operate on time.

If the IFA decide to sit on it for a few months instead of expediting it, then there is little that the FAI or McClean can do.

Comment by The Awesome Berbaslug!!! 2012-01-21 20:26:15

Duncan, Since we have to accept Gerry fucking adams in our Dail, support an active campaign to sign up every single northern irish footballer we can. We lost a lot with the good friday agreement you know, and we should take revenge.

Comment by Duncan Gardner 2012-01-21 21:02:34

"If the IFA decide to sit on it for a few months instead of expediting it, then there is little that the FAI or McClean can do"

There have3 been some shit-stirring/ hysterical suggestions on various NI and Southern supporter sites that this might happen, but can't see it myself. These things seem to take surprisingly long even when the transfers are uncontroversial (a recent example being us recruiting ex England U-21 keeper Lee Camp.

"We lost a lot with the good friday agreement"

I doubt that. We had just as few decent players in 1998 as now.

Comment by A Doctor Speaks 2012-01-21 22:15:00

'Shit-stirring/hysterical', sounds as exaggerated as those you purport to complain about.

And if you have a few decent players, why even bother?

Comment by A Doctor Speaks 2012-01-22 01:05:45

Oops, "so few decent players" that should read.

Comment by robw 2012-01-23 09:52:21

Whilst Lincoln manager, Chris Sutton almost signed him for us for nothing when Derry were in financial trouble and the players were effectively free agents.

I think an agreement had been made after he'd been on trial, and he was set to join us (imagine him in League 2, it would have been brilliant), but then he got cold feet, said he was homesick and that was that.

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