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