A step down to step up for James McClean

If there are no last-minute hitches in the contract discussions with his prospective new employers, then James McClean could be playing against Manchester United at Wembley on Sunday.

Participation in the English top-flight season’s traditional curtain-raiser is Wigan Athletic’s reward for lifting the FA Cup even as they were failing in their bid to stay in the Premier League at the end of what was a definitively topsy-turvy campaign at the club.

For McClean, the chance to play in the weekend’s high-profile showpiece should, at least to some degree, help cushion the blow of knowing that where Wigan went, he now follows — from the Premier League into the Championship.

No amount of spin can disguise the fact that it’s a step down for a player who, having made an explosive impact in his first season at Sunderland after joining the club from Derry City, was widely tipped to go on to even greater things, for both club and country.

But having flared brightly but briefly under Martin O’Neill when, as a complete unknown in England, he was thrown in at the deep end and not only survived but thrived, the thrillingly old-fashioned winger struggled to produce the same luminous form the following season, tending to make more waves through his Twitter account than he managed on the pitch.

Now, as he overhauls the Black Cats to suit his own personal vision, Paolo Di Canio has decided that McClean is surplus to requirements, apparently sharing with his compatriot Giovanni Trapattoni some troubling reservations about the player’s ability to turn all that raw power into something truly potent.

Certainly, the Ireland manager always seemed a little bemused by the early hype surrounding the player and, when push comes to shove in key games, invariably opted to place his faith in the likes of Simon Cox or Jon Walters as converted strikers played out wide, rather than giving his orthodox, go-ahead winger a chance to impress in what should be his natural environment.

And that was even before the rebellious Foylesider decided to tell the world exactly what he felt about the Irish state of affairs via a wildly ill-advised and inflammatory tweet from Kazakhstan. At the time, Trapattoni made the point that most other managers would have told the lad to sling his hook but the veteran decided to forgive, if not necessarily forget, with the result that McClean remains a live contender for more international honours.

Which is where the downside of his move from Premier League to Championship suddenly becomes an up. Put simply, for the good of player and country, McClean is far better off burning up the wing at Wigan than he would be burning a hole in the bench at Sunderland.

But if Irish World Cup hopes are to be boosted by a rejuvenated McClean, he will first have to show Wigan boss Owen Coyle that he means business. Assuming the player keeps his focus firmly on the pitch, it should significantly help his cause that in Coyle he’ll find a thoughtful, intelligent, experienced man-manager who, thanks to his own background with Ireland, will be fully appreciative of what playing for his country would mean for McClean.

Add in the widespread belief that Wigan will be challenging at the top of the Championship — as opposed to what we imagine will be Sunderland’s less glorious fate one rung above — and it all means that, to put the move at its most positive, this could be just the backward step that McClean needs to make a big stride forward in his football career.

Certainly, that has to be the hope — even if there’s also bound to be a little part of every hack mourning for what might have been if only James and Paolo had stayed together long enough to have a massive falling-out.

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