Fans' favourite McClean handed Euro chance

Fans' favourite McClean handed Euro chance
James McClean

Giovanni Trapattoni answered the pleas of a nation today when he named James McClean in his squad for the Euro 2012 finals.

Just six months ago, McClean was a relative unknown outside Ireland as he waited patiently for a chance to show what he could do in the Barclays Premier League for Sunderland.

But now he will be given the opportunity to showcase his skills to a pan-European audience as the fairytale which his career has become continues unabated.

The 23-year-old got his big chance when then Black Cats boss Steve Bruce made a £350,000 summer swoop to snap him up from Derry City.

Bruce, ever cautious of the potential for a young player’s confidence to suffer irreparable damage by premature exposure, kept him waiting in the wings.

Had he known the impact McClean would have when he was finally thrust into the limelight, the former Manchester United skipper might have given him his head, but ultimately it was fellow Ulsterman Martin O’Neill who let the exciting winger off the leash, and to devastating effect.

O’Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light with Sunderland’s woeful early-season form having left them scrapping to find a way out of the relegation zone with more than a third of the campaign gone.

In his first game at the helm, his side trailed 1-0 to Blackburn on Wearside and the elation which surrounded O’Neill’s appointment was ebbing away.

But it was then that he turned to McClean, throwing him into the mix as a late substitute.

From the moment he first received the ball and headed directly for his marker, the crowd was lifted, and although it was goals from David Vaughan and Sebastian Larsson which transformed the prospect of defeat into morale-boosting victory, it was the youngster from Derry who had set tongues wagging.

O’Neill said: “When he came on against Blackburn, it seemed a pivotal moment. He electrified the crowd.”

The electricity has continued to flow ever since, and although McClean is now having to contend with ever-closer attention from defenders alerted to his prowess, his reputation has blossomed.

He won his first start for his club in a famous 1-0 victory over champions-elect Manchester City on New year’s Day, and has not missed a game since, contributing six goals to a recovery which has tailed off only in the last few weeks.

O’Neill said: “He came to prominence in December for us and has just kept going. He has been wonderful.

“He has approached every single game in the same manner. He has not allowed performances to dip too much – in fact, on many occasions, he has actually enhanced his performance from the time he came on as sub against Blackburn.

“He has so much to look forward to. There is plenty of improvement in his game, of course, but he is one of those lads who wants to do that.”

McClean’s form for Sunderland sparked a clamour in Ireland for him to be capped at senior international level, although one which initially went unheeded by Trapattoni.

The 73-year-old Italian insisted he knew all about the new wing sensation, but his insistence that all his players know the system he plays inside-out, and his loyalty to the men who booked the nation’s ticket to Poland and Ukraine meant, to the dismay of many, the youngster was not initially included in the squad for the February friendly against the Czech Republic.

However, fate was to intervene and when injuries prompted Trapattoni to add him to the party, the die was cast.

Rarely can a player have received such an ovation on debut as McClean did when he emerged from the bench to replace Aiden McGeady in a late cameo.

Trapattoni later joked: “I thought, ’Who is this? Messi, Maradona, Pele?”’

Speaking afterwards, McClean, who caused dismay in Northern Ireland when he opted to represent the Republic rather than the land of his birth, was level-headed about his chances of making the squad for the finals.

He said: “That’s not my decision, it’s the manager’s decision. Any player, it’s a dream to play for your country at a major tournament.

“I’ll just continue to play well for Sunderland week in, week out and come the summer, you never know.”

Now he does know, and a rise which has been little short of meteoric could increase significantly in gradient in the weeks to come.

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