By Liam Mackey
Ahead of Ireland’s European Championship qualifier against Gibraltar in Faro tonight, James McClean has paid tribute to Martin O’Neill for helping to accelerate the former Derry City man’s career in England – and continuing to be a source of inspiration to the player as his international manager.
Recalling how, after a nervy start, he put in a confident display in a reserve game for Sunderland against Manchester United, the West Brom man said: “Under Steve Bruce, second or third game I was named on the bench and every other time I was named on the bench until he was sacked.
“Martin came in and we were playing Manchester United. It was a very windy night and the rain was beating down. The game was on MUTV as well. I didn’t know he was there. I remember that I started the game horrendously and was caught out for the first goal.
"I was tracking back and the ball was going over my head, the right back got in and scored and I was thinking ‘oh no’.
“But after the first 15 minutes I played pretty well and set up three goals. I think what impressed him was my ability to keep getting at players and taking the ball up the field.
"Luckily for me it got me in the squad for a game against Blackburn and with fifteen minutes to go I got on and managed to make an impression. I made my first start on New Years day against Manchester City and I think I played every single minute after that.”
And McClean said that, as an Irish international under O’Neill’s management, he still benefits from the encouragement of his fellow Derryman.
“You’ve always got gratitude towards him because he is the one who gave you your debut and put the trust in you,” he said.
“I’ll always have that gratitude because he was the one who gave me the platform to go on and kick start my career in England. Even here (with Ireland) he just gives me that confidence to go and express myself and play with freedom.
"He’s not always on my case to do this or do that. If something doesn’t come off he’ll encourage me to do it again. When I step on the field here I’m confident I have his support.”
By contrast, McClean admitted that, initially, he didn’t exactly see eye to eye at the Stadium of Light with coach Steve Guppy who is now a member of O’Neill’s staff with Ireland.
“Obviously Gupps was at Sunderland as well,” he said. “For one reason or another, we didn’t kind of hit it off, me and him at Sunderland. He was trying new ideas and I didn’t always agree with him but, look, he’s an enthusiastic coach and his heart is in the right place. He wants to improve wingers especially. He gets excited working with wingers, trying to pass on his experience.
“Gupps was a good player back in his day. He’s just trying to teach and add new things to each person’s game. Like I said, he’s an enthusiastic coach and he wants the best for each player he’s working with.”