McClean’s emergence has been one of the highlights of Sunderland’s season, with the former Derry City winger breaking into the first team and delivering a string of eye-catching displays in the four months since O’Neill took charge.
On a rare off day, he was nowhere near as effective as the Black Cats were held by struggling Wolves, and the visitors had clearly been instructed to commit as many men as possible to prevent the Republic of Ireland international marauding down the touchline.
O’Neill admits McClean has to learn how to cope with such treatment, but in time he sees no reason why the 22-year-old should not develop into a genuine rival to Bale, who is currently regarded as the best left-winger in the Premier League.
O’Neill said: “James’ willingness to want to beat a man for the cause of the team is commendable, but sometimes he maybe just needs to have another look up.
“I see it, a wee bit, like the development of Gareth Bale. If he has a look at him, he’ll see that occasionally the ball is played to him, he has a quick look to see what’s on and then he’ll play it back to the left-back, just to get a feel of the ball without actually doing anything. He doesn’t have to beat his man every time.
“Do I see comparisons with Bale? Why not, you know? James has electrified the place — I don’t think I’m being too strong when I say that, but he’s been great. He’s been a major plus for us in pulling ourselves round.”
Saturday’s draw leaves Sunderland uncertain of meeting their aim of a top half finish, and since crashing out of the FA Cup at the hands of Everton, the Wearsiders have failed to win their last four games.
They looked like a side with little to play for against Wolves, with a second-half header from McClean and a late miss from Seb Larsson representing the only occasions when they threatened Wayne Hennessey’s goal.
They are limping towards the end of the season, but full-back Kieran Richardson insists there remains a determination to improve on last year’s 10th-placed finish.
Richardson said: “It is so important to keep the momentum going over the last four games. We want to finish as high as possible. If we can get up to eighth then that is progress from last season. We are definitely looking to get there as long as it is possible.”
Wolves insist they can still avoid relegation, but survival looks increasingly less likely after they extended their winless run under caretaker manager Terry Connor to nine matches.
The Premier League’s bottom club are now eight points adrift of safety with four games remaining, and given that their next match pits them against title-chasing Manchester City, they could be relegated this weekend.
Their best opportunity against Sunderland came to nothing when Simon Mignolet kept out Steven Fletcher’s close-range header with nine minutes left.
Connor said: “It is always possible to get out of trouble. We will be trying to get up and get a positive result against Manchester City.
“We have nothing to lose against them, have we? The pressure is on at both ends of the table — they are fighting for their lives at the top and we are at the bottom.
“Bring it on. It will be a different game and hopefully we will play our part and get something from it. This result gives us a lot of heart.”