Picture the young James McClean when he first wore a Sunderland jersey. Memories stir of a fearless winger slaloming down the touchline. It seemed, even then, to be almost old-fashioned in a league that was no longer so in thrall to the hustle and bustle of years gone by.
McClean’s route-one approach to making it from A to B was almost reckless in its simplicity. That aggressive intent on getting the job done is still integral to his game but we associate it these days with his commitment to winning the ball more than his use of it.
He takes exception to such a simplistic sketch drawing of his worth as a player but that bent for physical contact, the velocity of approach that can make you squirm as he launches into a challenge, has endeared him to various managers at club and internationals levels.
And resulted in plenty of dressing downs.
McClean earned just seven yellow cards across his first two seasons with the Mackems. His lightest rap sheet in the seven campaigns since has listed 11 such offences. Only three cards received have been red but he averages one yellow for every four games played with club and country.
If anything, he may be less prone to punishment with Ireland. McClean hasn’t been booked in his last six international games. That’s 561 minutes in total, plus injury-time on top. It’s now almost eight months since he had his name written into the book on international duty.
If that all sounds like praising a thief for neglecting to steal then this is close to his best run.
He once navigated one full year and a day without picking up a card as an Ireland player. Thirteen games in all without a blemish, though it was a run that included the Euro 2016 warm-up in Turner’s Cross when he sent a Belarus defender skyward with one heart-stopping tackle.
He knows people have caricatured him as a caution waiting to happen, and that the brandishing of a card in his face is met with almost a shrug of the shoulders in the stands, and yet he rails at the notion that his recent good behaviour in green is reason to suspect he has mellowed.
“I’m not mellowing,” he stressed this week.”
“Maybe the opportunity hasn’t come up when the ball is kinda 60-40, you know?”
That McClean is as feisty as ever was apparent when he sat down to give a pair of interviews in Abbotstown this week. Engaging and interesting, there were two spats with two members of the media in two different rooms within mere minutes, one of them over his form.
It was a bit rich then when he protested an indifference to the criticism that has followed him through a qualifying campaign in which his performance levels have dipped so dramatically from the Euro 2020 chapter when he scored four goals for his country.
“Luckily enough for me, I couldn’t give a shit what you write, to be honest.”
Ooof! And it’s not just the Fourth Estate. His reaction when it was put to him that plenty of supporters are questioning his worth to the side given his recent form was to venture that, as fortune would have it, the fans aren’t the people that pick the team.
He does, in fairness, admit that he could be doing better. His last goal for Ireland was that vital effort away to Wales in Cardiff over two years ago but there is the knowledge that, whatever happens from here on in, he has already achieved as much as he could have imagined.
“Probably more so. If you would have told me when I was at Derry in 2011 that in 2019 I’d have 72 caps, ten goals... I think I’m one or two away from breaking into the top ten of all-time (Irish) goalscorers so, yeah, I would probably have laughed at you.
“But sitting here now, you can’t rest on your laurels. Hopefully I can get into that top ten, add a few more goals, get plenty more caps, one or two more major tournaments. I’m really pleased with how it has gone. If you’d asked me back then I would have snapped your hand off for where I am now.”
His fortunes at club level have been another test of his resilience.
His time as a West Bromwich Albion – and a Premier League – player ended in July of last year and his experience at Stoke City had turned similarly sour until Michael O’Neill swapped the role of Northern Ireland manager for the job with the Potters just last week.
O’Neill’s impact has been instant. McClean was one of a number of players brought in from the cold for a defeat of Barnsley which lifted City off the bottom of the Championship and the winger seemed almost nonchalant about the job of moving up the table now and away from danger.
“The thing about the Championship (is) you see it every season where a team goes on a run, where they’re nowhere,” he explained. “You think the season is written off and all of a sudden they’re fighting for play-offs.
“We’re only in November, lot of games to play. With the quality we have in the squad, why can’t we get in the play-offs? We’re more than capable of it. Hasn’t happened so far, hopefully Saturday was the starting point for us to kick on and give us that belief.”
If belief was all it took for teams to succeed then McClean’s surfeit stocks would be more than enough to establish an outpost at the summit of the table. He is facing the future with his chest thrust out regardless of the obstacles set in his path.
Starting with Denmark in two days’ time.
Remind him that the Danes have lost just once in over 30 games and he turns the focus on Ireland and the mentality Mick McCarthy’s men must bring to Lansdowne Road. He’ll tell you too that the Republic have drawn four of their five recent games with the Scandinavians.
There is a bullishness about him as he delivers the roll call of games in recent years where Ireland bettered their supposed superiors: Germany, Italy, Wales away on the day he claimed the only goal. He could have added Austria and another goal of his.
That was all then, the lay of the land is different now. Not just with his dip in form but with that of an Irish team which was so, so poor in their last two qualifying games when drawing with Georgia in Tbilisi and then losing to Switzerland in Geneva.
It’s not hard to imagine the Danes scoffing at clips of both games ahead of Monday’s encounter. Who can forget Thomas Delaney’s observation two years ago when he said playing the Irish was like trying to prise open a tin of beans with your bare hands?
Kasper Schmeichel, Martin Jorgensen, and Christian Eriksen have made similarly unflattering remarks about the Irish and manager Age Hareide summed up the Danish view succinctly earlier this month when admitting he was “pissed off” to be facing the Boys in Green again.
‘Hopefully, he’s even more pissed off after Monday night,” said McClean. “I couldn’t give a shit what he thinks. No point lying. I couldn’t care less. Hopefully, he’s coming off the pitch on Monday night and he’s thinking, ‘I never want to see these again’. It doesn’t bother us.”