At one point yesterday, Roy Keane and James McClean stood metres away from each other, dozens of microphones in their faces, and yet neither sounded likely to throw the sort of verbal grenade previously lobbed into the media sphere. Changed times.
Keane has a few years on McClean, but the 25-year old’s career has already been peppered with controversies, not least his refusal to wear the poppy and the sectarian abuse received on the back of that and his declaration for the Republic. His Irish career hasn’t been aloof from headlines of the wrong kind either, what with his critical tweet after being left on the bench against Kazakhstan in 2012 serving as a prime example of his rather fraught association with social media.
This, then, was a more mature McClean performance. The ankle injury that curtailed his preparations this week isn’t ideal, but Martin O’Neill harbours an obvious grá for his fellow Derry man. It was O’Neill who gave him his debut at Sunderland and he has invariably picked him for Ireland, too. If McClean is fit he will almost certainly start on the left wing and his directness and physicality may well be crucial in seeking a win which would be Ireland’s first in a home competitive game against serious group rivals since the defeat of the Dutch in 2001.
That, of course, was the day Keane launched Marc Overmars into space by way of welcome to Dublin. McClean – who recently served a two-match ban for Wigan on the back of 10 yellow cards this season – would not let a similar opportunity pass.
“Of course, sometimes a tackle is just as good as a goal to get everyone fired up. Make no mistake, if there is a tackle to be made on Sunday and I’m nearby, I’ll make it. That’s just my game. I’m very committed. ”
It’s reassuring to hear such honesty and he followed it up with more plain speaking when discussing Ireland’s woeful home record in games like this. A “must-win”, he called it, for an Irish team that has been “solid” thus far in a group where four horses are still in the running. I know we have had a few games in the past that have been make-or-break. You look at the Sweden game here where we lost 2-1 after going one-up. Hopefully we can turn that around come Sunday night and on Monday morning the table is looking a lot better for us.”
It would, at least, make a change from his normal Monday reading in the form of a championship table that shows Wigan stuck in the relegation zone three places from the bottom and five points adrift of safety. Perhaps the toughest period of them all in a uniformly “terrible” season was during January’s transfer window when key players including Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman, Ben Watson and Adam Forshaw all left the DW Stadium. Whispers of a switch to Celtic circled McClean, but ultimately came to naught.
“It’s important you don’t get your head turned,” said McClean who has scored six goals and played regularly up front for his club lately. “There is a lot of speculation and you are hearing this or that. But the way it is with me, if there is nothing on the table then there is nothing to talk about. There were a few phone calls but those calls got knocked back. That was the club’s decision. I wasn’t going to be a spoilt brat and knock on the door. I see myself as a loyal person. We were in a dog-fight. I started the season there so I wanted to continue there and help them.”
His contract runs to the summer of 2016, but League One is no place for a man who impressed so much on his introduction to the Premier League or one who has ambitions of furthering an international career currently taking off. “Of course, I’m no different to any player. I’ve got an ambition to play at the highest level and League One ain’t that. If we stay up or go down, you never know what’s around the corner in football. You never say never. We will assess it come the end of the season.”
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