In the depths of New Jersey commuter country, Tuesday morning was all about shaking off cobwebs.
The first bank holiday Monday of the Stateside summer had been celebrated with gusto by the locals, judging by the dull morning-after quiet that hung over Whippany, a sparsely populated slice of suburbia 40 miles east of Manhattan.
The quiet, however, wasn’t to last. Ireland’s team bus rolled through the leafy streets and pitched up at the training facility of Major League Soccer’s Red Bulls, nestled in the type of nondescript industrial corner that New Jersey specialises in. Martin O’Neill’s men had their own cobwebs to be rid of and once limbs had been stretched and the transatlantic journey shaken from their systems, things began to get really loud.
James McClean had been at the forefront of every drill and exercise from the off yesterday morning, the first to the barrel of energy drinks during a break, the first back out for more legwork.
The Derry native is not shy, nor retiring, nor slow to let his feelings known. Never has been. And in the 19-man panel that O’Neill has brought here for a friendly with Mexico at the MetLife Stadium, McClean occupies new territory — leader.
By a distance the most experienced international here, the West Bromwich Albion winger looks certain to mark his 50th cap with the armband tomorrow night. While Ireland’s trans-Atlantic trips in the past have sometimes focused on those who haven’t made the trip, this was a journey that McClean was always going to make.
“It gets on my nerves when players come in and they’re not fit for games but they are for the club games at the weekend. That gets to me,” said McClean after the largely Championship-based squad had been put through the paces.
“It’s not just a one-off thing, it seems to happen a lot, either you are proud to represent your country, that should be a great honour, go and play, be delighted to pull on the jersey, be proud to be there and if you don’t want to be here, don’t be there. Don’t come in and then leave because you are taking a chance [away] from someone else to come in in the first place, that definitely annoys me.
“That’s never been me, if I am feeling fine I want to play, I am available for selection and I want as many caps as possible.” And the maturing McClean has got his way. Since September 2014, he has featured in 27 of Ireland’s 28 internationals and more lately becoming something of a talisman. His three goals in World Cup qualifying have helped propel Ireland into the very heart of the battle for top spot and a ticket to Russia as the pivotal clash with Austria in Dublin on Sunday week looms into view.
Having tasted two European Championships with Ireland — he was a belter in 2012 after a stunning debut campaign in the Premier League with Sunderland — McClean is desperate to take his passion to the greatest stage.
“You’ve ambition and then you’ve realistic ambition and I wanted to play at the highest level. Being a realist, if you say you’re playing with Derry City for all your career, it’s where I’m from, it means so much to me and that would have been great,” said McClean, likely to line up as a left wing back in a new-look 3-5-2 formation against Mexico. “But you strive every day to be the best you can be, push myself and challenge myself and see how far you can go. It’s gone well and if I get the 50th cap it would be a proud moment.
“Ah, the World Cup is the pinnacle isn’t it? Everyone wants to play in a World Cup. We’re in a good position.”
O’Neill reported a clean bill of health for those who have travelled here and spoke of his eagerness to see Shane Duffy and Cyrus Christie in particular get solid game time against the Mexicans.
“Some players need to play, especially if they’re got a chance of being involved against Austria,” said the manager, who confirmed Harry Arter will link up with the panel when they return to Dublin after he had missed Bournemouth’s last game of the season with an Achilles problem.
In the meantime, McClean is intent on savouring another night in a stadium that has become an unlikely significant stage post in his journey.
“My first goal was actually in the MetLife as well so if I happened to get my 50th cap there as well…” mused McClean, who scored Ireland’s only response in a 5-1 humbling at the hands of Portugal at the arena three years ago. “If you had told me that the MetLife Stadium would end up being an important place in terms of my career I’d probably have laughed at you but that’s just the way it’s gone.”
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