Irish fans may not have realised but, had it been a younger James McClean that got on the end of Saturday’s match-winning moment on Saturday, victory in Vienna may not have been sealed.
Recreating the goal he grabbed against Austria last night, the 27-year-old admitted the composure and calmness he displayed in bursting towards goal and rippling the net was not part of his armoury when he first arrived on the big stage four years ago.
Though Martin O’Neill was the manager to thrust him into the spotlight back then at Sunderland, by the time the Derryman entered the business end of his first campaign as Ireland boss last year, McClean was a peripheral figure.
He was left on the bench for the three successive home qualifiers against Poland, Scotland, and Georgia, only retrieving his place at the Euros when O’Neill rolled the dice with his selection for the must-win group meeting with Italy.
For this tilt at reaching the World Cup, however, McClean and O’Neill’s partnership is back in full swing, with the player’s three goals in the last two qualifiers shuttling Ireland to the top spot heading into the new year.
His contribution in Austria was particularly critical and the approach he adopted in anticipating Wes Hoolahan’s pass and unleashing his shot for the goal reflected a player justifiably trusted by O’Neill to have a positive impact on the pitch.
“I’m definitely a better player than when I first came into Ireland squad,” explained McClean last night on Newstalk radio.
“As I’ve gotten older, I’m finding out more about the game, including when to time my runs.
“Even when I ran onto the pass and broke through on goal, I kept my composure before deciding when to hit the strike, whereas a few years ago I might have just snatched at the ball.”
McClean’s vision of Roy Keane in his mind as he sprinted clear on Ramazan Özcan’s goal generated some humour in the post-match analysis, but the teachings of Ireland’s assistant boss had a serious hue to it.
“Roy would also say you can’t score unless the effort is on target,” he noted. “That was my aim and, while I can say with honesty the intention wasn’t for the ball to go through the goalkeeper’s legs, that doesn’t make the goal any less important.”
McClean was lucky to be on the pitch in the first place after a back injury jeopardised his involvement, yet a trip to hospital last Tuesday offered him a lifeline.
“I couldn’t walk when I reported in last week, but had an epidural at a Dublin hospital to ease the pain. It’s a strange procedure, but did wonders and, with the help of the team medical staff, I was able to start.
“When my back started to stiffen up with 20 minutes left, I didn’t want to be a liability to the team by not being able to track a marker and so had to come off.
“I’ve had trouble with my back every few months going back to my time at Derry City. Sometimes, when I wake up, it can be sore for a few days.”
Content off the pitch, too, with his young family, McClean is adamant his career path in England was always likely to be patchy.
At one stage, just 18 months ago, he was operating in the third tier for Wigan Athletic, before Tony Pulis handed him a Premier League return ticket at the Hawthorns.
“Everyone was getting excited when I was first on the scene, jumping on the bandwagon,” he contends.
“But my form was always going to fade. I wasn’t always going to bomb past players, because opposition players soon suss you out. Things like being double-marked, being shown onto my weaker foot, started to happen.
“I came back into the Premier League after a couple of years and improved as a player from being up against top-class players on a weekly basis.
“My football education was street football back in Derry and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
“I didn’t join Derry City until I was 18, but playing in a physical League of Ireland helped me prepare for what was ahead at Sunderland. Now, I’m in a good place.”
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