IF the last six months have been something of a whirlwind for James McClean, the next six could be an even greater chapter in the life of the young man from Derry.
After displaying all the match-winning attributes that Premier League defences have become wary of to help Sunderland continue their transformation under Martin O’Neill with a comfortable win over Queens Park Rangers, McClean is now thinking about an FA Cup final.
It was only 10 months ago the 22-year-old newly-capped Republic of Ireland player carried on a family tradition by settling down to watch the action unfold at Wembley, when Manchester City took on Stoke.
When the May showpiece comes around this time, McClean has designs on playing his part himself.
First he must help Sunderland overcome Everton tomorrow night in the quarter-final replay at the Stadium of Light. With a semi-final date with Liverpool at Wembley pencilled in for the winners, the visit of the Toffees is shaping up to be the biggest night of McClean’s life so far.
And if he torments Everton like he did QPR, Sunderland will take some stopping.
McClean, however, remains as calm and assured as he has been throughout his sudden rise to prominence since leaving Derry City for £350,000 last August.
He said: “I’ve grown up watching the Premier League week in, week out and you just dream of playing here. I’m relishing it, just enjoying every moment.
“I watched the cup finals from being no age right up to last year, watching them in the morning when the players are still in the hotel, getting on the bus and things like that.
“Just to be involved in that this year would be a miracle, a dream come true. Now we are only two games from a FA Cup final and hopefully we can get there too.”
Given the manner of the majority of McClean’s performances for Sunderland, it is hard to believe he only made his debut in December and that he has still only made 20 appearances at the highest level.
His reward was the improved contract which he signed on Friday, tying him to the club until the summer of 2015, and he seemed intent on proving he deserved it against QPR.
After a bright start, his cross from the left four minutes before half-time made it easy for Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner to rise unmarked and head down beyond Paddy Kenny.
There was more to come. With 20 minutes remaining, McClean capitalised on a mistimed header from Nedum Onuoha by turning and charging towards goal. His first shot was blocked by Luke Young but his second nestled beyond Kenny.
And then he played the neatest of balls down the line for David Vaughan to run on to and pick out Stephane Sessegnon at the back post to put Sunderland three up with 14 minutes left.
Rangers did pull one back with a terrific free-kick from Taye Taiwo a few minutes later, but Sunderland had already sealed the points — and the impact of the magical McClean can’t be under-estimated.
“I’m pinching myself because it’s going so well,” said McClean, who also has high hopes of following up his one cap for Ireland with a call-up to the Euro 2012 squad.
“When I first came over, the manager said to me, ‘just work hard and try to get your debut’ but things have happened a bit quicker than that. Hopefully the next few months will be even better again.
“We want to finish as high as possible in the league and get to Wembley — for the FA Cup final. That would be a brilliant end to the season.”
O’Neill, a fellow Derryman, albeit a few years older, sees “no reason” why McClean should be overlooked for the European Championships. After all, his part in Sunderland’s rejuvenation under O’Neill has been key.
But while Sunderland have closed the gap to seventh place Liverpool to two points, QPR are faced with occupying a place in the bottom three.
Now Mark Hughes must come up with a plan to climb out of trouble, knowing his January buy Djibril Cisse faces a further four-match ban for his reckless two footed lunge on Fraizer Campbell five minutes into the second half.
It was the French striker’s second red card for QPR. Hughes said: “It was a crazy challenge and that will hurt us. I wasn’t delighted with him. All in all we were really poor.”
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