If James McClean could replay November’s World Cup game against Demark which ended in such crushing disappointment for Ireland, there’s one thing he’d do differently.

“If I was to do it all again, I would have scored at 1-0 when I had the chance and put it wide,” he says, referring to the incident in the 22nd minute when he got in behind the Danish rearguard on the left but pulled his shot the wrong side of the far post.

“They’re the little things you look back on. It would have been 2-0, maybe game over. That goes through your mind a lot.”

If there were critics who afterwards insisted they saw the 5-1 drubbing coming for Ireland, it was certainly not a scenario which McClean considered even remotely possible after the first leg had ended scoreless in Copenhagen. And still less after Ireland’s dream start at the Aviva with a goal from Shane Duffy.

“The fact that we went out to Denmark and got a good result, you’re coming back thinking ‘we’ve got them at home now, we’ve got a real chance here’,” he says.

“And then we went one-up. But they scored their first goal, then a quick second and now we’re 2-1 down, we need to win the game and we went for it. And they picked us off on the counter. We got beat 5-1, it doesn’t look great, but if we’d drawn 1-1 or been beaten 2-1, it’s all the same, it still wouldn’t have been good enough.”

If it was actually far more painful than that; McClean insists much of the withering criticism which followed — especially of manager Martin O’Neill — was wildly over the top.

“The manner of the defeat – of course, we got beat 5-1 at home to Denmark and we’re going to be criticised,” he says. “Rightly so. But the way Martin was getting hammered about his job considering what he’d achieved — that was crazy. He’s done an unbelievable job.

“After the Wales game, Martin was amazing, we were all amazing. A couple of weeks later after the Denmark game, it’s the complete opposite. Martin has been in the game long enough, and I’ve been in the game long enough myself now, to realise it’s a very fickle game.

"You’re a hero one week and you’re the villain the next week. A lot of it was uncalled for but I understand pundits and ex-players in the media trying to make a name for themselves by saying something controversial.”

It has since become clear that it was the shock of the Danish defeat which unsettled O’Neill to the point where his leaving the job appeared a real possibility. After all the uncertainty, McClean is delighted that the manager, Roy Keane, and the rest of the coaching staff have now agreed to stay on for the Euro 2020 campaign.

He also has no qualms about acknowledging the personal debt he feels his owes his fellow Derryman.

“The biggest thing for a footballer is if a manager gives you confidence going out on a football field to make you feel 10ft tall and that you can do anything,” he says.

“He gave me my debut at Sunderland with simple instructions to go out and enjoy myself. You make a mistake and he tells you to relax and put it right the next time. He gives you the chance to correct those wrongs and, for me, I can’t express how delighted I am that he’s staying on.

“I think he knows he’s the right man for the job as well. He’s done something good here and it’s up to us as a whole, management and players, to take that forward and build on that.”

While McClean laments the retirement of Wes Hoolahan — “an unbelievable footballer,” he says, “you see some of the things he can do with a ball, it blows you away” — he points to the imminent return of Seamus Coleman in the green shirt as well as the emergence of Sean Maguire, Declan Rice, and other new players, as reasons to feel confident about how Ireland
will emerge from a period of transition.

“It’s also key for players like myself, Seamus, David Meyler, James McCarthy, and Shane Duffy to step up in the absence of more senior players bowing out,” he adds.

Meantime, there’ll always be something there to remind the West Brom man of what might have been in 2018, especially this summer when he gets a chance to put his feet up in front of the telly and see what transpires in Russia.

“For the hurt to truly go away we’ll have to qualify for a World Cup,” he says. “The Euros are special but the World Cup is what you dream about, that’s the pinnacle of football.

“I’ll watch the World Cup because I love watching football and I’ll try to enjoy it as a football fan. But, don’t get me wrong, it will be definitely be in my mind watching the games: ‘that could be us’.”

James McClean was speaking at yesterday’s launch of the Red Bull Neymar Jr’s Five in Dublin. The unique five-a-side football tournament returns to Ireland for a third consecutive year. This fun, fast-paced, and technical game gives young male and female footballers (16-25 years) the opportunity to represent Ireland at the World Final in Brazil this summer. Register at

neymarjrsfive.com


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