James McClean still our main man despite club woes says Martin O'Neill
MARTIN O’Neill has backed James McClean to put his club woes to one side and hopes his fellow Derry man can propel the Republic of Ireland to next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
McClean has been Ireland’s undoubted talisman in their qualification campaign - scoring four goals, including the winner in last month’s nerve-shredding Wales clash in Cardiff.
However, the all-action winger has been used only sparingly by West Brom boss Tony Pulis this season.
O’Neill, though, is unconcerned about McClean’s lack of game-time at club level and rates the 28-year-old as the fittest player he’s seen since Liverpool’s Duracell-charged Craig Johnston.
“I’d be really disappointed if James wasn’t frustrated,” O’Neill said at yesterday’s squad announcement ahead of next month's two-legged play-off with Denmark.
“I think that’s the case. Does him not playing games really bother me? Well, he’s the fittest player I’ve seen since maybe Craig Johnston - the Australian who played for Liverpool.
“James is very fit, looks after himself brilliantly, so I’ve no bones with that. Having said that, I thought in the last 15 minutes of the game against Wales, he was on his knees.
“And if he was tired, I can imagine what the rest of the players were feeling at that time. He’d be a bit frustrated and I’m sure he thinks he’s good enough to play in the West Brom team.
“When he comes to us, and he knows how important he’s become to us, I think he feels pretty special. And he’s proved it too. He’s been like the Jon Walters of the Euros.”
On the eve of Ireland’s ill-fated home clash with Serbia last month, the FAI announced O’Neill had agreed to extend his stay with the Republic until 2020.
Although nothing has been signed, an extension has been agreed in principle with FAI chief John Delaney.
O’Neill also shed some light on assistant manager Roy Keane’s position.
“We have agreement with John (Delaney), nothing has been signed up; it was the same as the last time (pre-Euro finals), and I think Roy would want to stay around.
“I’m not his keeper. I’m sure he would like to stay around. He enjoys it, mostly (smiling). Sometimes he doesn’t… maybe a day like today perhaps…no, overall, he’s fine.
“I’m sure he’ll want to stay on and we’ll see. I probably don’t want to talk much more about it as we’ve big games to come. We’ll see.”
Despite some patchy performances, the Irish have invariably found a way to win big games ever since O’Neill took the reins four years ago.
Their 1-0 victory over Italy in Lille at the Euro 2016 finals was an undoubted highlight of the Derry man’s reign followed closely by the side’s surprise 1-0 win over Wales in Cardiff last month that sealed their play-off date with Denmark.
"I think that we have an idea of our strengths and weaknesses that is within our squad,” O’Neill said.
"The idea is to try to cover up the weaknesses as much as you can.
“One of our strengths - and don't get me wrong, it does not get you everything - but we do have a great never-say-die spirit.
“It was very plain when we got the goal against Wales, backs-to-the-wall, the boys throwing themselves around, [Shane] Duffy heading everything that was coming into the box, knowing that it's coming in there and to defend it.
"The prize was so big. I think the experience of being in the Euros, of getting to the Euros. The lads think that the World Cup is so, so important - we might never get there again even some of the boys being so young as they are - that this is an opportunity.
"I don't think that they want to throw it up. When we have our backs to the wall I think that we find something."
Although Denmark was seen as the best possible play-off draw for the Republic, particularly with Italy and Croatia lurking in the same pot, O’Neill insists that their two-legged assignment on November 11 and 14 is “every bit as difficult” as their Euro 2016 play-off with Bosnia two years ago.
“The talk out there [at the play-off draw in Zurich] was that if we avoided Croatia or Italy you'd think we were doing alright and that might be the case.
“Italy, because of their great past, and I know Michael O'Neill was saying Croatia were very, very strong against Northern Ireland in a friendly game some months ago.
“When I look at Denmark now since the draw, they can play a bit.”
The Danish manager Age Hareide was once a team-mate of O’Neill’s at Norwich City back in the early 1980s.
Hareide once rented a room of a house belonging to O’Neill during their time together.
O’Neill quipped: “Yeah, but he didn't pay for it! I had a little place and it was divided up and he was there. I wouldn't have anything nasty to say about him. He's a really good lad.”