The Boot Room: James McClean maturing nicely
SIX days after scoring two goals in the Republic of Ireland’s 3-1 win over Moldova in Chisinau, James McClean was running around the Hawthorns like a three-year-old and getting in the faces of the Spurs players.
It was a typical James McClean performance: full of energy, fearlessness, punctuated by moments of craft.
The West Brom winger knows only one way to play – and that’s with his foot hard on the accelerator.
He was arguably the Baggies’ best player in their 1-1 draw with Spurs.
Nine days earlier he was Ireland’s best player in their scratchy win over Georgia. And after he bagged a brace against Moldova, the Derry man used his impromptu post-match interview at pitchside to hammer the Irish press for their ‘glass-is-half-empty’ analysis of the team.
As we hang over the barriers at mixed zones, the Irish players breeze through.
Some of them stop to talk to reporters and some don’t.
McClean no longer stops.
After the win over Moldova, Jonathan Walters stopped at the mixed zone before boarding the team bus and was asked about McClean’s sizeable contribution so far in qualification.
“He’s a good lad, James,” Walters said with a smile.
“He can be a bit stupid with what he says in the press down the years but he’s learning…
“He works his socks off on the left – sometimes on the right. It’s not an easy position and it’s unforgiving when you have to chase back a lot. But he got the plaudits against Moldova, and hopefully he can work on his free-kicks and get a couple more.”
Walters was referring to a couple of McClean’s woeful attempts on goal from dead ball situations. Walters’ dead-pan delivery prompted a few laughs from press reporters.
Four years ago, McClean was Giovanni Trapattoni’s wild card entry at Euro 2012.
He wasn’t a winger with a bag of tricks.
He would push the ball past the defender, always on the outside, and invariably get crosses in.
McClean’s directness, it was felt, could add something fresh to the Republic’s wearily one-dimensional attack in Poland.
And so he got the nod and some game-time, albeit in an instantly forgettable championships for the Irish.
Back in 2012 it was hard to predict what way McClean’s career would go. He wasn’t blessed with a great skillset. After all, he only had one trick – and one-trick wingers usually get found out.
Even as a youngster growing up in Derry playing U16 football for Trojans, McClean didn’t stand out from the crowd.
In an interview before Euro 2012, Raymond Carton of Trojans gave his recollections of McClean.
“The team that James played in was a decent wee side but nothing special,” he said.
“They didn’t win anything or do anything spectacular.
“I have to be honest, and I’ve said this to James, he wasn’t a stand-out footballer as a young player. There were other players in his age group that were better than him.”
If you were handed a crystal ball after Euro 2012, it was conceivable that James McClean would drop down the leagues like a stone, disappearing entirely from international view and being reduced to a quiz question in 10 years’ time.
And yet, there he was, on Match of the Day last Saturday night, running around the pitch like his life depended on the outcome. Playing in the Premier League. Not only playing, but thriving.
Now, McClean isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. For the last number of years he’s consistently refused to wear a Poppy on his jersey during the remembrance period and has been absolutely hammered for it.
Given the context of the conflict in the north, where he grew up – Creggan in Derry – and his own political stance, it’s entirely understandable why he objects to wearing a Poppy.
If anything, it says more about the intolerance of modern society, and the pervading Poppy-bullying sub-culture, than it does about McClean’s refusal to wear one.
Despite the negativity and occasional boos he receives at away grounds in England, McClean has remained remarkably focused.
It’s been particularly noticeable how often he has ghosted into goalscoring positions this season. It wasn’t a fluke that he was in the right place at the right time on two occasions in Moldova.
Four days earlier against Georgia, he had several efforts on goal and was Ireland’s most dangerous attacker.
He already tops the charts at West Brom for the most shots this season – eight, all on target – while he’s second on the list of fouls committed by West Brom players, which again illustrates his desire on a football field.
McClean is doing what not a lot of sportsmen and women achieve in their careers. He’s squeezing the absolute maximum out of himself and flourishing as a result.
When the Republic of Ireland were playing their first Euro 2012 qualification game in Armenia on September 3 2010, McClean was sitting in a Waterford hotel preparing for a Derry City game.
Less than two years later he was playing at Euro 2012.
“James has great humility,” said Stephen Kenny, his manager at Derry City.
“He understood what it took to be a good footballer.”
McClean is surrounded by players with infinitely more talent than him every Saturday afternoon in the Premier League, and yet he continues to punch his weight.
He’s a glowing example of making the most out of what you have.
There are lessons for every aspiring younger footballer trying to crack the code. They should look no further than James McClean’s career path.
“James is a great role model,” Raymond Carton told me in 2012. “We talk to our young kids that play with us now and we tell them about James.
“We tell them: ‘James didn’t win many Player of the Year awards with us; he wasn’t a stand-out player. But look at him now. Look at what he’s done through commitment and dedication’.
“It’s a great thing to be able to say to the kids. It’s about how much you want it and how much you’re going to push yourself. To me, that’s the legacy that James has left at Trojans.”
No longer the wild card of four years ago, the Derry man is now key to club and country.