On Saturday, as we stuttered unconvincingly to 2-2 draw against relegation-haunted Bolton Wanderers, important eyes were focused on one man. The Irish team manager Giovanni Trapattoni is preparing to name his squad for Euro 2012 and was again having James McClean closely watched ahead of his final decision on whether to include him. Reports from Dublin quote the boss as saying our man’s chances are 90 to 99 per cent. And he scored a cracker against Bolton. Luke Harvey continues his personal reflection on the season just ending with an assessment of McClean’s impact at the SoL …
Five months ago Sunderland’s long standing left sided problems were more apparent than ever, James McClean was a little known winger plying his trade for the reserve side following his unheralded summer arrival from Derry City.
That this signing went under the radars of all but the most ardent Sunderland fans is no surprise; a player making the switch from the League of Ireland to the Premier League and not sinking is all but unheard of (is Luke right on that? Irish fans please advise – ed).
The fact he wasn’t featuring at all wouldn’t have been a shock to any of the fans, given the gulf in class between the two leagues.
Initially the signing seemed, if anything, something of a slap in the face to us fans, at least that’s how it felt to me; bringing in an unready and untested winger ahead of a proven talent didn’t seem too progressive given our obvious need for a left sided player. “One for the future,” claimed then manager Steve Bruce.
What no one was prepared for was how quickly that future would become our present. The future for James McClean, as prophesised by Bruce, came to be with a new manager at the helm. Strikingly Bruce’s constant overlooking of the winger, given the talent he has since gone on to exhibit on a weekly basis, is rather shocking and adds further fuel to the fire, or rather to the notion that Bruce had little to do with McClean’s arrival on Wearside.
The general consensus between fans appears to be that Niall Quinn and Bryan ”Pop” Robson were the two who collaborated to quickly bring in a talent deemed too hot to miss.
With McClean right under his nose, Bruce persevered with Sebastian Larsson on the left and Ahmed Elmohammady on the right, decisions that seem all the more curious.
Fortunately with the managerial change also came the inclusion of McClean into the squad. In hindsight it turned out to be a masterstroke by O’Neill – for Bruce, on the verge of the sack, a similar gesture might have been deemed desperate, even suicidal.
As it transpires, for all the fans’ yearning for a Charles N’Zogbia or a Matt Jarvis it now seems for the paltry outlay of an initial £350,000 that our left sided midfield problems have been sorted. With a fully fit Kieran Richardson capable of marauding on the overlap, keeping opposition defenders busy by dutifully tracking him, it often allows McClean the one on one opportunity with a midfielder or right back when he is at his most dangerous.
The value of McClean’s debut, in my opinion, can’t be overstated. I’ve spoke about it at length before and mentioned it only a short while ago on this website in my previous piece but his 15-minute appearance against Blackburn was a defining point in the team’s season.
Having struggled to break through a team that had steadily retreated deeper and constricted narrower for the entire second half during Martin O’Neill’s first game in charge, it looked as if another defeat was on the cards.
Colback was sacrificed and the unknown quantity in McClean was given his chance. Within minutes McClean danced passed his marker and fired in a dangerous cross that was scrambled to safety by the defence. That one act alone caused the belief to pour back into the fans, and as if by osmosis into the team as well, two brilliant goals from David Vaughan and Larson sealing victory and so beginning our O’Neill honeymoon.
Since his debut, McClean has been an ever present in the squad and his goals against Peterborough, Arsenal and Stoke are examples of a player adept at scoring with either feet as well as his head. His tenacity in not giving up on a ball that Per Mertesacker seemingly had under control, before a bad injury claimed him from the match, is the sort of instinct that gives defenders nightmares.
For McClean, his debut season in the Premier League has already seen him capped by Ireland – so while it may be easier to claim Martin O’Neill to be signing of the season, or wittier to say Short signing Bruce’s P45 was the highlight – for me, the signing of the season has definitely been the boy from Derry who has become synonymous with Sunderland’s revolution.