James McClean struggling to find form in a side low on confidence, writes Dion Fanning
James McClean left the Aviva Stadium on Wednesday night apologising for saying nothing. He had endured another week of controversy, even if in this instance he had no reason to blame himself for the screaming headlines.
But he left without saying a word and there are many close to McClean who hope he continues to say nothing while he concentrates on re-establishing himself as a Premier League player to be feared.
There was no fuss in the Sunderland dressing room at Goodison Park last weekend when McClean put on a jersey which wasn't adorned with a poppy. "It was very simple," John O'Shea says. "Very, very simple. The lads were totally behind him because there was obviously a family thing to it. It was very simple, nothing complicated at all."
It became more complicated once sections of the British media decided that a player exercising free will was a story but perhaps the most significant thing from McClean's point of view was that he did nothing to prolong the story.
"It's a democracy, everybody has a choice," O'Shea adds, speaking sense on an issue which doesn't encourage it. "Lots of people have supported James too. I wasn't surprised by the fuss because I know exactly how things work."
Trapattoni defended the player too but wanted him to speak up, something that may not help in this instance. "I can understand the sensitivity to the poppy in Britain, but nobody should be forced to denounce their roots, their origins. Sometimes to explain his position might help. It is important that he articulates his personal beliefs and his culture. That is important."
When a young footballer begins to get noticed, he must also endure a parallel forensic examination of the way he lives his life. 'Has he changed?' The question will often be met with a regretful sigh that he has, he's not the man he was.
The reality, as James McClean is discovering, is that a footballer who makes it in the Premier League has to change, especially if they have not been conditioned from an early age to live in the Premier League.
"Other players learn at 16 what James is realising at 23," one friend said last week. "Players are conditioned to say nothing. James is simply behaving and saying the things he did a year ago but people notice now."
The news that his closest friend Eugene Ferry would be moving to Sunderland led to inevitable headlines that McClean was now employing a minder. The truth was a little more prosaic. Ferry had finished studying and decided to leave Ireland. He will be living with McClean as he searches for work and he will provide good sense and friendship. Ferry is said to possess good sense but, then again, by the standards of most 23-year-olds so does McClean. He doesn't drink and usually only stays out late if he's running. He was eager, some say, to return to Derry for the celebrations after Derry City won the FAI Cup but his role would be as an observer with a Club Orange in his hand.
McClean has changed in other ways too. The trips home to Derry are less frequent which was always inevitable. But behaving better than most 23-year-olds doesn't matter. McClean's rashness, the stupidity of his tweet after the Kazakhstan match being one of the most obvious examples, has led him to be judged by a higher standard.
"James is beginning to realise that he's public property," says one friend. This is where the problems have started especially as things aren't coming as easily to him now as they did in his first six months in the Premier League.
"I don't know if it is too difficult with his club," Giovanni Trapattoni said last week. "The team has changed, at the moment it is not the same. Last year was his first year and there was so much enthusiasm. After this, the opponent know. I give you an example. Which side is McClean stronger on? He is stronger on the left, okay. Is he stronger or not stronger going inside? There are many times when we face players and I say let them go inside."
Trapattoni insists that he is giving the player "trust and confidence" although others would dispute that. Ireland's manager didn't think that McClean was trying too hard to make an impression against Greece on Wednesday night
Yet McClean said recently that his experience at the European Championships had knocked his confidence. There were some who again wondered why McClean had to say anything at all and pointed to the fact that he has started in nine of Sunderland's league games this season as an example of his progress.
He has been playing football constantly since early 2011 and it may be that he could do with a rest. O'Shea believes that McClean is going through a stage where he is putting pressure on himself.
"You saw from the positions he got himself into in the second half," he said after the Greece game. "He's done all the hard work and he has rushed himself when he could have settled himself and had a proper shot or played a proper pass. That will come with time, especially at international level. I've seen him do it plenty of times at club level. He is probably going through a little phase where he needs a ball to go in with a deflection and he'll have super-confidence again."
O'Shea was a young player burdened with high expectation so he knows what it's like to feel the anticipation of the crowds.
"James knows that himself, he's seen it at club level. The manager left him out for a couple of games and then he came back in against Everton. But he is more than capable because he is doing the right things in training and he's working hard and we'll soon see the benefits."
When McClean's 'minder' was mentioned, O'Shea laughed. "I'll leave you to ask him about that lads, I have my son to look after."
McClean is also playing in a struggling Sunderland side and receiving the ball in positions where it's harder to make an impact. "We should have got better results than we have with the squad we have," O'Shea admits, "but we're getting things together now. We should have got something from the Everton game. It's all well and good saying we have a good enough team and a good enough squad, we need to get results and quickly."
When Martin O'Neill came in, McClean was central to the improvement. Now he has to play in the Premier League to the noises that say his limitations are what define him.
Trapattoni may point out that he is stronger on one side but it doesn't mean that those strengths won't trouble defenders again. "I think he can make performances like the ones we know he's capable of," Trapattoni insists.
Trapattoni was sceptical for a long time but there are many voices saying the same thing to McClean now: stay quiet and allow your game to recover. "As long as James does his talking on the pitch, that will be the main thing. I don't mind if opposition fans start booing a player, that will mean he's a threat to the team," O'Shea says.
At Craven Cottage today, McClean may discover if English football fans feel strongly about a player exercising his freedom of choice. "I doubt it will become a problem," O'Shea says. "Once James concentrates on his football, he'll be okay. And even if fans do start picking him out, it will be a good thing for us because it means they know he's a good player."
A year ago, McClean was pestering Steve Bruce for an opportunity which only came with Bruce's departure last November. James McClean took the opportunity. Now he merely has to take it again.
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