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Now for the hard part

Sunderland boss Martin O'Neill has warned rising star James McClean life in the Premier League is only going to get more difficult after handing him a new improved contract.

The 22-year-old, who joined the Black Cats from Derry City in a £350,000 summer move, has seen his initial three-year deal replaced by another which will keep him on Wearside until the summer of 2015.

McClean has never looked back since bursting on to the scene as a substitute in O'Neill's first game at the helm at the start of December, and his growing prominence was last month rewarded with a first senior Republic of Ireland cap.

However, his emergence has alerted opposing teams to the threat he poses, and O'Neill has warned him he faces fresh challenges ahead.

He said: "It's not going to be all plain sailing for him now, not just because he has been given a new contract.

"So far, it has been plain sailing. Now he will come up against top quality full-backs, he will come up against people who are doubling up on him, and he has to find ways and means to be able to cope with those things and to be able to overcome them.

"That's something he will have to learn."

O'Neill will attempt to nurse McClean, who has quickly established himself as a crowd favourite at the Stadium of Light, through the next phase of his career with former Leicester wide-man Steve Guppy, now part of O'Neill's coaching staff, paying special attention.

However, the 60-year-old Ulsterman could hardly be more delighted with the way he has taken to top-flight English football so quickly.

O'Neill said: "It's been a meteoric rise for him because he's come almost from nowhere -- I don't mean Derry City in that sense, I am talking about being here for a few months.

"He had been on the bench a few times, didn't get on the field of play, and so for him to come in and play the game without any fear is great.

"Maybe he expected that of himself, but he has done fantastically well. He has deserved the contract we have given him and it's important for him now to go on and keep progressing, and that's easier said than done.

"Blackburn are one of a number of teams now who have noticed he is a danger man. They are keeping a closer eye than they would have done, let's say, when he entered the fray here in early December.

"But it's a sign of how well he has done that teams in the Premier League are doubling up on him."


McClean will get his latest chance to impress as struggling QPR head for the north-east this afternoon, looking to build upon their morale-boosting 3-2 victory over Liverpool.

Sunderland, of course, have the little matter of an FA Cup quarter-final replay against Everton to come in three days' time, but their manager is determined not to allow a promising fightback in the league to slip away as thoughts turn to the possibility of Cup glory.

He said: "I am obviously relieved to have the number of points we have at the moment. You wouldn't want it to slip away, but by the same token, the FA Cup quarter-final game on Tuesday is very important.

"At some stage or another, there are one or two players who haven't played that many minutes since December and maybe before that, and I would like to know the capabilities of the young players before the summer."

O'Neill will once again be without left-back Kieran Richardson, while John O'Shea will undergo a late fitness test on his hamstring. Stephane Sessegnon returns to contention after serving a three-match ban.