Saturday 24 February 2018

O'Neill defends McClean for natural reaction to fans' abuse

Channelling aggression is the key, says manager

Martin O’Neill: ‘almost instinctive’
Martin O’Neill: ‘almost instinctive’

John Fallon

Ireland manager Martin O'Neill has defended James McClean amid his latest controversy whilst reaffirming his view that Damien Delaney didn't show a desire to continue in his squad and battle for a starting place.

McClean, whom O'Neill handed his first-team breakthrough four years ago when managing Sunderland, was back in the firing line two weeks ago for gesturing towards his former club's fans after West Brom's win at the Hawthorns.

The incident led to a number of angry Sunderland players confronting McClean, forcing others to intervene.

Although Baggies' boss Tony Pulis felt his player shouldn't have reacted, O'Neill sympathises with McClean and thinks the reaction of his fellow Derryman was understandable given the abuse he'd gotten, which he thinks stems from the 26-year-old's continued refusal to wear a Remembrance Day poppy.

The player also courted controversy last summer for turning a different way to his team-mates as 'God Save The Queen' was being played before a pre-season friendly in America.

"As players or managers, if you're getting dogs' abuse all day long and then you react to it, you're considered to have no discipline in your body. Sorry, it's almost a natural reaction," said O'Neill. "I saw what James did. He'd been taking some stick during the course of the game. Having played for Sunderland, and performed well for them for a long period of time, I assume their fans are unhappy because he refused to wear a poppy.

"That's something I think you have to take into consideration one way or another. But it was something he did, it was almost instinctive. There are some players who just get on with it. I must admit I have reacted myself in the past.

"James was obviously delighted he'd won the game. He had been getting dogs' abuse, did that (punched the air) with his hands, and then some of the Sunderland players come over to remonstrate with him. I think they'd have been doing better to try get a result for a start."

"You have to curtail certain things," he says. "I want James to go and settle down and not go on to the field like he did against Poland in the home match. That was when Roy Keane, of all people, just said to him before coming on as a substitute, 'just settle, don't do anything (stupid)'. And then 48 seconds later crushes their player (Arek Milik), says he should have got the ball but got booked and prevented himself from playing in another game.

"Those are the things that I would be speaking to James about. I don't think he'll have any problems with any political situations when he's playing for Ireland.

"You don't want to take some of the aggressiveness out of James. He gets hyped up for the games but is good to have around.

James wants to do well, his heart is in the right place. You just want him to, you sort of . . . is the word channel it? Yes, channel it."

Meanwhile, O'Neill has reignited his war of words with defender Damien Delaney, pointing out his lack of competitive caps for Ireland. The Corkman hasn't represented his country since the Turkey game in May 2014, a friendly which marked his only action under O'Neill despite being one of the few defenders available playing regularly in the Premier League.

O'Neill could easily justify the 34-year-old's omission from the latest squad for the Euro 2016 play-off next week against Bosnia and Herzegovina by pointing out his absence from Alan Pardew's starting side at present but later expanded on his rationale.

"Damien only played one competitive game, the one in Germany (2013) that didn't matter at the end of the last campaign before I came in," pointed out the 63-year-old.

"He played for me in the Turkey game but then said he didn't want to go to America, crying off the trip. I couldn't understand it.

"He thought I was going to try someone else, which of course I would have done, but it was a good chance for him to go into the squad.

"He said he was too old to be wandering around just being part of the squad. Sometimes you want people to be able to want to come and play.

"I'm not saying you get by with that all the time but it is nice to have an enthusiasm to play, you know, under no restrictions. Or giving no guarantees; that's the word I was looking for."

Delaney has denied he ever requesting a starting position, claiming there were other unspecified issues he disagreed with O'Neill on.

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