Saturday 24 March 2018

'An out-and-out 100 per cent lunatic and one of the first names on team-sheet' - Stephen Hunt's glowing tribute to James McClean

James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

The celebrations in the Irish dressing room after the Wales game may have seemed over the top and presumptuous, but football highs don't come around very often, and it was no doubt a combination of enjoyment and relief.

Ireland's good start to the group meant that expectations rose but then, after a lousy run of four games, everyone was just relieved to have reached the play-offs.

However, I am sure at the back of the minds of the manager and the players will be the feeling that we could have won that group. There is no point analysing the ifs and maybes now, but it was in our grasp. Still, we are in the play-offs now; we would have taken that a month ago, and we would have taken it at the start of the campaign.

I said after the draw in Georgia that it was not the time to panic and that we would qualify, but there were certainly doubts outside the dressing room.

But if you go through the team now, there are so many positives in terms of body language and belief. That was reflected in the performance in Cardiff when they were under pressure to win.

Shane Duffy is showing that he is a leader. There is so much more to come from the Brighton defender but there is a real eagerness to do well. Ciaran Clark is the steady one alongside him who brings a different style to defending at centre-back.

Stephen Ward was criticised after Euro 2012 but people don't know Stephen as I do, and the determination he has always shown to get in the team. He is strong and tough and is one of our leaders. Mick McCarthy had more belief in his character than in his playing ability when he first came over to Wolves, but now he has backed that up with consistent performances. Ward and James McClean have been our best players in the group.

I do not mind admitting that there was a time when I was not sure whether McClean was the right person to have in the team. Now I am convinced he is an out-and-out 100 per cent lunatic who has become an integral player, and one of the first names on Martin O'Neill's team-sheet. He does things that defy belief. He runs around, he tackles and he is obsessed with playing for Ireland - to the point where he is not in control of himself when he is playing.

Sometimes his tackles are dangerous, and he has been warned that unless he is in control, he will get a red card. But he obviously doesn't listen to people like me, or seem to give a sugar.

His argument no doubt would be that he has never been sent off for Ireland. But there is a difference between aggressive and on the edge, and sometimes you look at his decisions and his tackles and think 'what the hell are you doing?'

But if I was on the inside of the ropes, McClean is exactly the sort of man I would want alongside me. When things are going badly, you can't hide - and you can never accuse him of hiding. He plays on the edge and as the manager you will take McClean on the edge, for what he has done for Ireland.

Everyone played a role against Wales, but there are two other players worth singling out. Firstly, David Meyler, who controlled the game for us. He saw danger, whether that was in front of him or behind him; he knew whether we needed to press forward, or sit back. He was outstanding in the last three games. And Daryl Murphy was isolated virtually all night up front; he was usually prepared to let the centre-halves have the ball but then squeezed Ashley Williams when he had it, which eventually led to the winning goal.

As for the play-offs, I am sure the mentality of the manager is to look at the team we are drawn against, rather than waste time looking at all four and worrying about the pros and cons beforehand. They are all good sides. My preference would be to get Denmark or Switzerland and I would prefer the first leg to be at home.

We are more than capable of shutting up shop and matching any side for discipline and control, but we are at our worst if we have to be on the front foot. The worst scenario would be to go away for the first leg, lose 1-0 and then have to open our opponents up at home for the second leg. We're not great at that but we are dangerous when we can dig in, stay in the game and perhaps catch our opponents on the counter attack with a sucker punch.

Martin O'Neill has a knack of getting results for Ireland. And as long as we can avoid Italy, I do expect him to take us to Russia next summer.

Sunday Indo Sport

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