Thursday 5 December 2019

Daniel McDonnell: 'Influence of Michael O'Neill could yet backfire on Northern Ireland'

Stoke manager can help McClean like he helped Stevens

Cross borders: Michael O’Neill is currently re-energising James McClean at Stoke. Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Cross borders: Michael O’Neill is currently re-energising James McClean at Stoke. Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

There's a lot of ifs and buts to consider ahead of the Euro 2020 play-offs in March. And Mick McCarthy's Ireland side and Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland team have a lot of work to do to set up a showdown in Belfast.

But what we know for certain is that the atmosphere around Stoke in the days afterwards is sure to be affected by the outcome.

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O'Neill will continue to manage Northern Ireland until the play-offs in tandem with his new role at Stoke.

And he joked on Saturday that he will be putting James McClean through extra sessions in the build-up to that pivotal international window.

"We will probably get him doing double sessions all week or 20 kilometres a day," he said, before adding, "To be fair to James, he does that anyway."

That's hardly an exaggeration either, but it was refreshing for McClean to be discussed in positive terms after a challenging season.

The double-jobbing Northern Ireland manager has previously worked with Enda Stevens at Shamrock Rovers. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
The double-jobbing Northern Ireland manager has previously worked with Enda Stevens at Shamrock Rovers. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

He was regarded as the man of the match in the win over his former club Wigan, with O'Neill hailing his influence. Indeed, McClean has played a key role in O'Neill's perfect start, winning his place back in the side after dropping in and out of the team during the turbulent stay of Nathan Jones. O'Neill has restored McClean to the left side of midfield, his natural position, and he has hit the ground running.

"He's a player I've always admired and he's shown his worth at international level," said O'Neill, who had tried to convince McClean to change his mind before his transfer from Northern Ireland to the Republic went through at the beginning of 2012.

"If you simplify the game for James he is very effective and that's what we've tried to do with him. He put in some great crosses."

Resurgence

It's a curious situation for O'Neill as instigating a resurgence for the Derryman might end up posing him a problem in his other job.

There's no doubt that McClean has been short of his best form for Ireland. He struggled in the October double-header, where he played through the pain barrier with a back issue.

McClean was also coming into that break off a grim enough run at Stoke where losing had become a habit.

That injury had prevented him from contributing to their victory before that break so there was questions hanging over his future at the club at that juncture.

The 30-year-old is unlikely to admit that his confidence was flagging, but that was a word that O'Neill used on Saturday. "He's playing with confidence," O'Neill said. "He will be a player that will be massive for us until the end of the season."

Like Mick McCarthy, O'Neill can see the value of a player like McClean when it comes to a scrap. McCarthy had other options for the left side against Denmark but was always going to stick with McClean. And it's difficult to see that changing when Slovakia comes around.

Aaron Connolly might be his rival in the longer term - much as the Brighton player sees himself as a striker - but McClean will play if he's fit.

He tends to play his best football when he's comfortable in an environment and with O'Neill preferring a system that should suit his strengths, he's probably doing McCarthy an inadvertent favour by lifting the spirits of the player who was a talismanic figure in the last World Cup campaign.

Indeed, O'Neill's influence on the Republic camp goes beyond that. It's worth remembering that Enda Stevens was viewed as a promising talent - but by no means a sure bet to go across the water - when he joined Shamrock Rovers from St Patrick's Athletic a decade ago.

After two years with O'Neill, he earned a Premier League move with Aston Villa. Granted, Stevens had to take a few steps back before he eventually returned to top-flight level, but his switch to Rovers was a sliding doors moment. He embraced O'Neill before the two nations met in a friendly last year.

Stevens was exceptional against Manchester United yesterday and neutralising his raids forward will be a part of the Northern Irish game-plan if an extraordinary derby situation comes to pass.

In this hypothetical scenario, both players on McCarthy's left side could have reason to thank the opposing manager for his role in their involvement.

O'Neill will need to call on all his powers to defeat Bosnia, but he could be forgiven for wondering if Slovakia prevailing in the other game would make his double-jobbing existence less of a talking point.

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