James McClean has added much needed maturity to hard graft
If you were to solely concentrate on the only coverage that James McClean seems to get in Britain, you would think this time of year was going to be the usual nightmare for him. The same old debates, the same old controversies about poppies, the same old headlines - and the same old run-of-the-mill form that barely justifies any of it.
Except, it's a long time since McClean himself paid much attention to that coverage, and that's partly why the last month has actually been a dream. It's also seen him move on to an encouraging new level of his career, and become one of Ireland's key players - as well as a match-winner. His transformation, however, is about more than those decisive goals against Moldova and Austria and how he has almost doubled his tally for his country to take it to seven. It is about how he has taken responsibility, and relished doing so.
When Burnley travel to West Brom tomorrow, they are going to find a player who is super-charged. McClean is in by far his best form since he first arrived in England in early 2012, when he caught so many defenders by surprise with his pace to score four goals in nine games from his first start. That element of surprise has long gone, and it led to a fairly long period where McClean became a bit predictable, but he has intelligently adapted again to add more elements to his play. He has honed it all, and there is now the type of maturity and nous to all of his decisions that comes with experience - and a crucial willingness to learn.
There are many who know McClean from those early years in England who say they could scarcely have imagined that maturity then. His managers Martin O'Neill and Tony Pulis are not the only figures to use words like "lunatic" and "daft" to describe him, but those descriptions always come with a fondness, and a huge respect for his enthusiasm and honesty of effort.
Pulis summed up so much of this just a year ago, after McClean celebrated a win against his old club Sunderland - where his stance over poppies has led to a lot of criticism from a local crowd that has a lot of connections to the British armed forces - with a fist pump to their supporters.
"He isn't the sharpest tool in the box," Pulis said. "That's not being disrespectful to him - but he's a smashing lad."
While that willingness to buckle down has always been a constant in his career, some did feel he got "a little carried away" in those first few years, and would wear some of the flash clothes to match. That is perhaps understandable from someone who had just come from the League of Ireland to an attention-grabbing burst of form in the Premier League and then a place in Euro 2016, but what is especially impressive is how he himself understood what to do to change.
All around say he is one of the hardest workers in training, and it has not gone unnoticed in the Irish set-up that he has become good friends with someone of a similar sober mentality in Seamus Coleman. Both are now setting standards in the Irish squad.
Another close friend in the game is Northern Ireland international Gareth McAuley, illustrating how superficial even some of the controversies regarding McClean's goading of their fans has been. And that's the key point. For all the sound and fury surrounding McClean's career, at the core is a dependable and respected player, and a principled one.
You might also call him the perfect Pulis winger, too, given he complements a lot of industry with flashes of incision. It also helps that the West Brom and Irish approaches suit his running game, but he has more than done his part.
McClean is currently a player who has properly found himself - and thereby found his best form.
Sunday Indo Sport