Wednesday 22 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: McClean honours old friends the best way

Derry man wears his heart on sleeve in the way Ryan McBride would have approved

James McClean battles for possession with Chris Gunter in the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean battles for possession with Chris Gunter in the Aviva Stadium. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

From the worst of weeks James McClean managed, somehow, to find the best of himself. He did so in the only way he knows, working the bellows of a big football crowd, audibly, appreciative of workaday qualities like high effort and competitive integrity.

No game McClean plays in will ever be mistaken for a tea-dance, yet his concentration and self-control were critical factors here on a night that might, easily, have defeated him.

So a rotten few days, in which he was excused training to return to a hometown numbed by two funeral corteges spilling into the same, Long Tower churchyard to mourn Derrymen he considered friends, was left behind in the most eloquent way McClean could summon.

They unfurled a giant 'Brandywell Pride' banner from a balcony in the East Stand and President Michael D Higgins pushed a red number five shirt to the Heavens in honour of McClean's friend, Ryan McBride.

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do in an environment swirling with emotion is the right thing. But for 90-odd minutes last night, McClean just about achieved it.

His game has no secrets. There's nothing particularly cerebral or elegant about what he does and, for a wide player, he doesn't have the counter-punch of a magician's trick. His thing is either to get the ball and run or locate the danger and chase.

One minute a gazelle then, the next a pursuing lion.

Yet, that he has made himself the key Irish player of this qualifying campaign should tell us something about the qualities of the boy from the Creggan, that giant estate in Derry out of which six funerals crawled after Bloody Sunday in '72.

Because McClean was no more than a street footballer until turning 18 and that absence of early coaching has left a residue of roughness in his game. His approach to beating a full-back is based on aggressive rather than refined movement, yet he has become a trusted Premier League professional while infinitely more talented players slipped through the cracks.

And, even in a week that clearly tested him emotionally, the idea of Ireland lining out without him on this kind of roller-coaster night, would have been disconcerting.

His brand of sincerity isn't everyday in his industry. Much of professional football is so supercilious and insincere, the reflex to mistrust a player who wears his heart on his sleeve is powerful. Maybe the heavy presence of ink on his skin makes people draw conclusions about McClean too. What, after all, are leg tattoos on a footballer if not attention-seeking?

Yet those who know McClean paint a picture truer to the man seen holding his young daughter tight for last night's pre-match anthems; one with a profound sense of who he is and where he comes from; a teetotaller; a man who once told this writer "I truly believe that being Irish is the best thing in the world."

For not wearing a poppy to mark Rememberance Sunday, he still endures a yearly storm of ignorant vitriol, having discovered that explaining himself - however eloquently - is futile.

Last night, he wore a number five shirt in honour of his friend, McBride, and one could but imagine his emotions as fifth minute applause rang around the stadium for the same purpose. By then, McClean had already dispossesed Gareth Bale with an intervention of almost surgical calm.

He was key to controlling Bale, a challenge that simply couldn't be approached with militaristic dogma. The Welshman doesn't occupy a conventional position and, thereby, cannot be subdued by delegation of a man-marker. The Bale puzzle was a spatial one, essentially involving every Irish player.

The early Welsh play had a painful clarity for Ireland, possession dominated by the visitors and little or nothing coming down McClean's flank where he was palpably keen to have a run at Chris Gunter.

He made known his frustration just after the half hour when, Gunter having drifted out of position, Glenn Whelan failed to see the acres of open space in front of McClean. Yet, seconds later, he was triggering a thunderous roar with a dispossesion of Gunter that spoke, above all, of concentration.

That was the game's personality. One in which the tackle was king and in which nerves seemed too stretched to accommodate anything close to coherent attacking football. When a Bale shot skipped by Darren Randolph's left-hand post early in the second-half, the crowd seemed momentarily startled that someone had found the audacity to even try to score.

In the 56th minute, when Aaron Ramsey's high boot opened a gash on Whelan's eye-brow, you did wonder if we might be about to sense some otherworldly intervention, McClean lining the free-kick up from 35 yards out, a distance that even Bale might have considered prohibitive.

The Derry man's effort hit the wall as did a reprise five minutes later after Joe Allen brought down Jonathan Walters. But, increasingly, you sensed him believe that this could be a night settled by an act bearing his signature.

After Neil Taylor's dismissal, Ireland sensed clear opportunity and McClean almost exploited it in the 74th minute with a left-foot volley that was blocked and, instantly, a right foot effort deflected for a corner. Miinutes later, he was running the length of the field to swing in a cross that, sadly, arrived before any of his pursuingf team-mates.

McClean was working like a dervish still, running on energy that had little to do with human physiology.

Approaching the end, a tannoy announcement declared him Man of the Match. A sentimental choice? On this loud, tempestuous night, McClean's glory was it did not feel that way.

Irish Independent

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