Wednesday 20 March 2019

No rest for the gifted on McClean's journey to the top

James McClean is hoping his appetite for hard graft will secure his passage to Euro 2012, as he tells Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

There were times when it looked like it would all go wrong. James McClean remembers those moments of doubt. They are evidence, if he needed it, of all that has changed.

He remembers the night he made his debut for Institute in the Irish League. It was also his final appearance for Institute in the Irish League.

He came on as a sub at The Oval against Glentoran. The ball came to him in front of the main stand. As he moved towards it, James McClean slipped and fell on his face. On the way home he wondered if he was cut out to be a footballer.

The things he didn't have were more intangible than the things he did. He knew he lacked confidence and that he was shy around people.

Football was the thing that drove him. "It just fascinated me from an early age. I could tell you anything about the games. I was up for any game, the mess-abouts with my mates."

Last Thursday evening, James McClean was back in the north-east of England after two days off. He walks into the Airport Hotel in Newcastle after, he doesn't need to say, a couple of days in Derry.

"I don't think I'll ever fully settle here," he says later in the conversation. "Not just in Sunderland but in England. I was always a home boy."

Sometimes he says things that sound like a challenge to himself. Right now, he spends every moment he can in Derry but his life will change. There is a sense that even he knows this, like he once knew that he would have to engage with the world outside the Creggan and then outside Derry if he was to get what he wanted.

He would do things for fun that others wouldn't do. He liked to run, still loves to run if Sunderland would let him. They are, he explains, trying to get him to understand the value of rest. McClean finds it difficult if he doesn't train or run every day. "I feel like I'm falling behind but that's me being me."

Running was calming. "It might sound weird but I got a lot of enjoyment out of running. If I ever had a bad day it was a great way of clearing your head. I enjoyed running and the gym work. It's time on your own, it's relaxing and peaceful."

At Derry, they said they would see him running through the streets at 11.0 at night when he would have training the next day. He tries to impress his normality on you. "I like a night out, don't get me wrong, but I might go for a run beforehand."

He has never taken a drink. He felt it would harm his football and then he thought he was able to have fun without it.

"I was never tempted for the drink, that just never occurred to me. I thought drink would hamper my football career and then as I got older I thought I don't need it. Drink never tempted me at all."

Football was all that lured him.

"I got a bit of gyp for being a bit of a weirdo. I would just come home from school and I would lock myself away in my room, just playing football video games all day long. Next thing you know four or five hours have passed and you're thinking 'where did the day go?' But football has always been my life. Thankfully, I put the hard work in and it's paid off."

There have been plenty of changes, even since August. He gets more time off under Martin O'Neill than Steve Bruce and, even if it's just a day, he will be back in Derry, back among his friends, acting like nothing has changed when so much has changed.

He is a Premier League footballer now. As a boy, he would be selected for the Derry youth squads to play in the Foyle Cup. Every year he was selected and every year he didn't go.

He was too shy. He liked playing with the boys in the Creggan where he grew up but beyond that the world was alien and intimidating.

Even then, he knew he would have to change if the one thing that drove him, the only thing that interested him, was to give him the life he wanted.

At decisive moments, he has never been shy: a trial at Lincoln when he signed a contract and then pleaded for it to be torn up; a decision he took not to sign for Peterborough last summer and then the reserve game in front of 646 people and Martin O'Neill when the new Sunderland manager decided to take a chance.

He was terrible, he says of that reserve game, terrible for 15 minutes anyway. He was eager to impress. The wind was howling and everything was chaotic. A thought entered his head and it relaxed him. "Everybody here is trying to impress. Everybody here is trying as hard as you. Just play your natural game."

Three days later, he was on the bench for the Sunderland first team again. This time the manager sent him to warm up and he could feel that he was coming on. He kept looking anxiously towards the dug-out and then the manager called him back, then the manager said to him what James McClean had said to himself in front of 646 people a few days earlier -- "Play your natural game". He came on, beat a Blackburn player and the crowd roared. Since then he has been playing his natural game.

He was nervous on his Sunderland debut but not as nervous as he was when he made his debut for Derry. He had no idea he would be playing when he walked from his house to the Brandywell.

McClean owes Stephen Kenny a lot. Kenny gave him his debut at Derry City and he gave him belief.

In 2009, McClean had a trial with Lincoln City. He was in England. This was where he was supposed to want to be. When they offered him a contract, the thoughts rushed through his head.

"I didn't really have time to think. At the time I was thinking, 'it's England, you take the opportunity.' Stephen Kenny rang me and said we'd build the team around you if you came back."

He didn't want to leave Derry. Lincoln saw no point in keeping a homesick, unhappy youngster and tore up the contract. McClean went home.

Derry were rebuilding after going into administration and McClean drove the team. A year later, they had promotion and he was sitting at another English club, wondering if this was the dream he was supposed to be living.

Brighton wanted him. Kenny told him to give Derry another year. Then, he promised, he would get him a move to a Premier League club.

I remember thinking, 'that's a bit unrealistic, a bit far-fetched but I'll give it a go'. He went back to Derry and played one more year, one year when everybody noticed him.

It was Peterborough who were first in last summer and again he had to hesitate. He could have signed but the alternative was to wait a bit longer, trust in his ability. He waited. Then came the Dublin Super Cup and the waiting was over.

At the beginning of August, he was in a Galway hotel, waiting to play at Terryland Park, when Kenny called him over. Sunderland wanted him. He wasn't going to play against Galway. This was the move. Kenny congratulated him. McClean began to call his family but he also knew what was ending.

"All the boys were congratulating me and as much as I was excited, at the same time I was sort of sad too, thinking this is the end of my Derry career. This is the end with all my mates here."

The first weeks were hard.

"After training, you'd go home and you'd be sitting there and you don't know anybody and you're talking to your mates and they're going out back home. It was the summer at the time and they're going here and there, going to the beach. As much as I want this, I want to be there as well."

Now it is easier. He is closer to his team-mates since he started playing and he gets to go home as well.

Things are different there, no matter how much he wants them to stay the same.

McClean isn't the first to discover that celebrity gets you one way or another. If fame doesn't distort the famous, it changes everyone around them.

Some of the changes were probably for the best. When McClean as a first-team Sunderland player tried to join in a game of football on the Creggan Estate, some pointed out to him that he couldn't really play on the street any more. "Nobody's letting me do nothing!"

When he goes home now, people send things to the house to be signed.

"Aye, people do treat you differently. My family, my best mates, my girlfriend, they all treat me the same. But people that you've known for a long way and they're treating you differently and they don't have to. I'm the same person. I also seem to have a lot more friends than I thought I did. But the support back home is tremendous and everywhere I go there's been people congratulating you. There's only been one or two with their sly comments which doesn't really bother me."

In those situations, it helps that he's never taken a drink.

"I've never drunk so I don't know what type of person I'd be with drink in me. Probably does help because you're in control of the situation. If you react, that's what they want."

His life might change again if he makes Giovanni Trapattoni's squad for the European Championship finals. He holds the conventional line on this. He will work as hard as he can and hope to finish the season strongly and give Trapattoni something to think about.

But he tells you a story about his first few months at Sunderland which illustrates the challenges he sets himself.

He'd been on the bench for 12 games in a row, but he was a £350,000 signing. In the hierarchy of English football, he wasn't to expect anything except the bench. McClean decided to go and see Steve Bruce.

It was, he says, "the scariest thing I've ever done."

He pushed himself through Bruce's door and explained his situation. "I said, 'look, thank you for giving me the opportunity, I'm really enjoying it and trying to improve but at the same time I think I'm ready to play'." Bruce began to laugh but said he understood how McClean felt. Things were tough at the moment, he explained. The team wasn't winning and he couldn't risk a young player.

It was an argument even those closest to McClean would put forward but he didn't agree with it then and he doesn't agree with it now.

"On the other hand, how could it go worse? If he threw me in, and we'd lost another game, so what? Nothing's changed. In a sense, I wouldn't agree with that."

So he will work hard and accept Trapattoni's decision but he is desperate to be involved.

He has moved on from the fuss about Northern Ireland now, the Twitter abuse and the idea he would change his mind and stay with the country which capped him at under 21 level.

"If you're young and an international team comes calling for you, you think 'wow, this is a big deal'. You sort of want to show off and say, 'look, I got called up'. If the Republic had come calling at the same time there would have been no doubt about it. At the time, you're young and you think it will be great for your career."

He was thinking only of being a professional when he played for Northern Ireland but he says now he never felt comfortable.

"I can even remember playing under 21s for Northern Ireland and even standing for the national anthems . . . You're looking around Windsor Park as a Catholic and seeing all the Union Jacks and listening to the songs the fans sing and I just didn't feel at home at all. Even in the squads I felt like a bit of an outsider. There weren't too many Catholics, it just didn't feel right."

He knows he could have ended up playing for Northern Ireland if they had picked him for a qualifier while he was at Derry but they didn't and once he went to Sunderland, he knew he could make the choice he always wanted to make.

He didn't expect things to happen so soon. Once he started playing, scoring goals and destroying defences, Ireland clamoured for his inclusion. Trapattoni resisted.

"People kept saying, 'you'll be in, you'll be in it' and then when I wasn't named in it, I was disappointed because people get your hopes up more than you get your hopes up. When you're not in the squad you're doing your best to show you're not disappointed."

After two impressive games against Arsenal, Trapattoni called McClean and Paul Green into the squad for the Czech friendly.

In those few days, Trapattoni explained his methods to him, how he wanted his wide men to tuck in. McClean, whose game is about playing wide and attacking the full-back, absorbed it all, ready for the next challenge.

What happened when he came on for the final minutes at the Aviva stunned him.

"I remember the noise when I warmed up and I thought, 'is this really for me?' Then when my top came off to go on, the whole place got up. I was standing there with Alan Kelly and he was laughing and I was thinking, 'this is crazy.' The goosebumps on the back of my neck and the noise was something I'd never heard in my life. My family were all in tears."

McClean will excite them plenty of times. He might do it in the European Championships if he's given the chance. I put it to him that he has been playing football since early 2011, that maybe a rest in the summer might be a good idea.

"If you're playing in the Euros, it would be a nice way not to have a break. There's plenty of time to rest." I get the feeling he doesn't know the meaning of the word.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Why Irish fans shouldn't lose faith and how Joe Schmidt can turn things around for the World Cup

In association with Aldi

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport