James McClean: Darren Moore made me feel like a footballer again
WITH a smile, James McClean quips that his body is starting to remind him that he is now firmly in the senior bracket of his profession. His back has been at him for the past few weeks.
"I was 29 a few weeks ago and certainly feel old," he grins, before changing to a more serious tone. "My thirties are creeping up but I feel in the best shape of my life. Fitter than ever. As the long as the body keeps running, I'll be grand."
Watching McClean scamper around Celtic Park on Sunday with his usual exuberance certainly gave the impression that he retains a youthful approach to the game, even if he does now have plenty of miles on the clock.
He appears conscious of presenting that image as he faces into an important summer in his career. With just a year remaining on his contract, a move from West Brom is a distinct possibility.
The relegation season just gone has been marked by disappointment and frustration. A run in the side under Darren Moore boosted the confidence levels, but there's a sense of what might have been. Burnley were keen in August but West Brom rejected their advances. It was the same story when promotion chasing Derby County came knocking in January. His real issue is what followed next.
"I wanted to leave in January and made no secret of that," McClean says. "I told the manager (Alan Pardew) and chief executive that I wanted to go because I was disappointed the move in August to Burnley didn't come off.
"At the time, I was playing (under Tony Pulis) so I figured 'Alright, it's not too bad.' Then as soon as the window closed, for some reason I got dropped and didn't play a (full) game until Alan Pardew came in. I was playing more, but it was maybe once every three games.
"Then the Derby thing came about. They were second in the Championship at the time and I wasn’t playing as regularly as I’d liked. I wanted to leave but the same thing happened; the club saying that I wasn’t going anywhere. The usual. 'You’re vital' but as soon as the window closed, I didn’t play again.
"It was a difficult season in that sense. I had two good opportunities to leave for regular football but they denied me both times and don’t play me. As you can imagine, it was very tough.
"Then Darren Moore came in and made me feel like a footballer again. I can’t thank him enough for that."
McClean is delighted that Moore has been rewarded for his caretaker stint by getting a proper crack at the job on a permanent basis. It doesn't dramatically alter his view of his own status because of the aforementioned contract situation. He's learned enough about the business in this regard.
There is no guarantee that Sean Dyche will come knocking again. "That was in August and nothing materialised in January when I wasn't playing," he sighs. "In football, people change their minds for one reason or another. That's the cut throat game that it is. Just because a manager fancies you in one window doesn't mean he will do in the next one. If you dwell on things that didn't happen, it will wreck head."
The dream transfer would be catching Brendan Rodgers' attention. McClean has said as much before, and he was never going to miss out on Scott Brown's testimonial. Martin O'Neill gave him permission to skip it, but the Derryman was adamant he would be a part of it.
His love of Celtic is well known and he was given a special round of applause before kick-off by the Hoops faithful and it continued everytime he went to take a corner kick. McClean has driven up from south of the border for big European nights, including the 3-3 draw with Manchester City under Rodgers which took place on a Wednesday night. McClean made the long trek home to train the next morning. "I have to try and time it better now," he admits.
"I've been to plenty of games, as far back as when Martin was the manager. Any opportunity I get. Look, if it was up to me, I'd have been a Celtic player a long time ago.
"When I was leaving Sunderland, you get the rumour pages and I saw one saying Celtic's had a bid accepted for me and I remember being buzzing. At the time, I was under Paolo Di Canio and it was in my head that I was leaving anyway. But absolutely nothing came of it.
"They signed Derk Boerrigter instead. Look for one reason or other over the last few years, it hasn't been for the want of trying but hopefully one day."
Roy Keane and Robbie Keane's brief Celtic cameos are mentioned. McClean feels Celtic have moved beyond those type of transfers. "I think them days are gone when players are seeing out their career and coming here for the romance," he says, "I've just turned 29. I feel great. If the opportunity comes, it would be a very difficult one to turn down. I've never hidden that.
"Whether I get the opportunity to play here as a Celtic player or not, Sunday will be something I will always keep with me and treasure. It was pretty special."
To an extent, his future is out of his hands. McClean retains confidence in his own ability, but that doesn't mean he was immune to doubt during his stints out of the side. "I had tough days," he admits, "You're frustrated and angry. You question a lot of things, Why am I not playing? Does the manager like me? Am I giving him enough?
"I’m never one to shirk a challenge by going into my shell and feeling sorry for myself. I’ve got good people around me making sure that doesn’t happen. That’s just not in my nature anyway. I’ll just work harder than ever."
That's why he took pleasure from the end of the season, even if it was a futile battle with the inevitability of the drop. "We kinda got a bit a pride back, a little bit of dignity," he said, "I've every faith Darren will do a great job there because first and foremost he's a great guy, a likeable guy, and that goes a long way."
The Ireland cap is back on now with the prospect of watching the World Cup from afar still niggling away at him. He is enthused by a trip to France for a game next Monday, but it's a poor consolation for what the summer could have represented.
"There will be a sense of envy considering how close we got," he said, "That's done and in the past. We've got to make sure we right the wrongs of that by qualifying for the next tournament."
Expect a full throttle McClean service in the attempt to make it there.