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'You're talking about a mercurial talent here, but you have to manage him' - The enigma of Aiden McGeady

Aiden McGeady finds himself on the outside looking in as Sunderland struggle to escape from League One and, typical of his topsy-turvy career, it looks like he needs a move to the Championship to resurrect his prospects with Ireland


The last public image of Aiden McGeady wearing Sunderland gear was taken last December in a McDonald’s restaurant hours after being an unused substitute in a League One defeat to Gillingham. Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The last public image of Aiden McGeady wearing Sunderland gear was taken last December in a McDonald’s restaurant hours after being an unused substitute in a League One defeat to Gillingham. Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

The last public image of Aiden McGeady wearing Sunderland gear was taken last December in a McDonald’s restaurant hours after being an unused substitute in a League One defeat to Gillingham. Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

In Sunderland, the resilient hope is that Aiden McGeady will have a new employer before the January transfer window closes.

Debate on his exile from the club's first-team squad no longer finds much traction on supporters' forums, especially now that Phil Parkinson's players have established some semblance of positive momentum. McGeady, after all, is 33.

The last public image of him wearing Sunderland FC gear was taken last December in a McDonald's restaurant hours after being an unused substitute in a League One defeat to Gillingham.

Accompanied by team-mate Chris Maguire, the two were branded "unprofessional" by Parkinson, albeit only McGeady was then told to find a new club.

Pointedly, the manager quickly emphasised that that fast-food restaurant image was "not the sole reason" for banishing McGeady from first-team involvement.

For months, rumours of a sundered dressing-room had been rife around the Stadium of Light, some players still on Premier League level wages despite Sunderland's slump into the third tier of English football.

McGeady, rumoured to be on £31,000 a week - roughly 15 times the League One average - was rewarded with a one-year contract extension running to the end of the 2020/'21 season after being voted Supporters' 'Player of the Year' for his role in a late charge to the play-offs last spring.

But that form has been conspicuously absent this season, extending a nagging pattern in McGeady's career of high promise largely unfulfilled.

Capped 92 times by the Republic of Ireland, he was described by one writer in 2015 as "the most annoying player in international football". Why? "For all the great things that he hasn't done!"

McGeady's talent has been inarguable since breaking into the Celtic first team 16 years ago.

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He was seen, at the time, as the most exciting young player to emerge in Scottish football for a decade or more, his quicksilver feet getting him into instant trouble in the East End of Glasgow when he nutmegged Neil Lennon on his first day training with Celtic's senior team.

According to McGeady, Lennon told him: "Do that again and I'll kill you!"

The former Northern Ireland midfielder would be in his first stint as manager at Parkhead when the decision was taken in 2010 to sell McGeady to Spartak Moscow for just under £10 million. The move would facilitate Celtic's loan move for Craig Bellamy from Manchester City.

"Probably good business for Spartak and good business for us," declared Lennon at the time.

Seven years later, during a season on loan with Preston North End, manager Simon Grayson suggested McGeady had "the quickest feet I've ever seen from a player, either playing with or managing."

It was Grayson who subsequently brought McGeady to Sunderland after he was named 'Player of the Year' at Deepdale too, but the manager was gone inside five months, replaced in time by Chris Coleman.

And it would be on Coleman's watch that the acclaimed eight-part Netflix documentary 'Sunderland 'Til I Die' was filmed, notionally a feel-good charting of the club's journey back to Premier League status that would curdle, instead, into a humiliating story of relegation, recrimination and job losses.

Coleman would be one of the first relieved of his duties, but not before he had been the target of an extraordinarily blunt critique from McGeady in episode seven.

Explaining his struggles to process the specific demands of his manager's 4-3-3 formation, McGeady says to camera: "If a player keeps making the same mistake, show them the mistake they are making. I've had managers before who come in and go crazy.

"He (Coleman) just kind of comes in and it's, 'We could have done this better, right, sound, move on!' It's just kind of an acceptance of 'That's ok!' You come into training a couple of days later and everyone is laughing and joking and we've just been beaten 3-0 at home."

While Coleman subsequently offered a cogent explanation for his management style, McGeady's candid, on-the-record dismissiveness of the Sunderland boss carried a jolting efficacy.

To some degree, that outburst captured his career in microcosm. Then the second highest-paid player at the club and broadly accepted as its most talented, he seemed oblivious to any notion that a footballer of his experience should require the rudiments of 4-3-3 explained.

Though his own form was, at best, fleeting, McGeady's instinct was to look elsewhere for Sunderland's difficulties.

Humility hasn't always been a conspicuous quality in his professional persona and, anecdotally, there is little evidence of any of his five previous clubs regretting McGeady's eventual departure from their books.

Even at Celtic, Gordon Strachan felt a need to suspend him for "a breach of club discipline" in 2008 and, while McGeady's initial time in Moscow (his £9.5 million move in 2010 making him the most expensive Scottish football export ever) was a relative success, the player would end his time in Russia training with their youths team.

This would be because of coach Valery Karpin's claim that he was refusing to comply with team instructions either in practice or during games.

One year before the club cut him loose, McGeady was even eviscerated by former Spartak and Russia coach Oleg Romantsev for his surliness on the field.

"McGeady thinks that he should be in a privileged position," said Romantsev.

"If he doesn't get the ball when in good position, he stops trying. If his team-mate makes a mistake, he stops passing the ball to him. He is nervous all the time, cursing everyone around."

From Moscow, he landed in Liverpool, recruited by Roberto Martinez for Everton and an inauspicious stay on Merseyside that would bring just 43 first-team appearances over three years, 20 of them from the substitutes' bench.

"He was just anonymous really," recalls Dave Prentice, now Sports Editor of the 'Liverpool Echo'.

"It was weird because there was a little bit of excitement about the signing initially, given the perception that he'd gone to Russia and done okay. And he'd been linked with Everton for many, many months by then. But he wasn't fully match-fit when he came and it took a while for us to properly clap eyes on him.

"Then he started the following season and scored an absolute cracker on the opening day at Leicester. But that would be the only goal he'd score in his Everton career. He got a knee injury soon after, Aaron Lennon came in and took his place and then Gerard Deulofeu arrived on a permanent deal and he looked altogether more dynamic.

"So, ultimately, the sense of anticipation that the fans had was never matched by what he delivered on the pitch. At one point, I remember Martinez gave him carte blanche to basically just operate in the final third of the pitch, taking away all defensive obligations and responsibilities. But even that didn't seem to unlock anything.

"McGeady certainly had ability, no doubt about that. But that level of fitness, of pace and sharpness that's necessary for the Premier League wasn't quite there.

"And then he fell out with Martinez!"

Loan spells with Sheffield Wednesday and Preston ran parallel to his time at Everton before his transfer to Sunderland in 2017. While at Wednesday in May 2016, he was omitted from their match-day squad for the £170 million Wembley play-off game against Hull City, facilitating an early arrival into Ireland's pre-Euro 2016 training camp.

Martin O'Neill, then Irish manager, spoke cryptically to journalists of McGeady's Wednesday exclusion, suggesting: "You will have to imagine what the situation might have been."

And yet there were those flashbulb moments of near-genius too that, sporadically, re-ignited hope of McGeady being ready to take that euphemistic leap known throughout football as 'the next step'.

One of the two goals he scored against Georgia in a Euro 2016 qualifier in Tbilisi was so breathtaking it triggered a debate on supporters' forums about the greatest Irish goal ever scored. Yet it, palpably, caught people by surprise too at the end of what had been another broadly underwhelming performance from the player.

In the RTÉ TV commentary, Ronnie Whelan says, "I take back everything I said about Aiden McGeady!"

On Sky, Niall Quinn observes, "He has 70 caps for Ireland, it's about time for him to do that!"

You can detect common impatience in the voices of two former Ireland internationals towards a player perceived, above all, as a serial under-achiever. McGeady today, incidentally, is Ireland's joint seventh most-capped player (alongside Quinn) but has not featured in the green shirt since being omitted from a Martin O'Neill squad in 2018.

Those close to him say he retains an ambition to get to 100 caps and Mick McCarthy has previously indicated that he'd been monitoring the player's form.

But that form has now nosedived sufficiently for Sunderland to be ready to cut their losses.

Nick Barnes, who covers the club for BBC Newcastle, believes McGeady's next destination is likely to be in the Championship, given "he's clearly on a lot more money than most League One clubs can afford".

Barnes believes that Parkinson's decision to exclude McGeady from first-team business has now won general support from the fans.

"The fans respected hugely what he (McGeady) did last season because he was essentially playing with a broken bone in his foot," he says.

"He could only play with an injection, but his form sort of catapulted Sunderland into the play-offs.

"When he's confident and his head's in the right place, he can be unplayable. But the flip side of that is, when he's not in a good place, you see the worst side of his character.

"And, for whatever reason, he's not shown anything like that form this season. And maybe I think League One defenders have cottoned onto the way he plays and found that you effectively force his hand by crowding him.

"Like on his day, he's so talismanic, so creative, one of the best players in the league, so it might seem as if you're cutting your nose off to spite your face in not involving him. But they're certainly looking a much tighter group, a much happier squad since McGeady was in it.

"I think the majority of supporters would actually applaud Parkinson now for biting the bullet, because there is that sense that McGeady can be a disruptive dressing-room influence.

"I know there was a problem at Preston too. You're talking about a mercurial talent here, but you have to manage him.

"And I think Parkinson decided that, with the complaints from other players, he'd rather not have to do that."

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