Thursday 21 November 2019

Comment: After all the controversy, James McClean must now prove he's good enough

James McClean (far right) in action for his new club West Brom in a pre-season friendly against Swindon
James McClean (far right) in action for his new club West Brom in a pre-season friendly against Swindon
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

In terms of English football, which of these is the odd one out? Derby, West Brom, Brighton, Doncaster, QPR, Blackpool, Colchester, Forest Green, Wigan, Bury, Blackpool, Fulham and Fleetwood?

The rather boring answer is that West Brom are the only one currently in the Premier League. The significance, however, is that they are the new clubs with which players relegated from the Championship now ply their trade.

Almost all of the players have either stayed in the same division or dropped but it's a measure of the faith which Tony Pulis seems to have in James McClean that he believes he can make the step up from a team relegated from the Championship to one that can hold their own in the Premier League.

Tonight, McClean faces his first game in the Premier League for two-and-a-half years when West Brom face Manchester City and - in the course of that wait - people have learned far more about him that they know about most footballers.

McClean's personal feelings about various issues are well-documented but the reaction of the City fans should his name be read out over the tannoy will speak volumes about how much his reputation goes before him.

Supporters of teams who expect to be competing for the title tend not to care too much about the players in mid-ranking Premier League teams like West Brom, but such is McClean's notoriety, it would be no surprise for him to be barracked wherever he plays this season.

In the past couple of years, McClean's feelings about the significance of the poppy, facing the English flag while the national anthem is being played or showing his delight about Derry getting its rightful name back have obscured his abilities as a footballer.

It's possible to make a decent Premier League career out of keeping the head down, working hard with a good attitude and contributing a few glimpses of quality that can convince a manager at another club to offer a well-paid contract and take the player through another few years of his career. Apart from the first bit, McClean fits the criteria perfectly.

He is following in the Steve Guppy/Kevin Kilbane mould of hard-running, straight-line wingers who will give opposition full-backs a hard time, help out their own and provide the odd cross for a striker to score.

They're relatively anonymous, have lots of John Giles's honesty of effort and minimum 6.5 out of 10 performers but they're important for teams who base their ethos on fight rather than flair.

But it's how well that McClean can channel those fighting qualities that could define whether he can re-establish himself as a Premier League performer.


McClean's most recent career highlight was his tackle on Arkadiusz Milik after which the Pole tweeted a picture of his swollen knee as if to prove that it was still part of his leg.

It was a tackle which lifted the mood of the crowd in the Aviva Stadium who had the optimism drain out of them for 70 minutes prior to McClean's arrival.

It was also a tackle which, at a different ground on a different night, could have resulted in McClean being sent off, particularly if the opposition had reacted with the communal fury that characterises so many top teams when the opportunity arises to have an opponent sent off.

"Make no mistake about it, if there's a chance there to go through someone, I'm going to take it," admitted McClean soon after the Milik challenge which, as so often with McClean, shows admirable honesty but potentially opens himself up to more problems.

Were he to do the same thing tonight, baying visiting fans, some of whom may not be able to spell Armistice Day let alone know its significance, would be demanding the referee brandish a red card.

For his part, it's far easier for a referee to send off a heavily-tattooed, heavily-accented, 6-foot-plus Derry man for an aggressive challenge than a mild-mannered, 'not-that-kind-of-player' who had committed the same offence

This is the backdrop in which McClean has returned to the Premier League which means that the hurdle is higher for him to prove that he is good enough to play at the top level than it would be for a different player in a similar scenario.

The fact that West Brom captain Darren Fletcher and manager Tony Pulis have both spoken in his defence during the summer row about facing a flag means he has at least started life at his new club on a strong footing but a few more incidents around events off the field might just give supporters and chairman the notion that he is not worth the hassle.

In Pulis, McClean may well have found the closest manager in the Premier League to Martin O'Neill under whom McClean first flourished.

There's not much guff from Pulis about philosophy or style but his tactics of keeping things simple while focusing attentions around the basics of the game like hard work and attitude might just suit McClean perfectly.

West Brom will be away from home in Manchester on November 7 when they face United, the day before Remembrance Sunday and a day that McClean is likely to find himself in the headlines again, albeit from those who could copy and paste most of last year's outrage.

Among the many tattoos on McClean's body, the one on his left arm reads: "Learn from yesterday live for today hope for tomorrow"

On all fronts, if he is to make the most of his latest chance, it's a motto McClean must follow.

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