Friday 22 November 2019

Learning his lesson: McClean must never forget playing is a privilege

James Lawton

At 23, James McClean may well believe he has little time to waste, but one day -- maybe when he enters his dotage around the age of 27 or so -- he will be grateful that Martin O'Neill was around when he seemed hell-bent on throwing at least some of it away.

His other good fortune is that if he is plainly a head-strong Derry man, he does occasionally show an instinct to take a peek at himself. This is a process that O'Neill is always quick to encourage, as was the man who shaped his career, the great Brian Clough.

Occasionally, Clough resorted to some extreme measures, as Roy Keane remembers so vividly when he talks about the time his reward for a poor performance was a punch in the face. So far O'Neill is working on the possibilities of some gentle humour and the odd ironic barb.

It seems to be a case of so far, so good with McClean's decision to pull back from his role as a young lion of the football Twitterati in favour of the kind of concentrated effort that is most likely to impress O'Neill and Giovanni Trapattoni.

McClean's bitter, expletive-laced complaint over his exclusion from the Kazakhstan game outraged both managers and may just have provoked the kind of reaction guaranteed to concentrate the mind of a young player in danger of running ahead of himself.

Trapattoni received a swift apology and O'Neill the assurance that McClean had come back to the Stadium of Light with a new determination to show his quality.

O'Neill got that response after a long and biting lecture on why it is so important for someone of McClean's impressive talent -- but extremely limited experience -- to see the football world as it is rather than merely how he would like it to be.

O'Neill was certainly emphatic enough about his position after his face-to-face with his volatile prospect, saying: "James is a good player, a strong lad, but he has to think about it.

"This time last year he wasn't in consideration for anything. It has been a great rise, now he just has to settle down, which I think he will.

"He will not be the first player to be disappointed not to be in the team. I remember myself in my early days. I'd played for Nottingham Forest, so I thought I would be in the Northern Ireland team. But the manager at the time, Terry Neill, used some other players from lower leagues. I gave a stupid interview saying I should be in the team and it was kind of crazy. It came out badly and James can learn from these things."

Mostly, he can learn the old truth that has shaped every significant career. It is that you make your best points on the field and in some reasonable communication with your team-mates, most of whom in the Irish team were at least as offended as Trapattoni by McClean's withering assessment of the performance that unfolded in his absence.

McClean was no doubt upset by his light workload at the European Championships, when Trapattoni gave him the call late in the evisceration performed on Ireland by the champions Spain. But, as both the Italian and O'Neill are now at some pains to point out, it is at such times that the attitude of a young player is often best tested.

Certainly, O'Neill has produced a touch or two of scorn while attempting to staunch the flow of McClean's stream of consciousness. "James has been acting rather strangely," he says. "It's good when the player not only wants to play but also wants to manage the team as well. James is rather young for that at the moment. I think Mr Trapattoni has got a couple of years on him and is a couple of titles in front of James. So I think he's entitled to pick the team."

The implications for McClean in such musings may already have struck home. Certainly that is the sense O'Neill took from their meeting, after which he said: "He has even admitted he has been foolish. He has taken himself off Twitter."

There can be no doubt about the imperative the manager has presented to the player of potential -- if not quite rock-solid -- achievement. It is to apply himself to the challenge of immersing himself in the heart rather than the trappings of the game. Second-guessing a Trapattoni may be an impulse of the moment but it is probably not the best way to move seamlessly into the future. Nor is the suggestion that you believe that your place at the top of the game has become less a privilege than a right.

O'Neill -- like Keane -- was sometimes roughly disabused of such an idea by one of the greatest natural-born managers in the history of the game and there may be a point when he decides that in the case of McClean the job requires more than a touch of irony. That at least seemed a possibility when he said: "Genuinely, we can have a laugh about it first of all, but now it's getting a bit ridiculous. He has to rein it in. He has to show some responsibility."

Perhaps, most of all, he has to avoid the possibility of a smack in the mouth.

Irish Independent

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