Monday 23 October 2017

The James McClean frustration

Red mist moment in danger of overshadowing Ireland winger's impressive turnaround

James McClean is sent off by referee Mike Dean during West Brom's defeat against Bournemouth Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
James McClean is sent off by referee Mike Dean during West Brom's defeat against Bournemouth Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Without a shadow of a doubt, James McClean is one of the major Irish success stories of this Premier League season.

It might sound strange given that the last we saw of the Derry man was the daft manner in which he signed himself out of the Christmas action as a nasty challenge on Bournemouth's Adam Smith received a fully deserved punishment.

Unsurprisingly, the coverage of the incident fell in line with the perception that the West Brom winger is always an accident waiting to happen, with his lucky escape following a challenge on Spurs' Moussa Dembele a couple of weeks earlier adding to the evidence.

'Liability' was a word that was thrown about, with the hot air generated by his understandable poppy stance and a scuffle with posturing Sunderland players after their Premier League meeting added to the rapsheet. When McClean makes national headlines across the water, it's rarely for positive reasons.

This means the good work largely goes unseen: a solid beginning at West Brom has not generated anywhere near as much attention. And that's why the 26-year-old should be regretting his unnecessary action: it falls in line with a caricature which has overshadowed his football development.

Aidan O'Hara pointed out on these pages earlier in the season that McClean was the only first-team player to be relegated from the Championship last season who subsequently earned a switch to the Premier League. That in itself was an achievement.

In a poor Wigan side which defined a beaten docket, he was the only man that refused to throw in the towel as the 2013 FA Cup winners meekly dropped down to the third tier. Tony Pulis noted the intensity and consistency of his performances and rewarded McClean with another crack at the highest level. West Brom fans were less than enamoured by the £1.5m purchase.

Pulis knew better, however, recognising the benefits of his energy. This writer happened to take in an end-of-season game with a Millwall outfit that were also sliding towards the trapdoor. Millwall away was never going to be a peaceful occasion for McClean and he was the target for much of the bile from the stands on a night that was the antithesis of glamour.

He blocked out the abuse to remain a threat across the 90 minutes while others lost the head: two of his colleagues were dismissed in a defeat that summed up Wigan's campaign. Surrounded by mediocrity, the Irish winger was clearly a man on a mission to better himself, even if it wasn't going to be enough to save Wigan.

His second chance in the Premier League brought him to a crossroads and he has grabbed the opportunity. The ban that ruled him out of Saturday's loss at Swansea meant that he missed his first league game of the season (he started 15 of West Brom's opening 17 league encounters, with two sub outings).

Glenn Whelan and Robbie Brady are the only Irishmen with a better appearance record as they have been selected for every Premier League game by their employers. That's impressive for an acquisition that arrived with a question mark.

Last month, Stephen Hunt said in his Sunday Independent column that his former rival for an international slot thought 'he was a Hollywood movie star and played that way' when he burst on the scene at Sunderland.

In a strange way, the hype that built up around McClean probably did him few favours in the Irish dressing-room and that ill-judged tweet following the World Cup qualifier in Kazakhstan really got him off on the wrong foot with senior members of that squad.

But McClean tends to win over those who have worked alongside him over a period of time. One experienced member of the West Brom group was sceptical about their summer signing on account of his reputation. He has since raved to friends about the attitude of the teetotaller.

In dealing with the various scrapes with authority, Pulis has consistently alluded to the divisive individual's popularity. His work ethic has endeared him to the Welshman, with the pros outranking the cons.

Martin O'Neill's affection also shines through in the instances where exasperation might be the prevailing sentiment.

When he represents Ireland, there remains an impetuosity about McClean that has tested the patience of management. As the players trooped off the pitch after getting the job done against Bosnia, O'Neill greeted the second-half sub with both a congratulatory pat on the back and a reminder about an error he'd made in the match.

The Ireland manager was on Sky the morning after the Bournemouth dismissal and sighed as he discussed the 'red mist' which sometimes clouds the judgment, joking that Roy Keane had even failed to calm the player down before one cameo where his first act was to chop and opponent down and earn a sanction.

Yet O'Neill has always recognised that McClean's way of going about his business can have a galvanising impact on those around him, and the winger will expect to figure strongly in France in the summer.

As the curtain comes down on 2015, he should reflect with pride on a year of progress. The souring end might well be his reminder that the quiet determination which opened the exit door from Wigan should be the template for the way forward. Right now, he's back in the position where no news is good news.

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