Monday 17 December 2018

Rising star

As a teenager with Home Farm, Chris McCann was never tipped for stardom but the Burnley midfielder is heading that way at a pace which the Irish management cannot ignore. Daniel McDonnell talks to the Finglas lad about his rapid progression and that infamous spat with Don Givens

Next week will give Chris McCann a taste of the big time when Burnley travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the Carling Cup
Next week will give Chris McCann a taste of the big time when Burnley travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in the Carling Cup

CHRIS MCCANN walks into the room, throws a white envelope onto the table and apologises for the delay. This day is proving to be longer than he had anticipated.

Contained within the envelope is a discount card from Harvey Nichols, whose archetypal sales team have just completed a half-hour presentation with the aim of coercing some money out of the Burnley first-team squad's pockets.

It was humorous stuff. The guy in the sharp suit did the talking, while the players trained their eyes on his mute, yet striking, female accomplice. The real carrot. Ah yes, a footballer's life. The sublime and the mundane.

Having spent a similar amount of time waiting for his team-mates to arrive at Turf Moor for the show to begin in the first place, McCann, still clad in his tracksuit, is wondering when the chequered flag for his Thursday duties will appear.

Finished

"It feels like I finished training four bloody hours ago," he sighs.

For a minute, you could be fooled into thinking that McCann is living up to the stereotype of the modern footballer -- pampered and precious. After all, it's just over a year since he made the headlines back home for reasons that portrayed him in that very light.

The reality, as is often the case, is dramatically different. Ask anyone involved with Burnley Football Club to give you an opinion on the Dubliner and they will lavish praise upon the quality of the player and the character of the person. Their only fear is that the secret now appears to be out.

What surprises them in Lancashire is that Giovanni Trapattoni and his lieutenants seem to be in the dark about his abilities. Next week, the squad for the friendly international with Poland will be named and it's safe to assume that the 21-year-old midfielder will not be included.

That would not come as a great surprise. Instead, the nub of the issue is that he was overlooked for last month's 'B' international with Nottingham Forest, where a number of those on the periphery were invited to display their wares.

Some can barely get a game in the Championship this season, a level where McCann has shone for a resurgent Burnley side. While those who work with him daily cannot understand his absence from that gathering, he has no desire to get mired in controversy. He's been there, done that and the T-shirt didn't fit.

"To be honest, until my dad told me, I didn't know there was a 'B' game," he says. "So yes, I was a little bit disappointed, but not to worry. There will be other squads and other chances.

"You can't just come out and say I deserve a shot because there's 10 other players probably saying the same thing.

"You just hope they will come and have a look, and if I keep playing well then my chances might come around. I try not to pay attention to anything like that until it comes to fruition."

If he keeps playing like he is now then that moment will surely come, for he is maturing into a fine talent, one that Premier League clubs are becoming increasingly aware of. He's been around for a while, with over 100 club appearances to his name already, but this year has brought him onto a different plateau.

Under the stewardship of Owen Coyle -- a rising star of the management game who may interest Ireland one day too -- McCann has thrived in a slightly left-of-centre role in the Clarets' chosen system. Significantly, he is becoming an increasing threat in the opposition box. There's an added athleticism and physicality to his already developed versatility.

"To be honest, I would say my performances over the past two years have been inconsistent," he admits. "Since I've come back over the summer, I think it's been different. I've finally got a good run together on the spin, and I feel stronger for it."

There's a lot for Irish fans to be enthused about, but then not many will have seen him in the flesh. If the name rings a bell and you're not sure why then it's probably for the wrong reason, a specific issue that needs to be addressed and put to bed.

Last November, with the worst of the Stephen Ireland fiasco fresh in the mind, a country woke to another story about a youngster unceremoniously leaving an international camp, albeit with a far more clear-cut reason.

Packed

A couple of days after returning from a trip to Montenegro where he was an unused sub with Sean McCaffrey, U-21 boss Don Givens -- back from his caretaker duties with the Ireland senior team in Wales -- informed McCann that he wouldn't be starting either in the clash with Bulgaria in Longford. The news was not received well by the player, who packed his bags and vacated the team hotel. Givens, no stranger to such statements, suggested he wouldn't pick him again and another crisis was born. A year on, McCann admits that lessons have been learned from the experience.

"A lot of people have had their own opinions, but there's only two people that know what happened," he says. "I had reasons in my head for doing what I did but they're probably the wrong reasons looking back -- I shouldn't have done it but it's part of maturing as a person and a player.

"I just wanted to play so much and it wasn't happening, so then I got worried about coming back here and not being fit and losing my place.

"I know people said I threw a strop or spat the dummy, but it was not like that. We spoke soon after that. I phoned him up to build the bridges that were burnt, and I got called up for the next squad but I was injured.

"There's a lot of things going on in your head when you get called up for your country. Everyone's going to want to play; the last thing you're going to want to do is sit on the bench. You don't want to go there and not play at all, but hopefully I can get another opportunity and take it. I'll just have to wait for my chance."

For all that, like anyone, he can be briefly temperamental -- patience is a skill that McCann does possess. In some respects, the attribute is a key part of his story.

This goes back to his youth, his teenage days at Home Farm where he was a member of the famous crop that went unbeaten for three years between 1999 and 2002. There were stars on that team like Owen Garvan, Darren O'Dea, Shane Supple, and others who have dropped off the radar who were always tipped for the top. McCann was deemed as one of the less likely candidates. A quiet sort.

Sure, he had his suitors. There were a few days spent with Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest, while Leeds requested his services for the Foyle Cup, but it was nothing compared to the interest which some of the others generated. Is it fair to say he has surprised people by forging a career for himself?

"I would agree," he says. "All the lads were going away to different clubs. I had my trials when I was younger but I think I was a bit too young and I think any other kid would have been downhearted about the situation as well, seeing your friends going off to other clubs here, there and everywhere.

Hope

"You start to lose a little bit of hope and for a time I probably did a bit, thinking it wasn't going to happen. So I kind of put pressure on myself, but that didn't really work because I wanted to get away so much. It wasn't happening for me, my performances weren't good.

"So I decided that I had to start afresh, that if it happens, it happens, but if it doesn't, it doesn't."

Fate decreed that the right offer would come along when he least expected it, albeit in a roundabout way. He came home from training one day where his father was waiting with the news that Burnley wanted to invite him over.

"He asked me what I wanted to do," he recalls.

"I said I'd give it one more shot and if it happens, then great. Thankfully it did."

As it happened, it was a Bolton scout, Colm O'Connell, who rated him, but they were full up at the Reebok so a contact of his at Burnley requested if he had any left over. McCann and Cavan youngster Martin Reilly made the journey and played one trial match. "The rest is history," he grins.

Since then, he has gradually become part of the furniture at the northwest club, spending the mandatory two years in digs before moving out to live with team-mate Kyle Lafferty after Steve Cotterill gave him his first-team breakthrough. When Enniskillen man Lafferty left for Rangers in the summer, McCann moved to an apartment of his own near Manchester.

Overall, he is content with his lot and confident that a play-off spot, at the very least, is within his side's capabilities. Considering Coyle's rapidly improving charges are lying in fourth this morning the faith looks justified at this juncture. This afternoon's trip to table-topping Wolves will offer another barometer of their progress.

Limit

"There's no limit to what we can do," he asserts, "We're as good as anyone else in this league, we shouldn't be fearing anybody. It's a close league, but we have a lot of great players in our side who have done big things in their careers."

Where is McCann's career going? Recently, Coyle went public about the need to keep him at Burnley amid some expressions of interest. Much to the frustration of supporters, prized talents like Lafferty have been sold in recent years and they don't want to see the new star on the block heading out the exit door. He is level-headed enough about the situation.

"To be honest, I don't like reading about myself much in the papers," he says.

"So it doesn't bother me what's said, it's only speculation a lot of the time. Unless something concrete happens, I won't be paying any attention to it."

Next week will give him a taste of the big time, though. The Carling Cup trip to Chelsea on Wednesday has been circled in the diary since the draw was made and the McCann family will be making the journey en masse. The folks will be travelling from Ashbourne, where they now live, but he grew up in Finglas and that's where his roots are. Anyone that dares to refer to him as some sort of Meath man will have his uncle to answer to.

Keeping in touch with the past is important, and he enjoys meeting up with some of his old Home Farm buddies when the chance arises. He ploughed a lone furrow by going to Burnley; four of that prized side went to Ipswich and a further three went to Celtic so while they remained together, he had no such crutch.

"I keep in touch with Gareth Christie [who was at Celtic] quite a bit," he says. "And of course with Irish teams I've caught up with some of the other lads. When we go down to Ipswich or they come up here, I'd have a good chat with Owen [Garvan] and Shane [Supple].

"Now that we're playing against each other in England, it just goes to show how far we've come along and how much we've progressed."

Yet the very fact that McCann is now comfortably mentioned in the same bracket as a prodigious talent such as Garvan is significant enough in itself. Rather than being the shy kid who few fancied to survive in the UK, the consensus now is that he's a banker to ascend to the next level, particularly as he lacks the airs and graces that can become such an obstacle. A key strength is his focus, borne from his early struggles.

"It was a good little place where I grew up," he says, after a period of reminiscing as the interview draws to a close.

"You always remember where you've come from, don't you?"

As he stands on the brink of a world where a few visitors from a nearby department store would be a drop in the ocean in terms of distraction, keeping that sentiment fresh will serve McCann well. After that, anything is possible.

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