SUNDEDLAND boss Martin O'Neill has ordered wing sensation James McClean to continue to play on instinct as opponents start to target him.
The 22-year-old Republic of Ireland midfielder has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence since O'Neill threw him in at the deep end after his arrival at the Stadium of Light in December.
McClean, who joined the club in a £350,000 summer switch from Derry City, will head into tomorrow night's FA Cup quarter-final replay with Everton having celebrated his new improved contract with an eye-catching display in Saturday's 3-1 Barclays Premier League win over QPR.
He will do so brimming with confidence, but with opposing managers starting to draw up plans to limit his effectiveness.
O'Neill knows his rising star will have to deal with that, but has told him to continue to rely on his instinct to take on defenders and create and score goals.
The 60-year-old said: "He is playing with great instinct, but what he is having to try to do is not just that, he is having to think a little bit about the game and I think he is doing that.
"He knows, or I am sure he is becoming more aware now, of the impact he is making, and therefore obviously teams are going to pay him special attention.
"On Tuesday, Blackburn Rovers were making some sort of plans for him.
"He is learning that - he needs a little bit of help, obviously, from the likes of myself, but he is going to find this out for himself, and so far he has coped very, very well indeed.
"Never knock that, absolutely, that's what sets him apart at the moment.
"The other thing is just giving that little bit more thought now and again, but never to lose that instinct."
McClean's senior debut came as a substitute in O'Neill's first game in charge, a 2-1 league win over Blackburn on December 11, and he has never looked back since.
However, it was predecessor Steve Bruce who signed him, and the Ulsterman takes no great credit for his emergence.
O'Neill said: "Sometimes that can happen. It's all too easy to turn around and say somebody else didn't play him.
"Sunderland bought him, he was here at the football club. He came in and everything went for him almost from the first minute, and that's a major plus.
"He's gone fearlessly into matches, and that again stands him in good stead because he hasn't held anybody in fantastic awe, and that's very encouraging as well. Overall, it's been a great time for him.
"He played very, very well in a reserve game against Manchester United and of course that helps, it helps make your mind up about someone.
"James McClean could easily have gone and played the first two or three games, failed to make any sort of impact and he could have been back playing [in the reserves] again.
"As it turns out, the character of him suggests otherwise, but it could have happened."
Skipper Lee Cattermole is available after completing his four-match ban, the result of a stormy derby draw at Newcastle earlier this month.
Winger Sebastian Larsson, who was rested at the weekend, and full-back Phil Bardsley, who was unwell, are available, but John O'Shea joins Kieran Richardson on the sidelines with both men recovering from calf problems.
O'Neill said: "It will be a big match, a big match for both clubs.
"The incentive is great too - for Everton, the chance to play Liverpool in an all-Merseyside semi-final, and for ourselves, just to be there would be really terrific.
"We have battled all this way and we don't want to give it up without a fight."