Sunderland manager Martin O’Neill advises James McClean to stay away from North controversy
SUNDERLAND boss Martin O'Neill has advised James McClean to keep his own counsel amid brewing unrest over his decision to represent the Republic of Ireland.
The Derry-born 23-year-old was subjected to abuse when he announced earlier this season he had opted to play for the Republic rather than his native Northern Ireland after exercising his right under the Good Friday agreement.
He was similarly attacked via Twitter this week following his selection for Giovanni Trapattoni's Euro 2012 finals squad, and swiftly closed his account after receiving death threats.
The matter prompted Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to step in to urge calm, and O'Neill, who played for the North, has urged McClean not to be dragged further into the row.
He said: "It didn't exist in my time, but it is something that has cropped up now, the possibility of playing for either side, and that's something that James has done.
"He has been on twittering and he has been doing that for some time. He has been given advice in closing the account down, so at least that's gone.
"He is going to get some sort of a reaction to it from somewhere, but I am not so sure he should be reacting to the reactions, as it were.
"Whether it's the end of it or not...but at least the Twitter account has gone."
O'Neill's comments came after McClean had repeated his admission he never felt comfortable representing Northern Ireland at junior level to journalists in Dublin.
He said: "I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those flags [Union Jacks] and hearing the songs and chants.
"For me, I didn't feel a part of it. It's probably the wrong thing to say, but it was just a stepping stone in my career.
"When I signed for Sunderland, my dream of playing for Ireland became realistic."
McClean had not even made a senior appearance for the Black Cats following his £350,000 summer move from Derry City when O'Neill arrived at the Stadium of Light in December.
However, having made an instant impact as a substitute in the manager's first game, he has produced a string of fine performances to not only establish himself as a regular in the Barclays Premier League, but also book himself a ticket to Poland and Ukraine with his country.
The midfielder will meet up early with the Republic squad next week with manager Giovanni Trapattoni planning to use the time to put him through his paces on the right wing as well as his more accustomed left, and O'Neill could hardly be more delighted.
He said: "It's funny you should mention that because I said to James in training that I wanted him to go and play a wee bit in the fashion of someone like Damien Duff and people like that so he has the ability next season to play on either flank, and that would be great.
"If Trapattoni uses him in that fashion, that will be great. It will save me the bother."
In the meantime, McClean and his team-mates have the small matter of a home fixture against Manchester United to negotiate on Sunday, with Sir Alex Ferguson's men knowing even victory on Wearside will not deliver the title if arch-rivals Manchester City beat QPR at home.
City last claimed the crown in 1968, by coincidence as a result of a win at Newcastle as Sunderland defeated United 2-1 at Old Trafford on a dramatic final day.
Boyhood Black Cats fan O'Neill said: "It's a real irony, that. I had semi-forgotten about it, but when somebody said Sunderland played that very day at Old Trafford, then it did come back to me.
"Maybe it's my age now."