Sunday 19 January 2020

McClean's revival under O'Neill at Stoke timely boost for Ireland

James McClean at squad training
James McClean at squad training

Michael O'Neill could find himself on familiar territory, up against familiar faces, should the fates conspire to having Northern Ireland play the Republic in a play-off final next March for the Euro 2020 finals.

An all-Ireland battle for a place at the European Championships would be as tense as it gets, not a place for favours or friendships.

Yet O'Neill has already done one big favour to Mick McCarthy's team in that he has coaxed a big performance out of a player whose career, with club and country, had been flagging.

O'Neill had some big calls to make for his first game in charge of Stoke City last weekend, and one of them was to restore McClean to the starting XI. The player had been left out for Stoke's previous five games, though part of that was related to a back injury.

There has been scepticism from some Stoke fans about McClean's potential. However unfairly, he is seen by many supporters as one of the over-paid and under-achieving senior pros whose lack of meaningful contribution had got Stoke into the perilous position they are in.

There was also the added burden of asking McClean to play for Stoke away from home, in Barnsley, in a poppy-less jersey, on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday, guaranteeing the Derry man non-stop jeers from the home fans.

O'Neill trusted McClean and was rewarded with a very strong performance in a big win for City.

"I thought with the likes of James coming into the team, we'd get a reaction, from players on the outside who've been looking in and who were not able to play, possibly because the system that was there before didn't suit them," O'Neill said in a nod to McClean.

The win, and O'Neill's praise, means that McClean had a spring in his step when he arrived at the Ireland camp in Dublin and he is one of the players who may benefit from a run--out against the All Whites on Thursday.

McCarthy will learn little from a first-ever clash with New Zealand. We already know that Darren Randolph won't play, while there's little to be gained from playing Shane Duffy.

Some need a rest, some need game-time, and McClean is one of the latter. McClean needed the lift he had from last weekend's win with Stoke. His most recent displays for Ireland had been well below standard.

In a recent Herald column, his former team-mate Richard Dunne wondered if McClean's ability to contribute to the team was exhausted.

"I don't know what he is bringing to the team right now, other than 100% commitment, but that's not enough. Commitment and effort are the minimum you demand from all players," Dunne said after a poor showing away to Georgia.

McClean was the man who delivered that goal when Ireland needed a win in their final group game, away to Wales in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers and the team may need a similar miracle on Monday.

McCarthy says he's not concerned about the fitness of certain players. The Ireland boss is confident in the experience and ability of, say, Glenn Whelan to deliver in the green jersey, even though injury saw him sidelined for his club last weekend.

A win over New Zealand on Thursday will have no bearing on the outcome of Monday's date with the Danes, but a strong showing from someone like McClean could send a message.

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