Tardelli to take closer look at McClean
AS AN ENTITY, the League of Ireland has deserved, and taken, a few knocks in recent years.
But for James McClean, the LOI was the school of hard knocks which shaped him as a player and made him into the man he is today -- a key member of a Sunderland side that is enjoying the rarefied experience of being a top-eight club in England's top flight and which makes the short trip to Middlesbrough tonight for an FA Cup replay, a bitterly contested local derby.
There's no doubting McClean's status as man of the moment right now. Ireland assistant manager Marco Tardelli will be in attendance tonight, primarily to watch the 22-year-old, and there's also talk of a lucrative new deal for the kid from the Creggan which will see his earnings treble.
Now on a diet of local derbies that involve 40,000 fans at places like St James' Park and tonight's venue in Middlesbrough, 18 months ago a local derby for McClean was a hop across the border to play Finn Harps.
But McClean remains deeply appreciative of the chance that Derry City gave him, the opportunity to learn his trade outside of the comfort zone of England's Premier League academy scene.
There was, of course, a downside to his tale, as McClean was one of the players who went unpaid at Derry when the club went bust at the end of the 2009 season and was initially kicked out of football for licencing reasons, only to be let back in through the First Division.
But speaking to the Evening Herald, McClean believes he's still the same player who started out as a teenager with Derry in 2008.
"It hasn't bothered me one bit, moving up to this level," McClean told the Herald.
"I don't get fazed by things, as a player or as a person.
"I see football as a very simple game. It's 11 against 11, no matter where the pitch is or what league you're playing in. I have always had that approach. I want to just get the ball at my feet, go at the full back and see if I can create something and that'll never change.
"I enjoy my football and things don't scare me or faze me. I play the same way, it's got me this far and I see no reason to change. I don't care who the full back is, I just get at him and try to beat him."
McClean's success is all the more remarkable given that he was a late bloomer.
While Derry team-mates like Ruaidhri Higgins (Coventry), Daniel Lafferty (Celtic), Barry Molloy and Ger Doherty (Derby) had all been away in their teens, McClean was off the radar and only really attracted cross-channel interest after Derry's financial collapse in 2009, when Lincoln City -- then in League Two -- tried to get him on the cheap.
"I never had much luck with trials or things like that," he says.
"It was only when Stephen Kenny came into Derry, met me and told me his plans, that things really kicked on for me. It's still hard to believe that this has all happened for me." Much of his current success is down to his manager at Sunderland, Martin O'Neill, who took a chance on the lad immediately after taking over and surely Steve Bruce -- who signed McClean from Derry last summer -- must wonder if he'd still be in his job as Sunderland boss if he'd tried out McClean a little earlier.
"The big thing for me was when the manager put me into the team, that was such a confidence boost for me.
"I really do feel that I want to repay the faith that he's shown in me," he says.
O'Neill and McClean, both from Co Derry, have together sparked a Sunderland revival as the side have lost just twice since O'Neill took over and put McClean into the side.
"It's not just a case of me or Martin turning things around. We have a squad of players who work hard and are now getting the rewards," he says.
"Martin has been a breath of fresh air. He's put a new lease of life into the club and I'm just happy to be part of that.
"We have moved away from the relegation zone, but we can't start getting carried away talking about Europe, we still take each game as it comes and hopefully we can drive the club forward."