JAMES McCLEAN might have feared he would never have an international boss who backed him quite like Martin O’Neill.
He need not worry because Mick McCarthy is a fully signed-up member of his fanclub.
Signed by Steve Bruce from Derry City, the winger was plucked from the Sunderland reserves to make his debut in O’Neill’s first game in charge, against Blackburn Rovers in December 2012.
McClean and Giovanni Trapattoni had differing views in terms of his international progression.
So, presumably, he was not too sorry to see the Italian go in September of 2013, especially as he was replaced by his fellow Derry man.
McClean thrived on O’Neill’s trust, emerging as the team’s talisman during the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
And, while many people’s opinions of O’Neill deteriorated in tandem with his results, McClean made his enduring appreciation for the ex-Celtic manager clear after he had been sacked by the FAI.
Although some on the fringes under O’Neill have benefited from his exit, with David McGoldrick the obvious example, it has not meant his favourites have necessarily suffered.
PIVOTAL MCCLEAN CONTRIBUTION
While Thursday’s equaliser against Switzerland may have come from McGoldrick’s head, it owed a great deal to the tenacity of McClean on the left.
‘Doing it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke’ may have lost its relevance, not only through overuse, but also the club’s relegation from the Premier League.
But there was a throwback to Arsenal’s struggles at the Potteries club in a split-second incident in the build-up to Ireland’s leveller.
McClean showed great determination to nick the ball ahead of Kevin Mbabu, dumping the defender on his backside in the process.
The Gunners’ Granit Xhaka moved to close him down but, as McClean shaped to cross, he turned his back on him, half-heartedly stuck a leg out which succeeded only in looping his delivery on to the head of McGoldrick.
Given that not everything had gone his way beforehand, it was a textbook example of why, if at first you do not succeed, you try and try again.
McCarthy, for one, is grateful of his perseverance.
He said: “He was amazing. It was incredible. I mean the shift he put in — that guy he was up against was quick, so for James to run back and nick it off him was amazing. I’m delighted with James.
“His pride, his desire to play for Ireland is incredible. He gets full support from the crowd, gets a real lift from it, a real buzz from it.
“I said before how much I was impressed with him when I first came into the camp. He was just amazing.
“Was he exceptional in his football? Probably not. But he didn’t let his head drop, his energy levels, running, tackling and determination were beyond exceptional.
“I need guys like him who have got energy in the last five minutes.
“He keeps trying, he keeps going. I’m forever an admirer of the people of his ilk, that’s for sure.”
TARGET FOR ABUSE
And McCarthy has no issue with McClean’s willingness to be an unapologetic Irish Republican living and working in England, even though it has made him a target for sectarian abuse.
He said: “I’ve been at games where he has been getting grief, that’s for sure.
“He speaks his mind and I admire that, he has his beliefs and he sticks with them. He is a fabulous pro.
“He works his socks off.
“Whatever he’s drinking I’m going to have a pint of it. Actually, I don’t think he drinks so I’ll renege on that, I’m not going to have a pot of tea! He’s amazing, just something else.”
But the most impressive part of the team’s performance on Thursday was their willingness to put the shift in, from old hand Glenn Whelan to Alan Judge, who almost careered into a post to clear the danger as Switzerland attacked.
LOYAL TO THOSE WHO ARE LOYAL
McCarthy said: “I give loyalty to players who deserve loyalty. That’s earned. Glenn is remarkable. He trains after we finish.
“He puts a bit more in. I’ve been pleasantly surprised in terms of his fitness levels, it’s been terrific. For him to play the two games he did in Scotland, against Celtic and Hamilton, and then to play here, at 35 that’s remarkable, those fitness levels.
“He put in a great tackle that might be part of the unpleasant brand of football that was spoken about.
“I don’t know why people say things. It winds people up. At the end, when you hear it, when they say it, it gives you more pleasure when you get a result.
“That’s what you have got to do when you’re playing against good teams, tackle them, put in great tackles. I love him for that.
“The lads are prepared to work hard. I’ve full admiration for the lads who do it but if they don’t, they don’t play.
“Judgey should have played against Gibraltar, after the way he played in Denmark.
“He was unlucky. They are all competitive. I can’t stress how much I appreciate that.
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