Roy Keane issued what could only be described as a battle cry on Friday, ahead of Ireland’s massive World Cup qualifier against Austria this weekend.
Speaking to the media in a press conference that quickly became a call to arms, Keane’s message to the team was clear: be prepared to make personal sacrifices for the greater good:
“You go out on the pitch and you put your body on the line, you have to be able to accept that. People have done a lot more for their country than break their legs. People have died for their country.”
Every war needs its generals, to lead the rest into the battle. Since Keane himself can’t do that on the pitch (as much as he would love to), that task must fall to someone else. On recent evidence, and given the player he has turned into, that someone will be James McClean.
The turnaround in the West Brom winger in the past nine to twelve months has been remarkable, both in terms of his own performances and in his status in the starting lineup and squad as a whole.
At 28 years old, McClean is by no means a player even coming close to the end of his career. And yet, in a squad that is becoming increasingly younger as the likes of Robbie Keane, Shay Given, Richard Dunne and John O’Shea are either gone or are on the way out, players like McClean are now being discussed as sort of the elder statesman, a player for the younger generation to look up to. 28 he may be, but McClean is still a man with 50 international caps and two tournaments under his belt.
A recent and yet probably the most pertinent, example of this was a statement given by Callum O’Dowda this week. The Bristol City man has had a relatively low-key progression in the Ireland setup over the past year, though hope is still high for the young midfielder and he knows exactly who he wants to emulate:
“He has been really good to me, just little things in training. We’re big pals as well off the pitch, so that helps.
“He’s the kind of player….his running power, for example – I want to do stuff that he does. I like to implement what he does on the pitch as well.
“It helps when I’m training with him. He’s the kind of player I want to turn out to be like.”
It’s important to remember that when Ireland took to the field to take on Sweden in their opening match of Euro 2016, McClean was consigned to the bench. It’s probably even more important to remember that people weren’t exactly put out by that, such was the widely-held opinion of him as an effective but ultimately flawed winger – a similar assessment (rightly or wrongly) of Aiden McGeady on the other wing.
McGeady would surely have been the cautionary tale to McClean about the ramifications of unfulfilled potential. Their paths were on a parallel train, while McClean could only watch as Robbie Brady almost cemented his spot on the left wing, the spot that should have been his own, by becoming an Irish legend over the course of those three weeks in France.
Twelve months later, it’s hard to fathom an Ireland lineup that doesn’t have McClean in it. He has come into his own massively over the course of this qualifying campaign, scoring goals at vital times and elevating himself to being one of the first names on Martin O’Neill’s teamsheet.
His will to win is at the heart of everything he does, regardless of the importance of the fixture. He looked genuinely distraught by the defeat to Mexico in New Jersey last week, while the storming run and clinical finish in the win against Uruguay the following weekend were far more dedicated and exertive than one would normally expect to see in an international friendly.
The need for a leader in the absence of captain Seamus Coleman is clear, and although Ireland are not short of experienced heads, someone to actually lead them is a necessity. McClean, with his drive, the respect he commands from his teammates and unwavering passion for the shirt, is the perfect candidate to take charge while the regular armband owner continues his recovery.
The potential in McClean has been evident for years. Dating back his days terrorising League of Ireland defences at Derry City almost a decade ago, the Derry native always seemed destined for great things. In a League of Ireland XI against the likes of Celtic and Manchester City in 2011, his comfort against such esteemed opposition was there for all to see, so it was no surprise when he found himself on his way to the Premier League with Sunderland later that summer.
That said, this is probably the first time that we have seen him take that crucial next step, to fulfil the potential that he had been threatening to show for years before the spectre of stagnation began to plague him. Five years after Giovanni Trapattoni bowed to the inevitable and put him in a green shirt for the first time, McClean is finally ready to lead Ireland into the war that Roy Keane has called for.
On this week’s edition of the Mixer Irish Football podcast, we spoke to former Ireland international Joe Gamble as well as looking ahead to Martin O’Neill’s side’s clash against Austria this weekend.