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Don't look to McClean for miracles this summer, warns Whelan

Republic of Ireland midfielder on the pressure of expectation, his own near miss at the Euros, and Ireland’s prospects in Poland next month.

Glenn Whelan sporting the new adidas Predator® Lethal Zones football boot at Carton House, Maynooth yesterday.
Glenn Whelan sporting the new adidas Predator® Lethal Zones football boot at Carton House, Maynooth yesterday.
Image: Sportsfile

GLENN WHELAN HAS warned Ireland’s players and fans not to expect James McClean to be the country’s messiah at Euro 2012.

The Derry native was mentioned in the same breath as Italian legends Toto Schillaci, Paolo Rossi and Alessandro del Piero by manager Giovanni Trapattoni and his assistant Marco Tardelli at Monday’s announcement of the 23-man squad for Poland.

Although McClean has only played 11 minutes at senior international level, coming on as a late substitute to rapturous applause against the Czech Republic in February, the 23-year-old was a popular pick among Irish fans after earning his stripes in the Premier League with Sunderland this season.

The addition of a raw young talent in fine form will be a huge boost for Ireland as they attempt to navigate a way past Croatia, Spain and Italy in Group C next month, Whelan feels.

But the Stoke City and Ireland midfield general has asked players, fans and media not to cripple McClean with too much responsibility and expectation.

“Everything’s gone right for him at the right time but he’s only a young lad,” the Stoke and Ireland midfielder said yesterday. “He’s only just got into the Sunderland team so I don’t think anybody, especially us as players and people in the press, should be putting pressure on him.”

Name-dropping the great footballing talents of yesteryear may prove to be prescient in time, but Whelan insists that there’s little to gain by bigging up McClean’s prospects at this early stage.

James has played 10, 15 minutes of international football and he’s compared to Pele. I think that’s a little bit much for the player’s sake himself.

He wants to go out and prove himself and do as well as he can. He doesn’t need the pressure of being compared to this player and that player, because if it doesn’t work for him, the shoe’s on the other foot and people want to forget about him or look to someone else.

Despite his inexperience at senior level, Whelan has seen enough in McClean this season to know that he can contribute to Ireland’s Euro campaign and challenged the youngster to kick on and break into the first team now that he has got Trapattoni’s attention.

The big thing for us and for James was getting into the squad. He’s in the squad, so now what does he want to do? Does he want to just stay in the squad or does he want to try and get into the team? That’s what he has to look at.

Get into the team first and then do well and then hopefully keep the players out of their spot. We need people who are on form and he’s obviously one of them.

Future plans

Another talented Northerner whom many hoped to see in Trap’s 23-man squad — or on the reserve list at least — is Wilson’s team-mate at Stoke, Marc Wilson.

The Antrim lad has impressed at left-full for the Potters under Tony Pulis this season and there was a strong sense that he might sneak into contention as a deputy for Stephen Ward.

But relations between Wilson and Trapattoni have been slightly askew since crossed lines of communication saw the 24-year-old miss a Carling Nations Cup match last year, and there was no place for him even among the five men on standby in case of injury.

While Wilson won’t be going to Poland, the manager has assured him that he will be part of future plans, Whelan says.

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“I spoke to Marc. He said that he had spoken to the manager and that he’s not out of his plans. He’s probably just a little bit unlucky because of the people who are there. I think Marc was just delighted to get the phone call because he knew people were still watching him.

He always wanted to play and he always made himself available. He wasn’t picked at times but what can you do? You can’t twist the manager’s arm to say you should pick me. What Marc had to do was keep doing what he’s been doing, play well for Stoke, and people are going to notice.

Near miss

Whelan himself knows the pain of missing out on a squad for a major tournament. At 18, he took “a phone call that I didn’t want to get” from Ireland manager Brian Kerr who informed him that he wouldn’t be travelling to the 2002 European U19 Championships in Norway.

Kerr has since described the call to the Manchester City youth as one of the most difficult he ever had to make; Whelan still remembers it clearly.

You’re gutted. I played in the play-off games against Holland where we qualified and obviously you’re thinking, ‘I’ve played well there, I might have a chance.’

Brian said that I wasn’t going because there were other players who had been with him not just for those two games but right through the ages. I was the youngster, I was actually from the year below age group.

It was hard to take and I’m sure it took me a couple of days to get over it. It’s a learning thing and it’s something that I learned from.

That experience has made Whelan appreciate what Liam Lawrence, a former team-mate at the Brittania, and others who have missed the cut for Poland are going through. He has called a few of Ireland’s unlucky men since Monday’s announcement just to check in with them.

Missing out on Ireland’s fourth-place finish in Norway in 2002 also helped forge a steely determination to prove his doubters wrong, a quality which Whelan freely admits has now become part and parcel of his personality. With that character, he has repaid Trapattoni for the faith shown in taking him to the first training camp of his Irish tenure in Portugal in 2008.

“I’m obviously grateful for the manager because he saw something in me and stuck by me over the last few years. I’d like to think that with the hard work and commitment that I’ve put in since, I’m repaying him for the faith that he had in me.

I’ve always had to do it because I’m not a player who’s going to do tricks and beat players or score 20 goals a season. That’s not me. I know what I’m good at and I keep trying to improve that. If it’s proving managers wrong, other players wrong or the press wrong, I’m going to work as hard as I can to change these people’s minds.

Fired up

Changing people’s minds will remain high on his agenda next month, when Ireland step into the breach as the clear underdogs of Group C.

Up against three quality opponents, Ireland can’t be naive and attempt to outshine their foes with waves of florid, attacking football but they won’t give up without a fight either. Qualifying for a first major tournament since 2002 was only the first step, Whelan notes; the real achievements only come when they get going in Poznan on 10 June.

“You can’t go out attack, attack and then before you know it you’re one-, two-nil down. That’d be childish of us because we haven’t got this far to throw it away in the first game.

The last thing you want to do is get beaten heavily by Croatia and then the confidence is gone, the fans are a little bit worried about what’s going to happen against Spain and Italy.

For us as players, we’ve achieved nothing yet. We’ve qualified and obviously that’s great, but qualifying and then being a disappointment out there is not what we want.

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