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Was James McClean right to make his controversial comments?

Plus, former League duo set for momentous day and other Ireland-Mexico talking points.

James McClean.
James McClean.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

1. Does James McClean have a point?

JAMES MCCLEAN IS never shy to express a strong opinion and it’s often to his immense credit.

In the past, the winger has written eloquently about his reasons for choosing not to wear a poppy, while he also hit back at criticism of the Irish team’s style of play following wins last year over Georgia and Moldova.

Arguably not since Roy Keane has an Irish international been so plainspoken — a point backed up by the West Brom star’s latest comments.

McClean gave one of the more interesting pre-match interviews ahead of tonight’s Ireland-Mexico clash in New Jersey.

“It gets on my nerves when players come in and they’re not fit for games but they are for the club games at the weekend. That gets to me,” he told reporters.

It is often said that McClean, with his obvious passion on the field and clear love for the jersey, is the closest thing to a supporter in a green jersey, and these latest remarks are unlikely to harm his status as a fan favourite.

Yet it seems legitimate to wonder whether what he said will be equally well received in the dressing room.

Ireland’s last qualifier against Wales was notable for the amount of players who withdrew from the squad.

Shane Duffy, Wes Hoolahan, Ciaran Clark, Harry Arter, Paul McShane, Rob Elliot, Liam Kelly, James McCarthy, Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick all missed the game through injury.

Of the individuals in question, Arter, Kelly and McGoldrick played for their club sides the following weekend, though the latter two were highly unlikely to figure in the Wales game anyway, while the Bournemouth star only came on for his team as a substitute for their subsequent Premier League match.

There is, of course, nothing to suggest McClean was referring to these players in particular — he may well have been discussing a more general trend in recent years, and indeed, it is more of a worldwide problem rather than an exclusively Irish one. Victor Moses was left out of Nigeria’s latest squad amid doubts over his commitment to the team, while Man United have refused to release Matteo Darmian for international duty ahead of their games with San Marino, Uruguay and Liechtenstein.

McClean has certainly led by example in terms of commitment to the cause — last November, he scored the winner against Austria despite playing with a torn back muscle.

And judging by his latest remarks, the 28-year-old Derry native expects others to follow suit and do everything possible to be in contention to play for Ireland’s big games.

But whether it is wise to sacrifice yourself in this manner and play in crucial matches despite not being 100% is certainly questionable in many cases.

The debate is brought up and elaborated upon in an interesting fashion within the pages of Roy Keane’s autobiography, The Second Half.

Keane recalls his frustration at Ruud van Nistelrooy ruling himself out of a 2004 FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal.

“I was, like, it’s the Cup semi-final for fuck’s sake.

“He said: ‘Well I’ve only got one body, I’ve got to look after it.”

The individuals that McClean was criticising could come back with a similar quip and his assistant boss might agree with them.

“I was thinking he was the fool, but I think now that I probably was,” Keane later said of the Van Nistelrooy debate. “I played, and my hamstring was fucking killing me. I think I actually had a torn hamstring. Ruud ended up playing in Spain till he was 39, and he still looks 21. And I thought he was the idiot.”

Keane subsequently added: “What we see as heroic, I think now is probably weakness.”

The situations are different, of course, and the players to whom McClean is referring probably don’t have the serious injuries that were affecting Keane, but the basic point still stands — while pulling out of an Ireland squad may be detrimental to a player in the short-term and will do little to endear him to fans, the counter-argument is that it can be of major benefit when it comes to the bigger picture — both for the club and even the Boys in Green potentially.

Every situation is different, of course, and perhaps McClean was correct in suspecting the Ireland players in question could have done more to feature in past games without any serious ill-effects long or short-term, but the other side of the argument is, at the very least, worth bearing in mind before people start jumping to premature conclusions about what is far from a black-and-white issue.

2. Alan Browne and Kevin Long set for momentous day

Kevin Long Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland have taken 19 players to the US and it is expected that most, if not all, will feature tonight at some point.

Therefore, it seems likely that Preston’s Alan Browne and Burnley’s Kevin Long will make their international debuts either from the start or off the bench.

It has been well documented that the League of Ireland is where many of the Irish team’s star players, including Shane Long, Wes Hoolahan and Seamus Coleman, started their careers.

Provided they play, Browne and (Kevin) Long will be the latest players to graduate to the international team, having originally plied their tried in the domestic game in Ireland, with both individuals starting out at Cork City.

For Long, it must be particularly gratifying to be in this situation. The 26-year-old defender has had a torrid time with injuries in recent years.

Since Burnley beat off competition from Everton and Celtic for his signature with the transfer announced in November 2009, he has made just 25 league appearances for the Clarets owing to persistent fitness issues

Before this season, Long’s sole Premier League appearance came on 1 January 2015 as a substitute against Newcastle with the defender subsequently taken off with a cruciate knee injury that would rule him out for a considerable period.

Yet Sean Dyche kept faith in Long, who showed admirable persistence through this tough period, eventually making his full Premier League debut earlier this month against West Brom and starting two games since then, impressing Roy Keane in the process.

With Michael Keane set to depart the club this summer, Long could well get more game time next season at Burnley, and making his international debut with only boost his growing confidence.

Browne, similarly, has had to put in plenty of hard work to get to this point. The 22-year-old midfielder has made more over 60 appearances in the past two seasons for Preston in the Championship, attracting Premier League interest in the process.

The Cork native has also had admirers within the Ireland set-up for a number of years.

“I said to myself ‘this fella is going to go places,’” former U19s coach Paul Doolin told The42 in a recent interview, recalling an early encounter with a younger incarnation of the soon-to-be senior international.

3. Ireland’s stars to receive much-needed match practice

Wes Hoolahan Wes Hoolahan has not played competitively since the beginning of May. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Martin O’Neill has always insisted that he wants to win every game he manages in, but if ever there was a match where the outcome was of secondary importance to other factors, Thursday evening’s clash between Ireland and Mexico is it.

The primary purpose of the game appears to be making rusty players match sharp again.

Nearly all the individuals who travelled are Championship-based, with the likes of Norwich’s Wes Hoolahan having not played since the league’s final day on 7 May.

That said, while the game may seem relatively unimportant compared with future fixtures, of the players travelling, a number have a decent chance of starting the vital Austria World Cup qualifier on 11 June.

At least seven US-based players — Darren Randolph, Cyrus Christie, Richard Keogh, Shane Duffy, Wes Hoolahan, James McClean and Daryl Murphy — can realistically hope to start the upcoming crucial World Cup qualifier against Austria.

Ireland’s last game on US soil saw a fringe side lose 5-1 to Portugal in the early days of Martin O’Neill’s reign.

And while a similar result tonight may not exactly set alarm bells ringing, a win or at least a positive performance would certainly be beneficial, if only to boost the aforementioned senior players’ confidence ahead of the main event later this month.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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