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'In any other walk of life, 30-35 is seen as a young man. In football terms you’re a pensioner'

Ten years on from his move across the water, Ireland winger James McClean speaks to David Sneyd about life and what he has learned from Shane Duffy.

James McClean has earned 85 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
James McClean has earned 85 caps for the Republic of Ireland.
Image: PA

THAT WAS A quick ten years.

Blink and you’d miss it.

Well, maybe not the poppy talk.

When James McClean mentions the decade milestone, a quick scan of the archives illustrates just how different a time it was.

For example, Steve Bruce was the struggling manager of Sunderland who signed the 22-year-old for £350,000 from Derry City in the summer of 2011.

Now Bruce is the struggling manager of North East rivals Newcastle United.

See, a different time.

Bruce was dismissed before McClean made his debut off the bench against Blackburn Rovers on 11 December 2011.

Martin O’Neill took the reins for his first match that afternoon and it was the introduction of McClean with a quarter of the game to go that proved to be the catalyst for a comeback – two goals coming in the final six minutes to win 2-1.

McClean had impressed for the reserves against Manchester United a couple of nights earlier and O’Neill, his fellow Derryman, didn’t waste any time introducing him to the first-team fold.

“James wants to go out and please,” he told the Daily Telegraph after the starring cameo. “He is young, a bit immature, but he was great and the crowd took to it.”

soccer-barclays-premier-league-sunderland-v-manchester-city-stadium-of-light Making his first start for Sunderland. Source: PA

O’Neill and McClean would work together again with the Republic of Ireland, of course, while another O’Neill, Michael, was also on the back pages here as he prepared to leave Shamrock Rovers for the Northern Ireland job following their historic 2011 Europa League group stages campaign.

One of his first acts was to fail to convince McClean to represent the North, however, and that determination to play for the Republic proved fatal for his Stoke City career under O’Neill just this summer.

At my age now, all I want to do it play as much as can and enjoy the game,” McClean tells The42.

“That is what it is all about for me, that is the main thing and long may it continue that I am able to just enjoy playing football.”

Rewind again, to the start of his journey in British football.

In the days after his first senior goal for Sunderland – ironically against current club Wigan Athletic – the emergence of two other players warranted features in the pages of Irish newspapers: Neymar da Silva Santos Jr and Conor Sammon.

The former was the 19-year-old Brazilian prodigy who was still plying his trade with Santos and had not yet ventured to Europe. “I think Neymar is better than Messi, more complete,” Pele beamed.

The latter was Wigan’s new striker, a 25-year-old former bank teller who progressed through UCD’s system, leaving Derry City for Kilmarnock in July 2008 at the same time McClean arrived at the Brandywell.

Sammon was an emerging force under impressive young coach Roberto Martinez and preparing to stake a claim in the Ireland squad for Euro 2012.

The rest, of course, is history.

james-mcclean McClean (centre) training with Ireland in 2012 and Giovanni Trapattoni (left) watching on. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

McClean was the one who captured the imagination of Giovanni Trapattoni, the Italian even making the rare decision to attend a Premier League game while in charge of Ireland to watch McClean face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

“In a normal lifetime, we’re fine at this age, it’s still young, but in football terms you’re an old man,” McClean explains. “Fortunately, I don’t feel like one but I’m classified as an old man in football. That’s the business we’re in.

You don’t want moments to pass you by. Football is mad. In any other walk of life, from 30-35 you are still seen as a young man. In football terms you’re a pensioner, over the hill, playing for one year contracts at a time. That’s just the way it is and how the dice rolls. That’s how you’re perceived. You’ve just got to roll with and be the best you can.

“For me, I’ve been quite fortunate,” he continues. “I’ve had a good career and I’m not worrying financially about this and that. I can just go and play football and play for the enjoyment, for the love of it. Throughout you career you lose sight of that because you play for contracts and your financial future.

“There are a lot more pressures and you do feel it. I’m at an age where it’s now not the case, I’m playing football because I love it and want to enjoy it for as long as I can. When it’s gone it will be gone forever.

“Fortunately, I can be in this position where it’s about playing for enjoyment.”

Shane Duffy has helped bring about a new perspective, both in the way McClean has watched how he has carried himself while emerging as a leader for club and country, and also with how he has dealt with adversity over the last 18 months.

McClean, now 32, may be the oldest player to travel with the Ireland squad for the weekend’s World Cup qualifier away to Azerbaijan in Baku, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t look up to Duffy.

Most do, after all.

james-mcclean-and-shane-duffy Someone to look up to: McClean and Duffy. Source: Nikola Krstic/INPHO

“Honestly, I wish I had Shane’s temperament; nothing seems to bother him. He’s so laid back, he’s so calm. When he goes on the pitch, he is all heart and soul. He puts his body and his head on the line. He’s a massive player for us and person for Ireland. He is a massive personality around the squad.

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“Nothing seems to faze him, which is a great trait to have. Some players get caught up in emotion and over analyse, I was guilty of that a lot. It’s only in the last year or last year and a half that I’ve learned lessons, to be more content. What happens, happens. You can’t change it.

“Before, I used to get caught up in emotion and I used to look at Shane and how calm he was and think ‘I wish that was me’. It’s only over the last year where I’ve been feeling like that. I looked at Shane and would envy him because it’s a great trait to have, especially in this industry.

“Shane is back to the player we all know he is after coming through the other side of such a difficult period,” McClean adds. “It’s absolutely incredible to see and I have so much admiration for him because he’s an inspiration.

“Shane’s Da, he was probably the biggest influence for him so to have that void in your life and bounce back speaks volumes for the man he is. The last 18 months to two years have been so hard for everyone with Covid, it’s a whole other world.

So to lose your Da, that’s something I hope I don’t have to experience for a very long time. Your Da is your Da and he is your first hero.

“Brian was a great man and so passionate about Shane and football and what he achieved. His dream move to Celtic didn’t work out but he is showing people now what he is all about.

“He didn’t have to prove anything to anybody, though. The career Shane has had, people know his quality.”

shane-duffy-applauds-the-fans-after-the-game Shane Duffy has rediscovered his form this season after a difficult period. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

McClean, too, is determined to keep showing his on qualities on the pitch for as long as possible.

A World Cup next year is out of reach and, while he started with his coaching badges during the first Covid-19 lockdown last year, those plans have been put on the backburner for the time being.

“It was all done over the computer at home, and I prefer the more hands-on side of it, and there are too many distractions at home with the wee uns running around,” he laughs.

“It wasn’t practical. When things get back to normal it will be something I’ll look at it. I don’t know, I might never want to be a coach but it’s always good to have the option.

The best managers and best coaches figure out which player needs what. A lot of managers get it wrong and go with one approach to all. Everybody is different. You’ve got to judge who needs what.

“Who needs that kick up the arse to get going and who doesn’t, because some players can go the other way and crumble.”

Ten years on, McClean is still standing tall.

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About the author:

David Sneyd

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