'Premier League top four missed the boat on James McCarthy'

The Everton and Ireland midfielder signed a new contract this afternoon.

Everton's James McCarthy signed a new contract today.
Everton's James McCarthy signed a new contract today.
Image: Peter Byrne

Updated at 19.38

EX-IRELAND INTERNATIONAL Kenny Cunningham has backed Aston Villa’s Ciaran Clark to shine this season, while the he also believes that the Premier League’s big four “missed the boat” on James McCarthy.

The pundit was an accomplished defender during his time as a player, earning 72 caps for Ireland in the process.

And Cunningham feels Aston Villa player Clark has yet to fulfil his potential at international level.

“I’d be disappointed and I am disappointed that he isn’t already [a key Ireland player] at 25 years of age.

“I saw him a number of years ago [for the first time] and have been a big fan of his.

“He’s not the most physically imposing, but he’s tenacious, and you can see he enjoys his defending. He’s left-footed and comfortable with the ball at his feet.”

And while acknowledging the player’s talent, Cunningham feels there is still much room for improvement in Clark’s game.

“As a young defender, there are certain aspects you can only learn through experience — in particular, decision-making. When you have the kind of tenacious streak he has, it can be difficult taking a step back away from the ball rather than towards the ball.

“He has been found out a little bit — as defenders all are at that stage — in terms of being too close to a striker and maybe getting done by a bit of clever movement.

“It’s been a learning process for him, but this is a big season for him at club and international level. And I’ll be disappointed if he’s not pushing strongly for the starting XI come the end of this season.”

The Setanta analyst also feels the presence of Clark in the Irish team would give manager Martin O’Neill greater scope to experiment.

“If he was to come into the team at centre-half, it frees up a couple of options. Marc Wilson, in particular, is a player we can utilise in a number of areas. Some people talk about maybe having a problem at left-back — that’s resolved if Marc plays there. As a holding midfielder, he’s very comfortable. That’s somewhere else where we can use him. Wilson has forged a decent partnership with John O’Shea, but he’s a player whose versatility we could utilise.

“And we can only do that if Martin has the confidence to put in another centre-half. Ciaran has all the attributes — he just has to put it together now and get a good run of games. I like him as a player and I think without a doubt, he’s good enough.”

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kenny Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

(Kenny Cunningham, pictured with his fellow Setanta pundits)

Cunningham also played down the significance of the number of Irish players currently plying their trade in the Championship.

“Ideally, you want your players playing at the highest possible level. I wouldn’t overstate it, though, so long as you’re playing regularly at a competitive level… I played as a Championship player in the Ireland team and others did as well, so I don’t think that’s huge. I don’t think it’s the case that if we have a load of Premier League players, suddenly we have a chance. It’s too crude an equation to use.”

Another Irish player that will attract particular interest this year is Robbie Brady, after his big-money move to Norwich in the summer.

And Cunningham feels the player is best suited as far forward as possible, rather than the left-back slot he has occupied for Ireland of late.

“Robbie Brady is one for the future. It’s about getting the best out of him. And how do you get the best out of him? Is it as an orthodox left-back? Is it in a wing-back position that we’ve seen him play for Hull?

“Does that mean we have to change the shape of the team to accommodate him and maybe Seamus Coleman? They play so strongly in those positions that there’s an argument for it going forward.

“Robbie is an interesting player — I like to see him as high up the pitch as possible… In that left-back position, you have to make up 30 or 40 yards up the pitch, before you put a top-quality ball in. He’s so versatile that you could probably use him centrally as well. There’s quite a bit of excitement around him and rightly so.”

And as for James McCarthy, whose new contract with Everton has just been announced?

“I think James is good enough to play for one of the top four clubs and I think they missed the boat when Everton snapped him up a couple of years ago.

“But I don’t think it’s a problem for him playing at Everton with a manager like Martinez. He’s playing in a good environment at a good level.

“He’s learning the game. You need a coach to sit you down, sit you in front of the TV and say this is what you have to do better, this is what you’ve got to improve. You need those type of people around you.”

Presenter Conor Morris and pundits Kenny Cunningham, John Hartson and Matt Holland were at the Setanta Sports studios in Dublin today to mark the return of Premier League Central for the 2015/2016 Premier League season.  Premier League Central, the first place to see Premier League highlights, is back on the air this Saturday, August 8th at 8.30pm.

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