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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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Martin O'Neill backs 'mature' McClean to lead from the front in New York

The West Brom winger has been handed the armband for the game with Mexico.

A view of Ireland training in the MetLife Stadium Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Joe Callaghan reports from New Jersey

MARTIN O’NEILL STOOD pitchside, behind him his Ireland squad finding their footing on the recently installed surface at MetLife Stadium.

The national team manager is known to keep decisions from his players until the last minute. With most of them safely out of earshot on Wednesday night, he confirmed the most significant piece of team news to the media pack before he’d even told the subject himself.

“James McClean will start and he will be captain of the team,” said O’Neill as Ireland got a feel for the surrounds in which they will take on Mexico tonight.

While he had hinted at handing the armband to the Derry winger for this friendly tune-up ahead of next week’s World Cup qualifier with Austria, this was the first time O’Neill had confirmed it. How had McClean reacted to the news that he would lead out the team on the occasion of his 50th cap?

“The truth is that I haven’t confirmed it to him, I have confirmed it to you,” smirked O’Neill. “I expect his reaction to be absolutely delighted. He wanted to come on the trip and he wanted to get a cap. Every opportunity he wants to take because that’s what he wants to do. I haven’t officially or unofficially told him so he’s going to find out through you…unless you give me a couple of minutes.”

O’Neill was of course given freedom to inform the West Bromwich Albion man he would become an international skipper for the first time at 28. Ireland’s player of the qualifying campaign so far, McClean has grown in confidence and maturity in recent times. It had been overdue but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very welcome.

“I think in his personal life, that has settled down and it’s at least three months since he’s had another tattoo so it’s really, really good,” jibed his manager. “He’s in fine form. And he knows how important [maturing] has been.”

The ink that interests McClean most these days is that which comes from O’Neill’s pen. The winger wants to be the first name on the teamsheet every time.

Martin O'Neill Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Tonight in New Jersey he will most certainly be that. O’Neill kept some decisions under wraps but confirmed Cyrus Christie and Shane Duffy will both start in a new-look 3-5-2 system against the 16th ranked side in the world in front of a crowd that’s expected to top 40,000.

Other experimentation is guaranteed given the players at O’Neill and assistant Roy Keane’s disposal here. Daryl Murphy and David McGoldrick will likely look to rekindle Ipswich memories in attack while first caps could come the way of both Kevin Long and Alan Browne.

Roy Keane Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Neill has plenty on his plate but nothing in comparison to his counterpart Juan Carlos Osorio with Mexico in World Cup qualification, Confederation Cup and CONCACAF Gold Cup action over the next eight weeks.

“They have got tournaments coming up now, and I know that they played Croatia there just recently, but I think that was an experimental side, and I believe they are quite strong here or they have brought a lot of players here,” he said of a line-up which could feature Javier Hernandez, fresh from becoming El Tri’s record goalscorer last weekend, and indomitable skipper Rafael Marquez, back from a neck injury to win cap 139 at the age of 38.

“Maybe it’s our time for the experimental side, which is not good news. But that’s the way it is. I’ve said to most of the lads to use every opportunity, every minute that they have on the field of play to try to do something.”

Was James McClean right to make his controversial comments?

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Joe Callaghan

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