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O'Neill on McClean: He’s a lunatic, but a great lunatic

The Irish manager says the star’s obsessive work rate can sometimes be to the detriment of his wellbeing.

Match-winner James McClean celebrates the win over Austria.
Match-winner James McClean celebrates the win over Austria.
Image: John Walton

AS THE END of the year approaches, Ireland’s football writers face the tricky decision of choosing the national side’s player of 2016.

Should it be Robbie Brady or Jeff Hendrick, who both came of age at the Euros with some distinguished displays? Or perhaps Seamus Coleman, who has captained the side with aplomb both during and since the famous 1-0 win over Italy?

One other player who is bound to be in the conversation is the man who Martin O’Neill jokingly describes as a “great lunatic,” James McClean. The West Brom winger made a big impact in games against Italy and France, and has been arguably Ireland’s most important player in their World Cup qualifying campaign thus far.

The Derry native has managed three goals in his last two appearances, including a brilliant match-winner in last weekend’s clash with Austria, while epitomising the best attributes of the Irish display with a relentless work ethic to match his headline-grabbing heroics.

The first goal that he scored in Moldova was really great, I know Jon Walters has laid it off to him but he still has to manoeuvre it and stick it in the corner. That was a big goal for us,” O’Neill said, speaking at the launch of the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium.

“You were getting into the last 20 minutes of the match (against Moldova) and we were still level in a game that we should probably be winning but you’re not. But he scores and then he gets in at the post for the other one. And then he takes this goal (against Austria) brilliantly… Whatever you say, it might have gone through the goalkeeper’s legs but he has driven it so hard that it hasn’t given the goalkeeper time to adjust. It was not easy.

There’s a funny thing about it: sometimes when James is in a position he’ll maybe drive something wildly but do you know that moment, just that moment, I think James is going to hit the net here.”

After the Austria match, McClean admitted that it is only now — at 27 — that he is truly establishing himself as a vital member of the squad.

O’Neill also qualified his praise with a word of warning, recalling how less than two years ago in a home Euro 2016 qualifier against Poland, McClean looked in danger of getting sent off as the fired-up Derry native was introduced as a second-half substitute, taking little time to launch into an extremely aggressive tackle.

Look, a cautionary note about McClean,” O’Neill said. “Remember that great time when he was stepping onto the pitch against, was it Poland? And even Roy (Keane) had said to him — Roy, of all people — be careful. And he said: ‘I am, I am, I will be, I will be, I will be.’ And then the Polish boy’s legs were over the stand.”

In addition, perhaps one of the reasons why McClean has taken a while to really establish himself on the international scene is the fact that he came into top-level football later than most.

In an interview with Off the Ball during the week, the former Sunderland winger said: “My education was street football. I didn’t join Derry City until I was 17. I didn’t have the coaching, the set-up and the platform that players in England have from an early age. I wouldn’t change my football education and what I learned when I went across for anything.”

andrews Martin O'Neill and Keith Andrews pictured at the launch of the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium Source: Seb Daly/SPORTSFILE

Yet despite his recent excellence, O’Neill says McClean’s desire to keep improving remains insatiable, while indicating that the star’s reluctance to take a break when the opportunity arises is not necessarily a good thing,

There’s nothing wrong with being a late developer. You can talk about other players who have made the grade; maybe Chris Waddle or others who didn’t get into professional football for a while.

“I’ll just give you an example — he was suspended for West Bromwich Albion’s game. I was sort of pleased that he was suspended for the game; selfishly. I was thinking, he’ll be fine. That’s great, he’ll have a week off.

But James never takes a week off, he wants to do something else, sometimes to the detriment of himself. So he’s in there doing some weights and then he goes out to train. Then, the medical team come in on Monday and tell me that James is not in great shape. Well there’s one person that you know, James is one of the group that would think, I’m going to do something about this.

“Anyway, we got it looked at, injected… In a couple of days, if James had not travelled until Friday night it would not have been a problem to me; if James declares himself fit and says I’m ready to go but within 48 hours he’s great. He’s ready to go.

But you are asking me can he do these things and the answer is yes, the reason he can is because he is naturally fit, he is so lean at the moment, he is in great physical condition and it is hard to imagine that because he drinks these fizzy drinks and you think he is going to explode one of these days. But he’s a gem of a lad, really great. I said in there, he’s a lunatic but a great lunatic.”

Yet despite McClean’s fiery image, O’Neill says the player that he first encountered as a young unknown during their days together at Sunderland has calmed down quite considerably of late.

The social media controversies and hard-hitting comments that the Irish star gained a reputation for early in his career are less frequent nowadays.

One exception, however, was his recent riposte to Derry City boss Kenny Shiels. The manager had labelled Ireland as “England’s reserves” among other controversial remarks about international football. And in this instance, O’Neill suggests McClean was right to rubbish the comments.

I take all the jokes aside, (James has) definitely matured. He’s matured both on and off the field.

“He’s taken himself off a few of those things (on social media). I said to him, before the Austria game, he was no longer on Facebook or Twitter.

But it doesn’t stop him having the occasional argument with the Derry City manager, which I am in total agreement with him on that.

“But overall, it’s great. And do you know what? He feels as if he is a big player for us now, which is very, very important.”

Austria v Republic of Ireland - 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D - Ernst-Happel-Stadion O'Neill has hailed Seamus Coleman's leadership qualities. Source: John Walton

O’Neill also reserved high praise for Seamus Coleman, who has captained the Irish team since he was handed the armband ahead of the 1-0 win over Italy at Euro 2016.

He’s risen to the occasion in terms of the captaincy and taken it on like you would not believe. If he walked through the door now, you’d hardly get a word out of him, but on the field, he’s just brilliant.”

And given Coleman’s shy nature, did the on-field leadership qualities have to be drawn out of him to an extent by the coaching staff?

I think that those things are naturally in people. Not in everyone. But I don’t think it needed to be drawn out of Seamus. I think he was spurred on by it all and I think he’s taken it to a great level.

“If I can mention just the captains that I’ve had at international level: Robbie (Keane), a different personality to John O’Shea who would step in and be the captain in Robbie’s absence. Other people too — Jon Walters was captain once or twice — but I’m talking about the mainstay of people. And Seamus is a totally different character to those two, but gives us something on the field that is really exceptional.”

Republic of Ireland Manager Martin O’Neill and former Republic of Ireland International Keith Andrews were on hand today to launch the SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme in Aviva Stadium. The five-a-side school blitzes are open to boys and girls from 4th, 5th and 6th class. Registration will close on February 17th. For further information or to register your school please see www.spar.ie or www.faischools.ie.

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Paul Fennessy

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