THE Derry man has clearly turned things around at Sunderland. In relegation trouble during the dying embers of the Steve Bruce era, they have since steadily moved into mid-table, their self-esteem and points total improving week-by-week.
And while it would be an exaggeration to pin the upturn on one man and one man only, the reality is that since his arrival, Manchester City have been scalped, Blackburn, Peterborough and Wigan seen off and memories of just two victories from Bruce’s 14 league and cup games have faded away.
So yes, James McClean does deserve credit for Sunderland’s rebirth … as does the club’s other Foyleside-son, Martin O’Neill. Yet while O’Neill’s story is the one everyone knows, McClean’s has still to be told.
At 23, the image of this ashen-faced, 5’11”, 11-stone rookie, conjured up different things to different people. Some – the scouts from West Ham, Tottenham, Everton and amusingly from a Sunderland perspective, Newcastle, saw a raw winger with an imperfect touch who ran all over the place.
But others, Peterborough’s Barry Fry and Wigan’s Kevin Reeves, reckoned they had stumbled upon a still-developing athletic prodigy, surrounded by not too much talent in the League of Ireland who was ready to take the big leap across the water. Fry went so far as to agree a fee with the Derry City board before McClean turned him down, believing a better deal was on the way. And while Reeves, who watched him four times, urged his board to take a punt, they backed away, deliberating over their options before buying an unheralded Frenchman, Nouho Dicko, instead.
Sunderland, meanwhile, sent their chief scout, Bryan Pop Robson, to the Lansdowne Road at the end of July to watch McClean play for an Airtricity League XI against Manchester City in one of those games where the result didn’t matter but the performance did – especially to McClean who knew his career was on the line.
Yet guess what happened? The wannabe had a stinker. None of his tricks came off. The service to him was appalling. Manchester City – one of the best teams in the world – dominated not just the game but him.
But, 65 minutes into that match, Robson turned to the man sitting beside him and whispered: “I’ve seen enough. We’ll sign him.”
The man – McClean’s agent – was astounded. “But he’s been ……”
“Trying endlessly,” interrupted Robson. “He’s won more than his fair share of headers. He’s showed a few things. The rest we can coach.”
Two weeks later, the coaching began in earnest. Niall Quinn, then Sunderland’s chairman, backed Robson’s judgement and invested £350,000 of the club’s money. Bruce barely had a say in the signing.
And this would show during the opening months of this Premier League season. Under pressure from the word go, Bruce couldn’t buy a piece of luck and even though his officer class, John O’Shea, Lee Cattermole and Wes Brown, went to the manager’s office and pleaded with him to start McClean, Bruce didn’t have the nerve.
Too much was at stake, his job for a start, and even though he liked McClean enough to resist offers from Sheffield Wednesday and Millwall to take him on loan, he stayed conservative with his team selections until, in the end, those players he invested so much faith in had lost their trust in him.
Enter O’Neill. “I didn’t know anything about him,” said the Ulsterman, “so I went to see him at Eppleton for a reserve game against Manchester United and all of a sudden there was this hungry kid, bursting a gut on a night when there were 70mph winds ruining the game.
“He was just so game. The first time he got the ball, he went at his man and beat him. I thought, you know, this guy could give us a spark.
“So I put him on against Manchester City and what does he do? He takes on his man again. What would have happened if the full-back had put the block on him? Would he have lost his confidence? I don’t think he would have done. He is just one of those lads who likes to get at them. And the best thing is I think he can improve. I don’t have him in the team at the minute because he is from the same part of the world as me. If that was the case I would have my brother in, who is two years younger than me and still wants to play. James is in the team because he has been brilliant. His fitness levels are incredible.”
Ordinarily – when a player steps up two or three levels – fitness is the one thing they lack. Not McClean. “What really set him apart,” said the man who gave him his break at Derry City, Stephen Kenny, “was his tremendous capacity for hard work. He made himself a better player because he just had this huge commitment to improve his game on the training ground, as well as work hard in the gym.
“Last year he even brought in his own personal trainer, which I had certainly never seen before in a boy of his age, but we noticed the benefits almost immediately. He was a joy to work with because he just wanted to work, train and play hard. He was one of those players who had no qualms about getting out on the training ground and practising on his own after normal training sessions and doing extra work, or going down the gym on his own.”
It wasn’t just the gym he went to. One day, when Derry’s reserves were travelling to Drogheda, McClean arrived just as the bus was pulling out of the car park and got on board because he wanted to watch a game.
All along, though, he thought he’d missed the bus – both with club and country. Uncapped for years at underage level, he eventually got a chance with Northern Ireland, essentially because he didn’t think the Republic would want him. Now they do and have written to FIFA to set in motion the process of change.
“James has his mind made up and won’t go back to the North whether it’s a Catholic like Michael O’Neill, a Protestant, a Jew or a Muslim in charge,” said a friend of McClean’s. “He is his own man. He’s prepared to take tough decisions.”
Ask Chris Sutton and Fry about that. Both men thought they had the man signed. In fact, Sutton – then manager of Lincoln City – DID sign him but by the time McClean returned home, he had changed his mind and managed to rip up his contract and sign a new one with Derry City instead.
That was 18 months ago, a time when no one knew nor rated him. Even a season at the comparatively poor standard of the League of Ireland First Division failed to impress anyone. Back then all the chat was about Patrick McEleney, another of the Derry alumni.
But all the while the strengthening that came with McClean’s work on his upper body led to a dramatically improved performance in his rookie League of Ireland Premier Division season. Determined, skilful and focussed on beating his man, he carried Derry through the opening half of the year, putting them into a title winning position.
Then Sunderland called and Derry’s slide began. They’ve regretted losing him ever since. His new employers are only now realising how lucky they are.