Next move for the pas­sion­ate Derry man is ab­so­lutely cru­cial

Ire­land star’s ca­reer has stalled at club level

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORT - By David Sneyd

BE­FORE A ball was even kicked ahead of this most frus­trat­ing Premier League sea­son for James McClean, he was reel­ing from the loss of one of his clos­est al­lies in the West Bromwich Al­bion dress­ing room. The Derry man formed a tight bond with Dar­ren Fletcher when he signed in the sum­mer of 2015 and made the per­fect first im­pres­sion at the club’s Aus­trian train­ing camp in the shad­ows of The Alps to be­gin a gru­elling pre-sea­son sched­ule at 5.30 ev­ery morn­ing.

The pair’s bond re­mains a tight one, even if the Scot­land in­ter­na­tional de­parted for Stoke City with the lure of a new two-year con­tract ahead of this cam­paign. Fletcher, who is of Achill Is­land stock, had a cousin in the same school as McClean’s younger sis­ter in Derry and it quickly be­came ap­par­ent that they also shared a com­mon love of Celtic.

It was soon a reg­u­lar sight on the West Brom team bus trav­el­ling to Premier League games to see them down the back to­gether watch­ing the Hoops on an iPad when­ever they had a tele­vised fix­ture.

McClean wasn’t afraid to open up to Fletcher about his fu­ture am­bi­tions to be­come man­ager of home­town club Derry City, ei­ther, but it was his new team­mate’s de­sire to eke out as much as pos­si­ble from his ca­reer which re­ally caught the former Manch­ester United mid­fielder’s eye.

The Scot likened McClean to Cris­tiano Ron­aldo on these pages last sea­son, cit­ing his stamina and pro­fes­sion­al­ism as second to none. And those val­ues haven’t wa­vered even dur­ing the most try­ing of cir­cum­stances over the past nine months.

Two man­agers have come and gone this sea­son – Tony Pulis be­gan the cam­paign but was sacked in Novem­ber with the club a point above the rel­e­ga­tion zone, while suc­ces­sor Alan Pardew’s reign will go down as the most dis­as­trous in the club’s his­tory as they are now an­chored to the bot­tom, 12 points adrift of safety. Pardew, too, was shown the door with the rather ig­no­min­ious record of his play­ers hav­ing stolen the same num­ber of taxis dur­ing a win­ter-train­ing trip to Barcelona as Premier League matches won un­der his watch – one!

McClean failed to win over ei­ther man­ager and as the Bag­gies visit Old Trafford to­day, they are ex­pected to have yet an­other nail driven into their Premier League cof­fin.

With just five games re­main­ing, West Brom are des­tined for the Cham­pi­onship and once they are put out of their mis­ery, rel­e­ga­tion won’t be the only re­gret McClean will have to re­flect on.

He may have been the star of Ire­land’s World Cup qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign – one which ul­ti­mately ended in ruin against Den­mark – but it is only when you con­sider how much of a pe­riph­eral fig­ure he has been for his club, that his ex­ploits for his coun­try be­come all the more im­pres­sive. Take, for ex­am­ple, the month be­tween Ire­land’s 0-0 draw away to Ge­or­gia and the Wales game in Cardiff last Oc­to­ber when McClean struck the win­ning goal with clin­i­cal pre­ci­sion. In five games for his club, the 28year-old got just 56 min­utes of ac­tion with all three ap­pear­ances com­ing off the bench.

And af­ter the high of Wales, when you would imag­ine a side shorn of con­fi­dence could do with a boost, McClean was once again shunted to the mar­gins at the Hawthorns. With that win­ner-takes-all World Cup play-off with Den­mark over the hori­zon in Novem­ber, he found him­self pick­ing splin­ters from his back­side.

Just a few days af­ter once again show­ing what he was ca­pa­ble of in an op­po­nents’ box against the Welsh, McClean had to make do with a six-minute cameo off the bench in a 1-1 draw with Le­ices­ter City.

He got nine min­utes in a de­feat to cham­pi­ons-elect Manch­ester City and just over half an hour in an­other loss at the hands of Hud­der­s­field Town.

He was then thrust into the mix for back-to-back 90 min­utes against the Danes in the space of just a few days, but the ring rust was clear and so too was the dis­ap­point­ment when he flew to Dublin the fol­low­ing week­end to col­lect the PFA Ire­land Overseas Player of the Year award at the Marker Ho­tel – iron­i­cally just hours af­ter the 4-0 de­feat to Chelsea which ended Pulis’ reign.

He made an im­pas­sioned speech back­ing man­ager Martin O’Neill, round­ing on crit­ics of the team and de­scrib­ing how Cyrus Christie was left in tears in the dress­ing room be­cause of racist abuse.

The next morn­ing, McClean took the op­por­tu­nity to go on one of the public tours of Kil­main­ham Gaol for the first time and visit the cells of the lead­ers of the 1916 Ris­ing as well as the court­yard where the wounded James Con­nolly was strapped to a chair and ex­e­cuted by fir­ing squad.

A pro­posed trans­fer to Derby County in Jan­uary then fell through af­ter a €15 mil­lion val­u­a­tion was placed on his head, but there was at least some rare joy that month when he found the net against West Ham in the Lon­don Sta­dium – one of only eight Ire­land in­ter­na­tion­als to score in the English top flight this sea­son.

But McClean just hasn’t been able to gather any sort of mo­men­tum at all and build on his Ire­land per­for­mances. Only Shane Duffy and Jeff Hen­drick have made more ap­pear­ances in the Premier League this sea­son, yet the former Sun­der­land winger has played a mere 968 min­utes com­pared to 2,863 and 2,140 re­spec­tively.

To put that in con­text, Rob­bie Brady broke the 1,200-min­utes mark and he has not played for Burn­ley since De­cem­ber 2 be­cause of a se­ri­ous knee in­jury. Harry Arter has only seven min­utes less than McClean and he has been frozen out at Bournemouth by man­ager Ed­die Howe since New Year’s Day.

And Stephen Ward, who was ab­sent for al­most three months through in­jury, broke through the 2,000-min­utes ceil­ing to join Duffy and Hen­drick yes­ter­day.

McClean has yet to set up a goal, scored once from 23 shots and has seven yel­low cards in all club com­pe­ti­tions. But as Fletcher could tes­tify hav­ing seen how he op­er­ates, his former team­mate has re­mained as pro­fes­sional as ever. His head wasn’t turned by the pro­posed move to Derby and his fo­cus hasn’t wa­vered de­spite the failed at­tempts to be­come a Premier League reg­u­lar for a side sink­ing in the murk. Nor has his ob­ses­sion with do­ing all he can to en­sure his body is primed. As well as his love of box­ing train­ing, McClean has also taken to reg­u­lar ses­sions of Hi­jama and Cup­ping which sees cups ap­plied to var­i­ous points of his body and uses a vac­uum tech­nique to re­move bad blood to al­low a steady flow to those areas af­fected. World heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion An­thony Joshua uses the same com­pany for such treat­ments, as do nu­mer­ous other Premier League stars, in­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional team­mate Ward, Dar­ren Ran­dolph and Jonathan Wal­ters. McClean knows the value of rest and re­cu­per­a­tion, espe­cially with three young chil­dren. So, as he pre­pares to turn 29 in a week’s time, and with a year to run on his West Brom con­tract, it is clear his de­ci­sion to stick or twist in the com­ing months will have a defin­ing ef­fect on the next stage of his ca­reer.

WING­ING IT: James McClean won the PFA Ire­land Overseas Player of the Year

PUSH­ING HIS CASE: James McClean ar­gues with Swansea’s Kyle Bart­ley (left) and chats with Martin O’Neill (above)

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