Next move for the passionate Derry man is absolutely crucial
Ireland star’s career has stalled at club level
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)