Magic McClean still sparkles

Published Monday, 26 March 2012
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Poor Michael O'Neill, his heart must sink every time he sees the name of James McClean on the Sunderland team sheet.

I can just imagine the Northern Ireland manager hiding behind his pillow watching the highlights on Saturday night as McClean scored one goal and created another in Sunderland's 3-1 win over QPR.

That strike brought his goal tally to 4 in 15 league appearances. Not a bad return for a player who failed to play a single minute in the premiership under former Sunderland boss Steve Bruce.

McClean has certainly earned his reward of a new three-year contract with some extremely impressive performances for the Wearside club since breaking into new boss Martin O'Neill's first team in December.

Having represented Northern Ireland at Under 21 level the former Derry City player opted to represent the Republic of Ireland at senior level and earned his first cap as a substitute in the Republic's 1-1 draw with the Czech Republic last month. How Michael O'Neill must rue that decision and watch with envy as his namesake Martin and fellow international boss Giovanni Trapattoni enjoy the fruits of James McClean's labours.

No matter what the reasons for McClean's decision to play for the Republic rather than Northern Ireland it is clear that in terms of his immediate international career he made the right decision as it will be the Republic and not Northern Ireland who will be representing the island at Euro 2012 this summer.

Though the squad is yet to be announced there is a good possibility that McClean will be on the plane to Poland and Ukraine as he is without question the in-form man amongst Irish players in the premiership.

It must be a cause for concern for Michael O'Neill that potentially two of the Republic's midfielders, James McClean and Everton player Darron Gibson could be lining up at the Euros alongside Aiden McGeady and Stephen Hunt rather than forming midfield partnerships with Paddy McCourt and Steve Davis.

Without question there are two key issues that will define the reign of Michael O'Neill as Northern Ireland boss. The first being to qualify for a major tournament, having languished since 1986, and the second, possibly even more importantly, putting a halt to young footballers choosing the Republic of Ireland over Northern Ireland.

It is up to O'Neill to attract quality players to the Northern Ireland fold and to his credit he began his tenure by saying he would do exactly that. How he manages to do this will be interesting, as recent history would dictate there is a better chance of players testing themselves at a European Championship or World Cup with the Republic of Ireland.

Of course it is up to the individual who they play for and to a certain degree there is not much the Northern Ireland boss will be able to do about this. O'Neill has to do all he can in building upon Nigel Worthington's attempts to seek out potential Northern Ireland players as the former manager did with current number one Lee Camp.

From the outside looking in it appears as though Lee Camp's decision to play for Northern Ireland was based on the idea that his chances of an England call up were limited at best. I wonder if he has started to regret that decision with the likes of Paul Robinson and Ben Foster making themselves unavailable for selection?

This would surely have moved Camp up the pecking order, especially given that in past squads England have turned to David Stockdale who so far has been unable to get ahead of Mark Schwarzer at Fulham.

Unfortunately for O'Neill he is to a certain extent looking to attract players who have not beendeemed good enough at International level by English standards and with each defection to the south O'Neill's options become smaller and smaller.

Perhaps players shouldn't so much look at tournament football as a mark of success, after all there is a lot to be said for being a big fish in a small pond. Though for Northern Ireland it isn't so much a case of a big fish in a small pond as it is a big fish in a goldfish bowl. This is something the Northern Ireland manager could use to his advantage. It is certainly something he should put to Rory Donnelly who showed enough potential in his short time at Cliftonville to convince Swansea he was worth a gamble.

As both the Republic and Northern Ireland head towards the World Cup qualifiers in autumn and beyond, it will be fascinating to see who the next James McClean or Rory Donnelly will choose to represent. As for now, James McClean deserves all the plaudits he is receiving and it is great to see such a talented young Irish player lighting up the Premier League, no matter who he chooses to play for at International level.

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Michael Law
Michael Law

Michael Law gives his thoughts on some of the major talking points from the world of sport, from football or darts to rugby and martial arts.

Michael is a media degree graduate and has been hidden in the UTV Library since 2010 archiving local sport and news stories for the newsroom.

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