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M&M think Sunderland are finally ready to roll
JAMES McCLEAN has had a difficult last six months on Wearside, but feels ready to come good at just the right time to help Sunderland climb away from relegation trouble.
While all eyes were on Martin O'Neill on Tuesday night when he led the Black Cats to a 3-0 win over Reading on the first anniversary of his opening game as manager, McClean had similar memories running through his head.
Not only was December 11, 2011 the first afternoon when O'Neill took charge of a Sunderland fixture, it was also the day when the name James McClean first rose to prominence in the Premier League.
His energetic cameo appearance from the bench, with Sunderland trailing to Blackburn, that day sparked a dramatic turnaround at the Stadium of Light and provided an insight of what was to come.
Over the remaining months of last season the young Irishman then turned in a number of excellent displays to help O'Neill's revitalised squad climb away from the Premier League's bottom three.
His performances led to a call-up for the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012 squad and from there his form has dipped so much that there have been calls for him to be omitted regularly from the Sunderland starting line-up this season.
McClean has also had to contend with the increased spotlight on his every word and move, notably his decision to turn his back on Northern Ireland and over his refusal to wear a remembrance poppy on his shirt last month.
But after showing occasional signs in recent weeks that he was on the verge of bursting back to life, the 23-year-old grabbed his first goal of the season to give Sunderland the perfect platform to go on and climb out of the bottom three by comfortably overcoming Reading.
And McClean, who has made 40 starts since his £350,000 switch from Derry City 16 months ago, said: “This season I know I haven't - by my own standards - reached the heights of last season. I can turn it around and get back to where I was last season, maybe even more. I want to top last season's performance.
"My life's changed dramatically within a year. It's been an amazing time to play so many times for Sunderland and to win six caps for the Republic of Ireland.
"A lot of attention comes my way on the pitch compared to when I first broke through and no-one had heard of me. I could play with a bit more freedom then but now they know what to expect from me and it's something I have to realise.
"Of course I'm going to get paid more attention but it's down to me to get back to the levels I was at last season and maybe I can do that with the help around me and the coaching staff but it's mainly down to myself.”
McClean, who was left out by O'Neill last month after a string of poor shows, is just one of a number of Sunderland players to have struggled to find top form this season.
But there are hopes that Tuesday's victory over Reading, which lifted them up to 15th ahead of this Saturday's daunting trip to Manchester United, can be the catalyst to a drive up the top-flight table.
And goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has described how there has been an immediate change in the atmosphere within the dressing room just because a frustrating slump has been halted – and he paid tribute to the way O'Neill has handled the situation.
Mignolet said: "We all knew how important it was, we're professional enough to deal with that and James McClean scoring the early goal made things much easier.
"Before the Reading game we knew it was going to be a massive game. We knew there was a lot of pressure on it.
"In the dressing room nobody thought even about those (speculated uncertainty surrounding the manager's position) kind of things.
“I think the gaffer did a great job last season and he's doing that still. He gives all the players a lot of confidence to go out and play, even in awkward situations like Tuesday.
“All the lads were confident stepping out onto the pitch and that's the main thing when you are in that position. We were very confident we were going to win.”
With dates with Manchester United, Southampton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool pencilled in before the FA Cup third round trip to Bolton on January 5, Mignolet felt the need for three points against Reading was vital.
“Relief probably sums up the feeling in the dressing room,” said the Belgian shot-stopper. “There were some pretty tired legs in there afterwards because the lads got through a lot of work. We'd forgotten how to win so we didn't know how to celebrate afterwards! On the other hand we were very happy.”
Sunderland will be assessing the fitness of Phil Bardsley and Adam Johnson, who picked up knee and dead leg problems respectively, in the next 24 hours before deciding if they can travel to Old Trafford.