HAVING watched James McClean make a huge impression since breaking on to the scene at Sunderland, Martin O’Neill has paid the winger a big compliment by comparing him to Tottenham’s Gareth Bale.
McClean spent the first six months of his Sunderland career playing in the club’s reserve side, but even he might not have expected to be drafted into the first-team under new boss O’Neill.
Three consecutive appearances from the substitute bench before Christmas were enough to convince the Black Cats’ boss to hand the 22-yearold his first start in the New Year’s Day win over Manchester City, and since then the Republic of Ireland man hasn’t looked back.
With a string of impressive performances, including five goals to his name, he has established himself as a key player for the Black Cats with his drive and determination to attack full backs earning him praise from team mates and O’Neill.
And such has been his impact in the last four months, the Black Cats boss has likened the winger’s development and style of play to Bale, who is now regarded as one of the most desired attacking players in the world.
“Do I see comparisons with Bale? Why not, you know?
James has electrified the place – I don’t think I’m being too strong when I say that – but he’s been great. He’s been a major plus for us in pulling ourselves round,” O’Neill said.
“I see it, a wee bit, like the development of Gareth Bale, if he has a look at him, he’ll see that occasionally the ball is played to him, he has a quick look to see what’s on and then he’ll play it back to the left-back, just to get a feel of the ball without actually doing anything. He doesn’t have to beat his man every time.”
The fact teams are now adopting a system that sees two defenders double up on McClean is another compliment and O’Neill admits the winger now has to develop his game to cope with that.
O’Neill said: “With James McClean we will have to develop that part of the game because he’s now a marked man.
There’s always someone doubling up on him so we have to see if we can get some help to him and then see where the space is after that. This is all new to him and it’s come so quickly for him.
“A day like Saturday, where he has got two men on him is as important as the good days, absolutely.
“It’s trying to get service to him and then when he has a little chance to look up, to see how he is being covered. And just sometimes maybe laying off the simple ball and getting it back again.
“His willingness to want to beat a man for the cause of the team is commendable, but sometimes he maybe just needs to have another look up.”
McClean’s rapid rise has also put him into the international reckoning, but whether he makes Giovanni Trapattoni’s final squad for this summer’s European Championships remains to be seen.
Trapattoni’s No 2, Marco Tardelli, was at the Stadium of Light on Saturday and it is understood he will watch Sunderland’s remaining four games.
But the Republic of Ireland boss last week admitted he faced a number of dilemmas over his squad and McClean is one player he can’t decide on.
“We have 27 or 28 players and it will be a great pity, a great pity, when we have to decide on the 23, to decide on this player or that player,’’ he admitted.
“I have two or three decisions to make. McCarthy, Coleman, players like that, I have to make a decision and I do not forget them for the next campaign, for the World Cup, but we have to decide the best for now.”