What went wrong at Sunderland for James McClean?

James McClean
James McClean

JAMES McClean was Sunderland’s hot, young emerging talent this time last year, tipped by many for a season of great success. Now he plays for Championship side Wigan Athletic. GRAEME ANDERSON looks at what went wrong.

IT is almost exactly a year to the day that James McClean leaned back in his chair at the Academy of Light and dismissively swatted away the question I’d put to him.

“Last season you were something of an unknown quantity but this season opponents will know all about you, are you a little worried about Second Season Syndrome?” I asked

“I don’t believe in Second Season Syndrome,” he shot back confidently, instantly looking at me to move on to another subject.

Of course the former Derry City winger had every right to be bullish at the time given the dramatic impact he had made in the preceding half-season at Sunderland.

A £350,000 signing in the summer, McClean had not been used by Steve Bruce at all before his dismissal in December but Martin O’Neill brought him on as a substitute in his first game in charge and the young winger changed the game for the Black Cats with his fearless attacking style and running at defences.

It wasn’t a flash in the pan either.

After that home win over Blackburn Rovers, McClean continued to terrorise defenders in the games that followed, as well as showing a commendable willingness to track back and tackle hard.

And although he faded a little towards the end of the campaign – a decline put down to the sheer effort he had put in after being drafted into the side midway through the campaign – he had by that stage scored half-a-dozen vital goals from midfield on his way to earning a call-up to the senior Republic of Ireland squad.

More was expected of him last season, especially with Martin O’Neill seeking to develop his all-round game and drafting in diligent coach Steve Guppy to help.

But from the very start, McClean laboured.

At times he looked a shadow of the confident young talent he had been in previous campaign and by the end of the season he was being used less and less, appearing to be battling his own demons on the pitch as well as opposition defenders.

His off-field problems have been well-documented, particularly his Twitter spats, but they did not impinge on his performances on the pitch and so you have to ask the question: was McClean ruined by attempts to improve him?

Those who know him would say the young left-winger is an uncomplicated soul and his football reflected that: he worked hard and his preferred point of attack – driving the ball past his full-back down the line, beating him for pace and then crossing, had proved effective.

The coaching staff feared though in his second season, Premier League defenders would work him out and show him inside, knowing that McClean was all left foot and no right.

Martin O’Neill pointed out that Manchester City right-back Pablo Zabaleta had been troubled by McClean the first time the two met but on the second occasion had worked him out – he stuck to the Wearside winger like glue, denied him space and effectively marked him out of the game.

Thus began long hours on the training ground trying to develop McClean’s game – trying to teach him ways he could create space for himself on the pitch, drilling into him that he didn’t need to attack at every opportunity but could pass the ball around. Countless hours were spent trying to improve his right-foot, trying to make him effective cutting inside.

But the more effort that was put into changing and developing his game, the poorer McClean seemed to become.

He simply struggled to be the player the club wanted him to be.

Each time he stifled his natural instincts, the hesitation proved to be final. Efforts to do things differently inevitably ended in frustration and must have only served to underline to him that he could only play his own game, not someone else’s.

You could almost see the confidence ebbing out of him as the season progressed and, inevitably, by the end of a fruitless campaign, the crowd began to lose patience with him.

His worst moments came at the end of the season when Paolo Di Canio twice put him on the ‘wrong’ wing and McClean imploded as he struggled with the task of playing on the right.

The Italian likes to see his wingers cut inside and that was his thinking behind putting the left-footer on the right. But McClean struggled to hold the ball coming infield and when he attacked down the right, had to cut back to cross with his left.

It was awful to watch.

Di Canio perserved with McClean in that first game but the second time around, the right-wing experiment only lasted quarter-of-an-hour before the coach moved him back on to his natural flank.

And so it was that by the end of the 2012-13 campaign, one of Sunderland’s brightest lights was completely extinguished.

It was no surprise that Di Canio – so strong on the importance of technique – unloaded McClean this summer, with relegated Wigan prepared to pay £1m for the 24-year-old.

But this isn’t the end of the road for McClean. Far from it.

Championship defenders are literally not in the same league as those in the Premier League. And new Wigan boss Owen Coyle is shrewd enough not to ask McClean do anything other than play his natural game – get the ball past the defender and cross it, go for goal if you feel like it, and get yourself in goal-scoring positions.

There will be little effort I imagine to make him two-footed or a more complete player.

And if Wigan do that, I can see McClean coming again – regaining his confidence as he returns to his usual direct style.

So it will be interesting to see how the enigmatic winger fares this season but don’t be too shocked if he does very well in the Championship.

He might never be the player Martin O’Neill and Steve Guppy hoped he would be, but he could very well become the exciting and effective player he once was.