IT’S A ZERO to hero tale that continues to follow the perfectly constructed script.
Every step of James McClean’s meteoric rise under Martin O’Neill has been a dramatist’s dream – the obscure fringe player picked from the reserves by the new manager, the international call-up when he had initially been overlooked and the man-of-the-match display after signing a new contract.
The 22-year-old will persist as one of those players who dominates both headlines and highlight reels, particularly in an era where orthodox widemen are in such scarce supply.
But not all those who participate in a successful side can be capable of lifting a crowd off their backsides. Of equal, if less startling, importance are the water-carriers who doggedly labour at the ugly side of the game, yet see their work-rate unheralded.
It would perhaps be a touch insulting to describe Jack Colback as such, given the proficiency of his all-round game, the technical quality that sees him pass, shoot and tackle with equal acclaim, plus the positional nous to find space and consistently offer his team-mates an option.
But, to the casual observer, Colback isn’t one of those It Men like McClean or Stephane Sessegnon, who can conjure the piece of magic that transforms a tepid draw into a resolutely gained three points.
Yet that doesn’t make the midfielder any less pivotal in O’Neill’s Wearside juggernaut and the Sunderland boss knows it.
It is no coincidence that the first two players O’Neill has set about tying down to the Stadium of Light since his inauguration are Colback and McClean.
Both have their best years in front of them at 22, both continue to improve and, crucially, both possess that humble, grounded outlook to avoid the pitfalls of wealth and fame which so often tempt their Premier League peers.
While McClean and the welcome return of Sessegnon stole the limelight as Sunderland ultimately secured what was a comfortable victory over a toothless and spiritless QPR side on Saturday, Colback was the unsung hero of a win that took the Wearsiders to the magical 40-point mark.
In the turgid 40 minutes prior to Nicklas Bendtner’s sixth of the season, Colback was the one player in red and white who provided the energy and intent needed to spark the encounter into life.
Before Sunderland’s star double act began to play with a swagger against 10 men in the second half, neither Sessegnon or McClean had been able to stamp their mark on the game prior to the latter’s cross onto the forehead of Bendtner as Anton Ferdinand and Taye Taiwo ball-watched.
McClean looked a clear threat when the ball was at his feet, particularly after QPR right-back Luke Young found his way into pernickety referee Mike Jones’s notebook, but simply didn’t see enough of it with the game confined to the middle third of the pitch.
Meanwhile, Sessegnon seemed too intent to make up for lost time after his three-game suspension – typified by snatching at Craig Gardner’s pull-back from the edge of the area midway through the first half.
But for a guy now beginning to shed the image of purely Mr Reliable, Colback provided Sunderland with some imagination as he battled to prize the Black Cats away from the sluggish midfield battle the game had descended into.
With central midfield partner David Vaughan sitting, Colback was able to adopt a head for heights, bombing into the box along with bursting from deep into the space beyond the QPR backline.
Twice in the space of 60 seconds it almost paid off for the Tynesider in the opening 15 minutes – seeing his shot deflected off Taiwo from Sessegnon’s pull-back and then firing into the side netting after anticipating McClean’s knock-down.
Both of those efforts demonstrated the heartening sight of Colback adding different facets to his game under O’Neill, particularly a more attacking dimension.
Given Vaughan’s ability to deliver a defence-splitting pass and Gardner’s rocket launcher right foot – which almost saw him grab a fourth goal of the season – it is imperative Colback can begin to ask questions of the opposition rearguard if he is to hold down a starting spot.
Think back six months to the opening exchanges of the season when Colback and Lee Cattermole provided Sunderland with a solid buffer in midfield, yet lacked the creativity to break down well-drilled opponents at the Stadium of Light.
If Cattermole returns from suspension alongside Colback in midfield tomorrow night, now it doesn’t look such a conundrum, although admittedly Sunderland are a different attacking beast these days with Sessegnon revelling in the hole and McClean stretching defences from the left.
Theoretically, it’s an intriguing dilemma for O’Neill to decide whether Cattermole goes straight back into the starting XI and who partners him in the engine room against Everton.
But given the sprinkling of injury and illness concerns in defence, O’Neill’s hand may well be forced, with Colback and/or Gardner again shoe-horned into the back four as full-backs.
The sight of Colback again proving an adept left-back after Wayne Bridge hobbled off when the game was as good as over, only adds to his value, although it is in midfield that O’Neill clearly sees his future given the upward curve he continues to follow.
It shouldn’t be overlooked that Colback has only started 26 Premier League games and he remains susceptible to the fluctuations of youth.
There will be times when O’Neill takes him out of the firing line, as he did at half-time in the rout at West Brom and for the subsequent outing on Tyneside.
But Colback is maturing into a top-flight midfielder with elegance and intelligence, even if his fellow deal-maker registers a louder bleep on the neutral’s radar.