MARTIN O’Neill says James McClean is no longer Sunderland’s secret weapon, with Premier League clubs increasingly targeting the young Irish winger.
The 22-year-old has been a revelation since coming on in O’Neill’s first game in charge and completely changing the game against Blackburn Rovers in Sunderland’s favour.
Several more substitution appearances followed before the former Derry City player made his full debut in the 1-0 win over Manchester City on New Year’s Day.
And as well as positive, bustling performances, McClean has weighed in with goals, scoring against Wigan, Peterborough, Stoke and Arsenal.
But he has struggled to have as much impact in recent games and O’Neill believes that’s because other clubs have cottoned on quickly to the danger he poses.
“I don’t think there’s any signs of a dip from James McClean just yet, even though he hasn’t been making the headlines in the last few weeks as much as he was in the first few,” O’Neill told the Echo.
“I think there’s such high expectation of him now that everyone is looking for him to do things all the time.
“With that sort of expectation, it’s easy to think you might be detecting some sort of drop in form but I don’t see it that way at all.
“I think there’s a lot of teams being a bit more wary about him now, starting to cover him, being a bit more concerned about him.”
O’Neill says he is not worried about that and says that having risen to the challenge of breaking into the first team, the winger has to rise to the next challenge and deal with the special attention his displays have drawn.
“I think that’s part of his learning process,” O’Neill said. “James has got to develop certain parts of his game and he’s aware of that.
“Once or twice, when he’s got it, he has to learn just to pass it back and look for a better position rather than immediately trying to beat his man.
“There’s no shame in passing the ball back, laying it off, and then getting forward looking for another opportunity to receive it in a better position.
“Similarly he has to learn that just because he has beaten one or two players, they haven’t gone away - they’ll still be coming after him to stop him before he makes a cross or gets in a shot.
“But these are all things for the young winger to learn and he has got a great appetite and attitude for that.
“No one should be hard on him because he’s come in and been fantastic and continues to contribute.
“Even when things are not happening for him, he’s always looking for the ball, wanting to do something.
“Defensively he’s working exceptionally hard. You won’t see too many wingers going in to challenge fearlessly, in the way that he does.”