MARTIN O’Neill has rejected claims that James McClean has been “found out” by Premier League defences and instead insisted the Irish winger’s early-season travails are all part of the 23-year-old’s learning curve.
The former Derry City wideman was brought into the first team in O’Neill’s first game in charge last December and went on to be voted Sunderland’s Young Player of the Season on the back of a string of eye-catching performances.
This season he has been a marked man and found the going a lot tougher but O’Neill believes his countryman can come through the challenge successfully – pointing out that even the Premier League champions resorted to giving him the special treatment.
“Against Manchester City Pablo Zabaleta was straight in on top of him, right in, and that’s happened the first three or four times he’s picked the ball up,” reflected the Sunderland manager.
“So it’s a case of trying to find a bit of room for himself.
“All good wingers do suss it – look to create space and see if there’s anything over the top.
“He’s had no apprenticeship at all and it takes a bit of time.
“If you are being heavily marked, then you have to realise there should be space for someone else.
“Utilising that space when you don’t have the ball is very valuable.
“Of course he’s still going to be judged by what he does on the ball.
“He’s capable of coming right through this season and doing well.”
O’Neill says it hasn’t surprised him that McClean has been singled out for extra attention by Premier League defences.
“Did I think these things would happen to him?” he mused. “Of course, every one of us thought: “let’s see what James does in his second season’ and it’s interesting.
“Do I think he’s got the capability to get over that? Absolutely.
“Teams and individual full-backs are paying him a lot more attention and that’s a natural thing to do.
“Someone picks up the ball and goes past you one season and you’re going to make sure next time around that you deal with that.”
McClean has also had his difficulties off the pitch, running into rows over his Twitter account for expressing forthright but occasionally ill-advised comments.
“I don’t think James has gone off the rails or anything,” said O’Neill. “My concern is him playing well for us.
“If there was something off the field then I would have to take a look at that.”