EURO 2012-bound James McClean has paid tribute to “tremendous” Sunderland boss Martin O’Neill for helping him fulfil his Republic of Ireland dream.
McClean’s place at the summer’s European Championships in Poland and Ukraine was confirmed yesterday after the Sunderland winger was included in Ireland’s 23-man squad along with Black Cats team-mates John O’Shea and Keiren Westwood.
It caps a stunning six months for the 23-year-old, who was only handed his Premier League bow in O’Neill’s first game in charge last December.
McClean said: “He’s been tremendous to me. He presented me with my opportunity to play in the first team and I think I took full advantage of that.
“He’s kept me on the ‘straight and narrow’ since then and has helped me improve as a footballer.
“I try to work hard on my game week-in and week-out in order to improve and I think that has worked for me.
“Martin O’Neill’s appointment has certainly boosted my confidence levels and I can’t thank the man enough.
“To be called up to represent Ireland has always been a personal dream of mine and to be associated with players who I have watched myself is very special. I can’t wait to join up with the squad and start to focus on the Championships.”
McClean was told of his call-up yesterday morning by Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni despite only making his international debut as a late substitute in February’s friendly with the Czech Republic.
“When he told me I was in the squad to go to the European Championships, I couldn’t believe it,” said the wideman, signed for a bargain £350,000 from League of Ireland outfit Derry City last summer.
“He told me not mention it until the official announcement was made, so for someone who likes to talk a lot, it was a challenge for me to keep my mouth shut for a change!
“Obviously I was delighted.
“To have joined a Premiership club and made my debut for Sunderland was absolutely fantastic. To then make by international debut in the Aviva Stadium was special and to have been voted Sunderland’s ‘Young Player of the Year’ was yet another great boost.
“But to have been selected in the Irish squad to play in the European Championships has really capped what has been a fabulous year.
“It’s yet another dream come true for me.”
McClean still has one matter to address before his focus turns to the Euro’s, with Sunderland facing a final day showdown against title challengers Manchester United on Sunday.
The boyhood United supporter added: “Obviously I’ve always been a big United fan and naturally I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I’ll be selected to play in the final game.
“While I’m thrilled at being selected for the Euros, I hope to focus my attentions on the visit of United this weekend and then prepare for whatever comes my way afterwards.
“I’ve got a seat on the plane to Poland, that was always the first priority. Now it’s all about repeating what I do at Sunderland at international level and hopefully get a chance to play in a game or two.
“It’s been a fabulous year for me so far and fingers crossed, let’s hope it’s not over just yet.”