The McClean Quandary

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was March 9th 2012.

The McClean Quandary

James McClean has become the great hope for Irish football this season. In good form for Sunderland, scoring goals, at the core of Martin O’ Neill’s renaissance and the clubs improvement in fortunes, a young player with many years ahead of him, and home grown at a League of Ireland club to boot.

But McClean’s emergence provides some problems for the national team set-up ahead of the European championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Selection headaches are sometimes viewed as good things – an assortment of riches to choose from – but the situation surrounding James McClean has provoked sharp criticism and pointed questions for the current Irish regime.

There are plenty of issues surrounding the management style and actions of Giovanni Trapattoni. The man doesn’t travel to England to watch games and is on record as being dismissive of the style of game played there (where nearly all Irish squad members play). He has a resistance to making substitutions in games until very late on, even if things are clearly not working on the pitch, and has only rarely changes tactics. He has clashed and had public disputes with several players, from James McCarthy to Anthony Stokes, and has shown a stubborn reluctance to include new players in his plans. The very fact that the James McClean situation has gotten so much attention from the media is evidence of the last point.

“Trap’s” type of game, focused on pedestrian tactics, long balls which frequently squander possession, allowing opposition teams the run of the game, has earned him plenty of detractors in Ireland, perhaps most notably Eamon Dunphy. His diatribe against Trapattoni after a dire display against the Czech Republic last Wednesday may have contained a fair share of hyperbole, but Dunphy is not incorrect on many issues regarding the Ireland team.

There is a potential disaster in the waiting at Euro 2012. Ireland have little expectations to begin with, but no one in the country wants to see the team well beaten or humiliated. As it stands, Ireland have a poor central midfield which has never convinced, an ageing squad that is very reliant on a small number of players, a key defender with a significant injury worries, a main striker (and captain) who seems to miss far more then he scores and a tactical game that has never been able to best higher ranked teams.

Ireland were shown up badly by Russia in Dublin during the qualifiers, and got away with a minor miracle in the return fixture, a point stolen by the defending masterclass of Richard Dunne and hands of Shay Given. Ireland failed to beat Slovakia home or away and struggled at times against Macedonia and Armenia. What does this say about our chances against the current Kings of football in Spain, the unenviable threat of Croatia, or the ever dangerous Italians?

If Trapattoni plays his usual game at Euro 2012, Ireland will go nowhere. Playing for draws against the big boys, the long ball game, isn’t the way to go forward in finals. Luck, which Trapattoni appears to have had in spades, cannot be relied upon. An infusion of youth and attacking potential is called for, but at present time, Trapattoni does not appear to be interested. The reason for the furore over McClean is just this, that people recognise the attacking and midfield weakness of the Ireland team and see a player who may help remedy it.

Therein lies the frustration over McClean, over Trapattoni’s single-minded approach. The Italian simply does not seem to think McClean is worthy of attention. His big chance consisted of a run out against the Czech’s that barely lasted ten minutes (while James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman sat on the bench unused, another example of promising young players left at the wayside).  The irritation being aimed at the manager is one borne out of these kind of sights, of players with great potential, attacking potential, not being given a fair shot to prove themselves or impress. Trapattoni only seemed to include McClean in that friendly squad as an afterthought and showed little interest in seeing what he could do in a green jersey.

These are pre-tournament friendlies after all. They are not meant to be games where the usual squad is trotted out to play the usual game, they are the time to test things out. Give other players a shot. Do things differently.

Being in the squad throughout the qualifiers should never be a guarantee of a place in the finals, as harsh as that may sound. Ireland has wingers, in the form of Stephen Hunt, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff but little else beside. I would argue that McClean has been showing form just as good if not better than any of those players (Trapattoni has never seemed to have much time for Hunt either and Duff has routine question marks over his proneness to injury).

When Trapattoni calls for respect to be shown to these established players of the squad, he’s missing the point. No one is denying the service McGeady and Duff have given to Ireland or the time they have been involved. But the Euro 2012 squad should not be determined solely on past performances. A measure of notice for current form, for players both in and out of the squad, should also be a factor.

Trapattoni has done much with what would appear to be, on paper, a very poor team but his attitude towards squad selection are not exactly confidence inspiring. He said in a press conference the other week, bluntly, that he considered McClean too young to go to a major finals. I have little time for this argument, given the state of football today, when youth is less of a concern then it has ever been. Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, was playing and scoring goals for the national team when he was 18 as was Damien Duff. Moreover, McClean has acclimatized fast to the pressures of Premier League football, indicating that he has the temperament and mindset to deal with high-pressure environments.

McClean still has time. 11 games left in this season, and one more Ireland friendly, against Bosnia, if he gets a chance to play in it. “Trap” appears obstinate to including him in any summer plans and the best thing for McClean to do would be to continue his good run of form, to continue scoring and to continue showing why he is deserving of a place in the Euro 2012 squad. That is all that he can do, after all.

I consider McClean one of the best Irish players playing today. I think he is an excellent winger, playing excellent football. I think he deserves a place in the Irish squad and I am not alone.

But I am not the manager of Ireland. It is Trapattoni’s call to make. I only hope Ireland’s performance in Poland and Ukraine does not leave him open to many bitter questions four months from now.

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