So, James McClean is on his way to Wigan.
Is that a good thing? Well, in my view, looking at the bigger picture, it probably is – although not necessarily for the reasons that some of our fans may think.
In particular, there are a couple of myths that I want to challenge head on.
The first myth is that we are well shot of a troublemaker. This argument goes that his refusal to wear a poppy on his shirt, his appearances – and then disappearances – from Twitter, and a general, unsubstantiated, perception that he isn’t a contender for Celebrit y Mastermind, mean that he is in some people’s views not worth retaining, and perhaps, for some people, not even fit to wear the shirt. Presumably those who have been booing him for months are of this view. Not me.
He has made some daft mistakes on Twitter – when complaining about Trapattoni for being left on the bench, for example. On other occasions, some people with an anti-McClean agenda (like some of our fans and the Daily Mail) have seized on comments as mundane as those about liking a certain song, because it can be made to fit that narrative. Personally, I don’t think he did much wrong on the poppy issue. Although I always personally wear one, I am not a man who has grown up in such a complicated, politicised environment as James McClean. In any event, he didn’t make any public statements on it, he just exercised what I believe is his right not to wear one. Surely anyone who is supportive of Di Canio’s appointment as Sunderland Head Coach – the overwhelming majority of our fans, it seems – on the grounds that his politics are nothing to do with football surely then can’t lambast James McClean for his views?
So what of the thing that matters most for these purposes – his performances on the field? The second myth that I would challenge here is that he was destroyed last season by coaching. This argument goes that Steve Guppy got hold of him, ruined him as a footballer, while Martin O’Neill sat on the sidelines, never attending training and fiddling while Rome burned? Again, I don’t agree with much of that argument.
It’s hardly surprising that McClean’s form dipped a little last season. Having said that, I don’t think that dip in form was as large as is sometimes portrayed. He chipped in with a few goals, provided as many assists as anyone apart from Adam Johnson, worked hard defensively while Danny Rose bombed forward and (unlike many last season) was at least always looking to make things happen, rather than take the easy option. Yes, there were some bad times, like his inept performances when played, out of position and out of confidence, on the right wing against Villa and Stoke. There were also some good moments – for example his role in the crucial opener, anticipating and intercepting a wayward pass, at St. James’ Park and playing a perfect pass to Stephane Sessegnon to score
All in all, I don’t see any evidence that he was ruined by over coaching last season – I just think that the coaches seemed to be working with him to develop more to his game than charging down the left wing towards the byline. Admittedly it hasn’t come to fruition yet – but while it’s not surprising that a lad with less than two seasons experience of professional football isn’t the finished article, he did need that development to his game.
Yet, even if I don’t care about his refusal to wear a poppy, or believe that he has been ruined as a footballer, I still think it is probably for the greater good that he moves on, for a number of reasons.
First, he plays in a position for which we are extremely well covered – an established Italian international (Emanuele Giaccherini) as first choice, the option of using an England international there (Johnson) when we need to, and even other options on the left wing such as Sessegnon (who has played well for us in the past), and, at least for the moment, Ji Dong-Won.
Secondly, I think it is apparent that this summer is about balancing the books. I don’t have a problem with that (how can I – it’s not my money?!), but if selling, say, McClean and David Vaughan brings in the money to buy a new player in one of the three positions that desperately need strengthening (as I wrote in a previous blog), then that looks like a good deal to me. If we can sign those players and maybe resurrect a deal for Charis Mavrias, who looks (ok, on the evidence of Youtube clips), like a more developed player at an earlier stage in his career, then so much the better.
Finally, although I don’t think he has been spoiled as a player, I certainly don’t claim to be convinced that McClean will ever develop the sophistication to be a really top left winger at this level. I’m not knocking him for that – he is a good hardworking player who can do a good job in a Premiership squad, and there’s no shame in that for a lad who has won his right to a Premiership place via the League of Ireland, without an Academy opportunity, through hard work, force of personality, and no little skill. In many ways, I’d have liked to see him stay here next season to try and prove that he really can develop, but I think his chances to do so would have been limited had he stayed.
So, on balance, I think his time here is probably up. Selling him to generate income for more pressing priorities is a good deal. We should wish him well.
Fare thee well, James McClean. Thank you for lighting up that dark afternoon against Blackburn, when we were sinking towards Premiership oblivion, and for giving us the spark of hope which ignited that great run in O’Neill’s early days. Thank you for giving everything you had for the shirt, regardless of whether it had a poppy on it. Sorry that you had to endure some booing from the wrong parts of the Stadium of Light. Finally good luck at Wigan (or wherever) – you’ve earned whatever successes the game brings you – the hard way.