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James McClean's top display the perfect tribute to Ryan McBride

By Vincent Hogan

From the worst of weeks, James McClean managed to find the best of himself.

He did so in the only way he knows, working the bellows of a big football crowd, audibly, appreciative of workaday qualities like high effort and competitive integrity. His concentration and self-control were critical factors here on a night that might, easily, have defeated him.

So a rotten few days, in which he was excused training to return to a hometown numbed by two funeral cortèges spilling into the same Long Tower churchyard to mourn Derrymen he considered friends, was left behind in the most eloquent way McClean could summon.

They unfurled a giant 'Brandywell Pride' banner from a balcony in the East Stand and President Michael D Higgins pushed a red No.5 shirt to the heavens in honour of McClean's friend, Ryan McBride.

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do in an environment swirling with emotion is the right thing. But for 90-odd minutes last night, McClean just about achieved it.

His thing is either to get the ball and run or locate the danger and chase. One minute a gazelle, then the next a pursuing lion.

Yet that he has made himself the key Irish player of this qualifying campaign should tell us something about the qualities of the boy from the Creggan.

Because McClean was no more than a street footballer until turning 18 and that absence of early coaching has left a residue of roughness in his game. His approach to beating a full-back is based on aggressive rather than refined movement, yet he has become a trusted Premier League professional.

And, even in a week that clearly tested him emotionally, the idea of the Republic lining out without him on this kind of rollercoaster night would have been disconcerting.

Last night, he wore a No.5 shirt in honour of his friend McBride, and one could but imagine his emotions as fifth-minute applause rang around the stadium for the same purpose. By then, McClean had already dispossesed Gareth Bale.

He was key to controlling Bale, a challenge that simply couldn't be approached with militaristic dogma. The Welshman doesn't occupy a conventional position and, thereby, cannot be subdued by delegation of a man-marker.

The early Welsh play had a painful clarity for the Republic, possession dominated by the visitors and little or nothing coming down McClean's flank.

In the 56th minute, you did wonder if we might be about to sense some otherworldly intervention, McClean lining a free-kick up from 35 yards out.

The Derry man's effort hit the wall ,as did a reprise five minutes later. But, increasingly, you sensed him believe that this could be a night settled by an act bearing his signature.

After Neil Taylor's dismissal, the Republic sensed clear opportunity and McClean almost exploited it in the 74th minute with a left-foot volley that was blocked and, instantly, a right-foot effort deflected for a corner. Minutes later, he was running the length of the field to swing in a cross that arrived before any of his pursuing team-mates.

McClean was working like a dervish still, running on energy that had little to do with human physiology.

Approaching the end, a tannoy announcement declared him man of the match. A sentimental choice? On this night, McClean's glory was it did not feel that way.

Belfast Telegraph

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