Maturing McClean tipped to keep making strides
James McClean has been backed to further enhance his international reputation when the Republic of Ireland head into their World Cup qualifier with Austria tomorrow.
The 28-year-old West Brom midfielder has emerged as a genuine force during the Group D campaign with his two goals in Moldova, and his winner over the Austrians at the Ernst Happel Stadium in November confirming his growing stature.
It has been a long road for McClean. He was a surprise inclusion in Giovanni Trapattoni's Euro 2012 finals squad just six months after making the breakthrough at Sunderland under current Republic boss Martin O'Neill, but assistant Roy Keane has been impressed with his recent contributions.
Keane said: "He is becoming a better player. He has had more of an impact with his performances - probably not so much at club level, but for us he's turned into a really important player.
"He is quite experienced now - I think that James has got 50 games under his belt, 50 caps. He is probably maturing and using that experience that he has got now of international football a lot more. He's obviously adding goals to his game, which is hugely important."
McClean won his 50th cap as captain in the 3-1 friendly defeat by Mexico in New Jersey last week, and did so playing in an unaccustomed wing-back role.
But he produced an impressive cameo performance as a substitute in the 3-1 win over Uruguay last Sunday when he came on to score a scintillating third goal.
Keane said: "Any attacking player in a team has to have a goal in his locker.
"Whether it be Austria away or even Uruguay, you are now fancying James to finish his chances off, whereas a few years ago, you probably didn't fancy him as much, so yes, he is maturing."
O'Neill is nothing if not pragmatic, and while he insists he sets out to win every game, not losing is always his first priority. A draw against the Austrians would not be the worst result, but a victory would reduce the field in the race for qualification and there is a clamour for O'Neill to throw off the shackles.
Wes Hoolahan is arguably the Republic's most creative player, but whether he can be accommodated remains to be seen.