Niall Quinn on James McClean's Premier League and Republic of Ireland journey

James McClean

In his latest Sky Sports column, Niall Quinn discusses James McClean's Premier League journey and his importance to Republic of Ireland...

James McClean is one of those guys who always seems to be just arriving somewhere.

He came to the Premier League relatively late. He was 22 when we signed him at Sunderland from Derry City. We bought a long shot and he gave us fireworks. 

Bang! Suddenly he had arrived into the reserve team. Bang! Now he was in the first team. Bang! He was all over Twitter like a Kardashian. Bang! He was playing for Republic of Ireland.

Highlights from the Republic of Ireland’s Group D World Cup qualifier against Moldova

In Moldova of all places he might finally have put his baggage down and announced that he is here to stay. His two goals put Ireland in a very strong position to qualify and if the team gets to Russia in 2018, I believe James will be a leader and a key player.

Seeing him score a couple of goals told us a lot about not just his talent, but that potential for leadership. It also gave me a lot of pleasure. Not just because of the kind of person James is, but because a lot of people put a lot of faith in him along the way and more often than not he has repaid them well.

James McClean of West Bromwich Albion celebrates scoring his sides third goal
Image: James McClean now plays for West Brom under Tony Pulis

The leaps of faith started with Bryan 'Pop' Robson, a goalscoring hero of the north east. Pop left his scouting job at Chelsea, wanting to get back up to his family and his roots in Hexham. Steve Bruce and I gave him the job as chief scout.

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Pop came in on the first day and said, "Listen, there is a bargain out there that we were recommended to come and watch when I was at Chelsea." It was a lad called James McClean at Derry City. Given the structure at Chelsea and James' age, Chelsea had decided not to pursue the transfer.

There were a few other clubs looking at James that summer including Everton. Steve Bruce and I had never heard of James McClean, let alone seen him play, but it was Pop Robson's first day on the job, he was enthusiastic and it didn't seem like the time to knock him back. I agreed to approach Sunderland's owner Ellis Short to get permission to make the signing.

Republic of Ireland manager Martin O'Neill claims he is happy with the performance of his side as they beat Moldova 3-1

Ellis asked a number of pertinent questions, starting with, "How many times have you seen him play, Niall?" I answered truthfully. Zero times. What else did I know? Well, from what I knew of the League of Ireland and the list of players on our radar at the time, McClean wasn't near to being on the list but…

Between the jigs and the reels Ellis agreed and we spoke to Derry. By the way, Pop also told us to sign a certain guy named Michu on that first day. Swansea fans will not be alone in remembering the 20-goal debut season that followed, but Steve and I chose James.

He was playing under the management of Stephen Kenny at Derry and as so many players do under Stephen's guidance, he had made quick progress.

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We held negotiations in Castleknock, Dublin when I was back home to see the All Ireland Gaelic football semi-final in 2011. James' agent, Eamonn McLoughlin, was always a very likeable guy as agents go, easy to deal with. 

All through the deal there was one burning issue that Eamonn pushed for. He wanted me to call the FAI and tell them James wanted to switch from Northern Ireland to the Republic. We agreed a fee with further payments if James made the first team and another payment if James played for Ireland.

Image: Niall Quinn thinks James McClean will be key for Republic of Ireland if they qualify for the 2018 World Cup

I spoke to John Delaney at the FAI. I explained how we at Sunderland felt this lad had a decent chance and asked JD to consider securing him for Giovanni Trapattoni. John showed great faith too by starting the paperwork and he also invited James' parents to the next Irish game in Dublin. Meanwhile James had arrived in Sunderland.

He was different. Everything was new to him but he wasn't fazed or overawed. He had a great desire to work on his game and to make it as a player. When he came we assumed it would take him a year or two to make the first team but he made his mark almost straight away, scoring in a 4-3 win for the development team against Newcastle United. Steve Bruce took note but he moved on not long after that and Martin O'Neill, another Derry man, arrived.

Martin first saw James play for the reserve team in the glamorous yet windswept surroundings of Eppleton Colliery Welfare FC in Durham. Our reserves beat Manchester United reserves 6-3. That was in mid-week. That very weekend James made his first-team debut, coming off the bench against Blackburn in Martin's first game in charge, and he turned the game around. We came from behind for a win as many leaps of faith were well rewarded.

It was as simple as just adding water. Instant folk hero.

James McClean made his Sunderland league debut against Blackburn
Image: James McClean made his Sunderland league debut against Blackburn

It's a funny thing but for all the controversies that have followed James since then, he seldom gets the credit for remaining true to who he is. The worry with a player who makes such rapid progress in the Premier League is that his head will be turned. The quiet lad you signed will be appearing in tabloids smoking a shisha pipe in some nightclub in Marbella at 4am with a pile of ne'er do well hangers-on who he didn't know two weeks previously. Not James.

When I look at him playing now I still view him in those terms. Will he keep it on the rails?

For instance, most young players who make the first team gradually work their way up to having a more respectable car in the players' car park. James hadn't been long in the first team when I was gazing out the window of my office one day to see a massive, gleaming Range Rover-type thing pulling in and young James hopping out on the driver's side. Uh-oh?

Martin O'Neill spotted the vehicle too. You could probably have seen it from the moon and Martin had a quiet word. The car was back in the dealer's showroom within a day or so.

Stephen Ward celebrates with James McClean
Image: James McClean scored twice in Republic of Ireland's win over Moldova

Even in Moldova yesterday when James hit an awful free kick I found myself looking at him and thinking, "Ah James, if you'd spent less time getting yourself decorated with ink in tattoo parlours and more time practising free kicks that might have gone better for you." But that's just the old man in me tut-tutting for the sake of it.

James is one of those characters who wobbles but always rights himself in the end. When Martin left Sunderland, James was gone not too long afterwards.

He wasn't Paolo Di Canio's cup of tea and maybe, vice-versa, Paolo wasn't too inspiring for James. Wigan came looking and he had no problem going there to continue working on his career and to get himself back into the Premier League. It was a sensible move and it worked out fine for him.

James is 27 now. If you look at him objectively in a world where so many people are faking it, he is a young man who'd rather wear his heart on his sleeve. He makes mistakes. After the game in Moldova for instance he had a crack at the Irish media.

I would advise him just to respond to people either through what he does on the field or by talking to them one-on-one, but I understand his frustrations and I think he'll learn.

That has been his story so far, always learning, always arriving somewhere new. He was worth every leap of faith shown in him.

Niall Quinn is chairman of Fleet Street Sports media group and writes for SportsVibe. Read his column every week on and the Sky Sports apps

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