James McClean proving key to Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign
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James McClean proving key to Ireland’s World Cup qualification campaign

WHEN James McClean scored Ireland's winning goal against Austria, it became clear that the Derry man is pivotal to Ireland’s hopes of qualifying for the World Cup.

Saturday’s goal, which added to the brace he scored in October to help a laboured Ireland pick up three points over Moldova, has seen McClean muster a tally of three goals from the first four qualifying games – more than he scored in the whole of any of his previous campaigns.

Such potency suggests the winger could be the right man to pick up the goal scoring responsibility from midfield for the remaining six games.

Yet McClean’s flurry in front of goal is not simply coincidental but is rather the fruits of measured advice from the training ground, as he sought to explain when looking back on his winner in Vienna.

“If I had missed the target, Roy would have killed me,” said the West Brom winger.

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“Roy hammers us in training to make sure we hit the target. He drums that in to us and as I was running through I thought 'hit the target, you will always have a chance'.

“I hit it sweetly, flew through the keeper’s legs and I’m delighted. It was without a doubt my biggest goal for Ireland and I’m delighted. Personally, and as a team, long may it continue.”

Having been used sparingly in the previous Euros campaign, McClean’s purple patch has seen him nail down a position on the left side of the team and whilst he’s happy with his performances, he still wants to continue to improve and make his mark.

“I have been around the squad four or five years and only now am I finally starting to nail down a place and I just have to keep playing well,” he added. “Hopefully I score a few more goals in the upcoming games and hopefully pull my weight.”

Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill celebrates with assistant manager Roy Keane at the final whistle [©INPHO/Ryan Byrne] Ireland Manager Martin O'Neill celebrates with assistant manager Roy Keane at the final whistle [©INPHO/Ryan Byrne]
McClean’s commitment to the cause is so rife that he declared himself fit and ran himself ragged, despite a nagging back injury, which shows clearly that the 28-year-old is on a mission to make the difference and help Ireland complete the ultimate task of winning the group.

“It’s huge (the result). If you look at this group, there are no world class teams in it, let’s be honest, but there are four good teams in it and Georgia are not a bad side either,” he continued.

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“We are all going to pick points off each other, so to come away to Austria and get three points, it is a massive result.

“Hopefully this gives us the platform now to believe that we can win this group. We have got momentum; we are top of the group and we are delighted.”

As the Derry native suggests, ten points from four games, three of which have come away from home, is an outstanding return from O’Neill’s side and in most ways, puts the recent criticism of performances to shame.

In addition, with two consecutive crunch home games to come next year against Wales and Austria, Ireland will have a great chance of gaining a vice-like grip on the group and cement the possibility of at least a play-off place.

Moreover, looking back, this is the best start to a World Cup campaign by an Irish team since Mick McCarthy’s side qualified for the 2002 World Cup.

Being top of the group and McClean performing the way he is, who’s to say this side can’t do what so many Irish teams have failed to do before them – win the group.