Ireland winger James McClean will complete a remarkable six months when he pulls on his country's green jersey at the European Championship.
McClean was an unknown quantity trying to prove himself in Sunderland's reserves at the start of the year. Rewind to last season and he was toiling in the Irish league with hometown club Derry City. But a change in coach has sparked a run of impressive performances in the Premier League and the 23-year-old winger is now rated among Europe's most promising young players.
"I'm pinching myself, because it's going so well," said McClean, who recently celebrated his soaring status by signing a new club contract. "A lot has happened in the last few months, but I knew that if was given a chance I would give it a good go. Hopefully the next few months will be even better again."
McClean's career started to take off when Martin O'Neill took over from Steve Bruce as Sunderland manager last December. The tall, strong-running winger was immediately given his debut as a substitute against Blackburn and helped change the game as his side rallied for a 2-1 win. "He has been exceptional for us. He has got into the team, he has held his place on merit and is growing in confidence," O'Neill said. "The level he has been playing at and the consistency he has been showing has been truly amazing."
A string of assists and a handful of goals soon established McClean in Sunderland's first team and the winger was a late inclusion to Giovanni Trappatoni's squad for the 1-1 friendly draw against the Czech Republic in February. Trappatoni has attracted criticism for his delay in promoting up-and-coming players to an established squad, but McClean's rise was impossible to ignore. "His mentality is very strong," Trapattoni said. "In this moment, we regard him highly."
It's not all been plain sailing, though. McClean attracted some negative reaction when he turned down the chance to play for the country of his birth, Northern Ireland. A controversial FIFA ruling allows players born on either side of the border to choose whether they want to represent the North, which is part of the United Kingdom, or the independent South.
In effect, that has meant that the smaller Northern Ireland has suffered a drain of talent. Darron Gibson, Shane Duffy, Marc Wilson and Paul George have all made the same switch as McClean. Not a single player born in the Republic of Ireland has opted to move the other way. Some see that as opportunism as Ireland's national team is far more likely to qualify for major tournaments. But McClean said his allegiances were never in doubt. Despite playing at the under-21 level for Northern Ireland, McClean turned down his birth country before he was called up to the Ireland squad. "My dream," he said, "has always been to play for the Republic of Ireland."