James McClean was born in the heart of Derry - Creggan, to be exact - on the 22nd of April, 1989. He recalls that those early adolescent years were spent "just playing football video games all day", having arrived home from school in the afternoon. It wasn't long before these skills were put to the test on the pitch, to great effect one might add. It was with his local youth side, Trojans FC, that proved to be his springboard. Not soon after leaving Trojan's he departed for Institute, a side which has born fruit with esteemed Irish international Darron Gibson (2003-04) and also Ivan Sproule (2004-05), who now plies his trade at Hibernian in Scotland, having returned to Edinburgh following a five-year hiatus from Hibs.
At Institute, he made one solitary appearance - against Glentoran in 2007. He remembers a moment in the game where the ball made its way towards him. As he made his way to the ball he slipped and fell on his face. It was a discouraging time for McClean as he had devoted two years of his life to Institute - while featuring once - and he figured maybe it could have been his shy persona that was holding him back. Either way, his confidence was at its lowest ebb. Just for good measure, Institute piled on the woes and refused to offer him an extension, effectively making him a free agent.
It was at this time that Derry City, financially skint and soon to be expelled from Ireland's top tier as a result of financial irregularities, hatched up a plan to host an open day for local non-contracted players and that following season young blood was in large supply - all players that were recruited that summer were below the twenty age barrier - as youngsters such as Patrick McEleney and Shane McEleney - both brothers - and David McDaid, all climbed aboard. McClean was also a new recruit. Then Derry manager, Stephen Kenny, had apparently hailed the Creggan-native as a "very exciting prospect for the future".
McClean had a debut to remember as he bundled a bobbling ball into an empty net for the first of Derry's four against Bohemians after 41 minutes in the League Cup encounter. McClean was to develop at a phenomenal speed during the course of the three years he spent at the Brandywell and went on to add a further 17 goals in an 73 appearances; not a bad strike-rate for a left-winger one might say.
McClean had only been spent a single season in the League of Ireland before Derry foolishly began playing with fire, risking their involvement in the League of Ireland by making under-the-table payments to agents and players, which inevitably cost them their top-flight status despite qualifying for the second qualifying round for that season's UEFA Cup. Immediate promotion duly followed, McClean being one of many driving forces forcing Derry back into the big time, and that first year back they finished a mere nine points off the champions Shamrock Rovers.
At this point an array of clubs had already conveyed an interest in taking on the young McClean. The first was Lincoln City but McClean, not yet ready to commit to such a deal, pleaded them to tear up the contract. He had realised he hadn't wanted to leave home yet and Lincoln took the initiative on rescinding his contract as the last thing they needed was a homesick player so it worked out best for both parties in the end.
The second club was Brighton. They were intrigued by the ongoing development of the Creggan native, as were Peterborough. But yet, Stephen Kenny saw no reason to let his starlet go. He knew McClean was a special talent and it was Kenny's faith that ultimately led to McClean finally securing a move to England.
Kenny had become acutely aware that McClean's star was in the ascendant but he insisted on waiting for the right move. It panned out perfectly as not long after Peterborough were shown the door, Sunderland came knocking. The decision was inevitable. The patience had paid off. He had effectively secured his, what he soon described as, "dream move". Upon touching down on Tyneside, it was obvious McClean was already missing his life back home. Although he knew he couldn't have the best of both worlds he still struggled.
Naturally, McClean was grateful for the chance given to him by Kenny at Derry and thanked him personally for those three hugely enjoyable years he had at the Brandywell. For the meagre sum of £350,000 (€430,000), McClean soon spoke up about how he was expecting nothing more than to warm the bench as the season got underway. But as it progressed and he grew restless his opportunities were quickly becoming limited and so, he sought out manager Steve Bruce to mull over what was in store for his opening season. He began by seeking out Bruce in his office one afternoon: "I said, 'look, thank you for giving me the opportunity, I'm really enjoying it and trying to improve but at the same time I think I'm ready to play'." The response wasn't exactly what he had hoped for as Bruce laughed off what McClean had proposed but nonetheless knew where he was coming from. He explained to James that times were tough at that moment in time and he couldn't jeopardise things by throwing him into the fray. But McClean thought otherwise: "On the other hand, how could it go worse? If he threw me in, and we'd lost another game, so what? Nothing's changed. In a sense, I wouldn't agree with that."
It was perhaps a blessing in disguise then that Sunderland, on a run of just two wins from their first 13 fixtures, were bang out of form and badly needed to shake things up. Having taken a brief sabbatical from the game, Martin O'Neill took over the hot seat just short of midway through the season. McClean's imminent future already appeared brighter. McClean must have made an impression on O'Neill in training early on as the the 23-year-old was finally granted what he sought under the tutelage of Steve Bruce and a 15-minute workout was rewarded just a week after O'Neill's arrival, at home in a 2-1 win against Blackburn. He played again the next week. And again the following week. But on New Years Day O'Neill threw him in the deep end, handing him his full debut, against a rampant Manchester City side. McClean had now featured in four of O'Neill's five games in charge and was quietly flying under the radar. No wonder McClean insisted he was "delighted" to be working with a fellow Northern Irishman like O'Neill.
It was at this point that McClean began to establish himself as a first-team regular under Martin O'Neill. It was later revealed by O'Neill that he had persisted with McClean due to the fact that defensive work "comes naturally" to him. OPTA statistics convey to us that McClean averaged more tackles per game than any other Sunderland defender in the Premier League last season, bar Phil Bardsley who managed 2.5 per game.
The Sunderland manager continued: "James does the defensive work. He will get back for you willingly. It is a great sight when you are playing left back to have him in front of you.
"You would think with the energy he puts into the game and the effort he puts in to get back he would get tired, but he just keeps going."
A string of consistent displays for the Black Cats, both in and outside the Premier League, including two back-to-back impressive performances against Arsenal, brought about his first call-up for the Republic of Ireland squad. The call-up came following that weekend's victory over Arsenal in the FA Cup. McClean claimed he was "honoured" to be representing "my country". But his biggest joy was when Trapattoni signalled him to come on as the Aviva stadium erupted: "I remember the noise when I warmed up and I thought, 'is this really for me?' Then when my top came off to go on, the whole place got up. I was standing there with Alan Kelly and he was laughing and I was thinking, 'this is crazy.' The goosebumps on the back of my neck and the noise was something I'd never heard in my life. My family were all in tears."
During that 12 minute cameo McClean showed flashes of what had convinced Trappatoni to select him for the Irish squad. A couple of crosses combined with successful defending was the end product that evening and it was deemed an encouraging start to McClean's international career by many. He showed promise, hunger and that often talked about luck that more or less guaranteed his place in Trapattoni's squad for the summer European Championships. The question now is though, having finally achieved his personal goal of landing a place in the Irish squad, can he successfully transfer his form from the club ground to Europe's biggest international stage? Only time will tell.