'McClean was crossing blindly there,' Jim Beglin declared in the 65th minute of Ireland's 1-1 draw with Switzerland tonight. David McGoldrick had just held possession with a nice bit of skill near the Swiss penalty box and then James McClean did what James McClean always seems to do these days. He crossed the ball right into a Swiss defender and the ball bounced out for a corner.
On a night that Ireland were rusty, old, flat, meandering for 80 minutes, James McClean summed up everything that was bad about Mick McCarthy's men. But McCarthy did not waver in his faith. He did not give Callum O'Dowda his chance off the bench. And during those frenetic final 10 minutes, when Ireland's Euro 2020 hopes clung on by a thread, McClean was his best lunatic self. There he was harrying down Embolo when he was nearly one-on-one on with Darren Randolph. McClean reached deep into his gut, fought Embolo off the ball and spared Ireland. Minutes later, McClean chased down Mbabu, stole possession, then drove immediately down the left flank. He put another cross in, watched it take a fluky deflection off Xhaha and ultimately right onto the forehead of David McGoldrick.
It was glorious anarchy, which is all James McClean knows.
"I've seen attacking players in this stadium who can get the fans out of their seats with pure skill. But he can get them out of their seats by doing that kind of work, by winning those 50-50 challenges," Damien Duff said after the game.
McClean is a divisive figure amongst Ireland fans. You get the sense he is one of the first names on the team sheet. He is undoubtedly Ireland's spiritual leader, the proudest man to ever wear an Ireland shirt. But his form has dropped off a cliff in the past 6 months. He now plays left back with lowly Stoke. During the first half, when McClean was arguably Ireland's worst player, Twitter was aflame with McClean frustration.
Irish soccer: McClean runs into a blind alley - roar. McClean slides in needlessly conceding throws and corners - big roar. McClean boots the ball 60 yards - roar. Duffy heads it 40 yards - roar. Fail to find a man with a 5 yard pass - no roar.
— John Flanagan (@JohnFla05885701) September 5, 2019
If I had a fiver every time James McClean ran down the line, created absolutely nothing then chased back and gave away a foul I’d be balling
— َ (@Iouis82) September 5, 2019
Watching Ireland matches consist of getting excited at any corner or free inside the attacking or when McClean does well in the middle of the field to inevitably shit himself in the final third
— Ciarán McCormack (@Ciaran_08) September 5, 2019
I love James McClean but his career at international level is over!!! Been a great servant to the county but his quality not there anymore! #IRLSUI
*Hope he scores winner after this tweet*
— Liam Kearns (@Kearns1010) September 5, 2019
And yet as obvious as McClean's flaws are, he undeniably brings something that is quintessential to this team's identity. This match was the best of McClean and the worst of McClean, and luckily we got just enough of the best of McClean. For better or for worse, our Euro hopes depend on him.