James McClean makes the breakthrough from a talented Sunderland reserve side

Ahead of his first game in charge, a 2-1 win at home to Blackburn Rovers, Martin O’Neill witnessed Sunderland’s reserves side demolish Manchester United in a 6-3 thriller. Ryan Noble, who has netted 13 in six starts for the second string, scored four, but it was 22-year-old winger James McClean that caught O’Neill’s eye: “In my first week, we played a reserve game in dreadful conditions. The wind was 70mph but McClean was absolutely superb.” McClean assisted two of Noble’s goals and subsequently made the bench for the Blackburn game, and his emergence in the second-half inspired a comeback from a goal down. McClean has featured prominently in O’Neill’s plans ever since.

A summer signing by Steve Bruce from Derry City, McClean cost Sunderland a mere £350,000 and Sunderland’s former manager was full of praise for his promising new left winger, before departing in November. “James has got a good left foot, he’s aggressive, hungry and desperate to do well,” explained Bruce. “He’s had a lot of assists, chipped in with a few goals and done very, very well in the Irish league. It’s a huge jump up to the Premier League, but we think he’s worth the risk.

McClean made his first competitive start in the shock 1-0 win over league leaders Manchester City, scoring his first senior goal in the following game, a comprehensive 4-1 win at Wigan Athletic. Another start and another goal in the 2-0 FA Cup victory at Peterborough came before a full 90 minutes in the narrow 1-0 defeat at Chelsea on Saturday.

Sunderland’s reserve and academy sides are proving fertile territory for the senior set-up, with Noble also pressing for first team football, scoring hat-tricks for the reserves against Newcastle and Scunthorpe, recording the latter in a six minute spell. A succession of injuries have hampered his progress when the departures of Asamoah Gyan, Darren Bent and Danny Welbeck could have resulted in promotion. It now looks likely that Noble will be loaned out this month to improve his match fitness and aid his progress, with a host of Championship clubs believed to have already expressed an interest.

In making his debut, McClean replaced Jack Colback, who has progressed through Sunderland’s academy to find favour with both Bruce and O’Neil. The talented central midfielder recently signed a two-year contract extension after impressing on loan at Ipswich last season, where he was voted the player’s player of the year. Since returning to Sunderland, he has appeared in 20 games thus far this season, scoring the opener in the 1-1 draw with Everton, although an ankle injury sustained in the win at Wigan looks set to rule him out for the next month.

Sunderland have recorded five wins, one draw and one loss under O’Neill’s stewardship, edging in to the top 10 and demonstrating a considerable improvement since the departure of Bruce. Sunderland now embark on a reasonable run of games, that includes the visit of Swansea, Middlesbrough in the FA Cup and Norwich, plus trips to Stoke and West Brom ahead of the Tyne-Wear derby at St James Park. Sunderland will be keen to avenge Newcastle’s 1-0 win at the Stadium of Light back in August and Sunderland’s promising crop of youngsters have the chance to really make a name for themselves.

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