Last Friday night, like many other hopelessly addicted football fans of English football, I sat down to watch the opening match of the Championship. Blackpool beat Hull in what was an unremarkable game, but the lack of excitement on the pitch was surprisingly almost welcome as it failed to provide a distraction to what was actually going to be the main attraction of the evening - reminiscing over the brilliant legacy of Kevin Phillips.
So with Phillips already putting me in nostalgic mood, I was soon to find myself feeling all sentimental for the, errrm, "glory days" a couple of decades ago when you picked up a local newspaper, read about Sunderland signing someone, and immediately thought "who?". For it was at this time that news broke that the club had agreed a fee, believed to be in the region of €400,000, with Derry City for winger James McClean. Now I will gladly admit that until that moment I had never heard of the player, but there was a little legend in a Blackpool strip on my TV reminding me how foolish it can be to attempt to pre-judge a player based on a modest transfer fee and little reputation.
So what is McClean all about as a player? We didn't know, so we went searching for someone who did. This search led us to the excellent League of Ireland fanzine 'We Play On Fridays', and its Derry City supporting editor Martin Nicholas was eminently qualified to give us a little education on the player.
First of all, what can you tell us about the kind of player James McClean is? Strengths, weaknesses, etc.
Martin: He's a left-winger in the traditional sense - quick, strong, skilful, a quality crosser with a big left foot shot. Our equivalent of the 'rainy night in Stoke,' cliché is to reference travelling to Bray Wanderers and James is the kind of player who very much can produce the goods when you really need him to on those kinds of nights. He's got a great work ethic and the right attitude as well.
Ask just about any Sunderland fan where the gaping hole in our squad is and they'll tell you it is a natural, touchline-hugging left winger capable of maximising the width of the pitch. Is that something McClean is capable of bringing that to the squad?
Martin: Definitely. He's the kind of player who can bolt into the box from the wing, terrifying defenders, or run straight past a player such is his pace and his skill. I've lost count of the number of goals I've seen Derry score where James has shot to the byline and whipped in the kind of ball defenders hate dealing with. When he cuts inside he has a great shot and scores some spectacular goals. I don't think it's any coincidence that Derry City have scored the most goals in the league so far this season or that their top scorer, Éamon Zayed has 19 goals in 25 games - James has been instrumental in that, with ten assists in all.
If you had to compare him to any player currently playing in the Premier League, who would it be?
Martin: Maybe Matthew Etherington, the kind of player who owns the left side of the pitch, provides plenty of assists, and chips in with a few goals. James has bagged himself seven league goals this season.
Sunderland have had some mixed luck with recruiting players from the League of Ireland in the past. Many fans still have nightmares about Roy O'Donovan, but Daryl Murphy did OK, and David Meyler has greatly impressed. How easily are you expecting McClean to make the step up to Premier League football?
Martin: For almost every top flight league in the world, the Premiership is a step up in class and that's very much the case when you compare it to Ireland. Technically, I don't think our best players should have that much of an inferiority complex, but the areas that I think most represent the gap are concentration and fitness. The levels of both have to be far higher when you make that move. You can't afford to switch off in the Premiership the way you can sometimes get away with in Ireland.
Fitness is a big issue too. Look at someone like Patrick McCourt who is probably one of the finest talents to grace the League of Ireland in years, yet he struggled to get match fit at Celtic despite moving from Derry City in the middle of our season.
Hopefully James will be able to up his game - it will only help being surrounded by top flight players and coaches. He certainly has the talent and the work ethic to succeed and I'm sure he'll have the support of the players and fans.
Sunderland fans may look at the player's age, current level, and lack of international recognition at youth level and ask why it has taken him so long to make his mark in the game. Just a late bloomer who's surprised everyone, or was a big move like this always expected to happen for him sooner or later?
Martin: I think there's probably a number of reasons. I'd like to think one of them is the fact that our league is now considered a viable option for talented young players to gain experience. We have a history of shipping 14, 15, 16 year olds out to English clubs as the only way for them to have a career in football but it's great that more and more players seem happy to stay put in the country. James turned down Lincoln a couple of years ago to stay with us. Our top players should be looking for moves to clubs of at least Championship-level - any lower is a step sideways or down in my opinion.
As regards international level, he's just pulled out of the Northern Irish squad to declare for Republic of Ireland. Nigel Worthington, the Northern Irish manager, has a poor record of recognising the quality in the domestic leagues here. It's often the case that a player will impress for months here but never get a sniff of a call-up, then move across the water and find himself in the next squad before he's even tied his bootlaces at his new club. It's incredibly frustrating but it seems he prefers his players to be based in England or Scotland.
Don't forget also that James had to wait for his chance in the Derry City team behind two of the best players the club have seen in the last decade in Paddy McCourt and Niall McGinn - both of whom left for Celtic. He then scored his first goal on his debut against the team who went on to be league champions, albeit in the League Cup. I don't think there's ever really been any doubt that James was going places; much like Seamus Coleman at Sligo Rovers, it's always been a case of 'when, not if.'
And finally, to put you on the spot – how do you predict this move working out for James?
Martin: It's hard to predict these things. Look at someone like Kevin Doyle, for instance. Most Cork City fans will tell you he wasn't even the best player in their squad the year he moved to Reading but his development was phenomenal. Conor Sammon was fourth or fifth choice striker at Derry when he moved to Kilmarnock - he rounded off last season with a goal for Wigan in the Premiership. David Meyler, to use another example, certainly wouldn't have been known throughout the league and wasn't first choice in the Cork midfield when he left. McClean, on the other hand, is/was regarded as one of Derry's pivotal players and one of the best in the league.
I would though unhesitatingly predict boom times for the shoe-stores of North East with James' ongoing quest to wear a new pair of brightly coloured boots in every game he plays in set to continue.
As I said, there's no doubt James has the talent, and he's one of the hardest working players I've seen play for the Candystripes. I'm sure he will make the most of this chance and join the roll call of great players to graduate from our league.
And with that we'd like to extend our thanks to Martin. If you'd like to read more of Martin's musings on all things LOI, then be sure to check out .http://weplayonfridays.com. They can also be found on twitter at @weplayonfridays.