Signed for an initial £350,000, James McClean's arrival on Wearside was inconsequential. Or, at least, it was meant to be. ‘One for the development squad', told those still awaiting the right addition to Sunderland's left-hand side. The rise of McClean is a well-told story - as is the one about senior Sunderland players pleading with Steve Bruce to start the Irish youngster - but just as prominent on Wearside these days are criticisms of last year's revelation.
Ahead of the European Championships last summer, Martin O'Neill pledged that his break-out star ‘wouldn't care who the right-back for Spain was'. McClean's apparent disregard for reputation was refreshing amidst his debut season at Premier League level. One year on and McClean has a reputation of his own, not just through his playing ability, admittedly. His biggest test to date is harnessing the expectation; the element of surprise a token of what - and who - he has left behind.
It was something that Steve Guppy, the former Leicester City wing and now Sunderland coach noted this week. Speaking to the Sunderland Echo, he said:
James is a great talent, but he's going to face challenges throughout his career, like everyone else.
Last season, he was regularly knocking the ball past his full-back, racing him, beating him and putting a cross in.
This season, full-backs are getting really tight on James and working hard at denying him any space to work in.
You see him play the ball inside more now, rather than feel he has to try beating his man every single time no matter how tough it is for him.
The latest part of the former Derry City winger's development is not unlike Harry Redknapp's desire to see Gareth Bale deployed more centrally - an attempt to present a direct, creative player with the opportunity to do such, away from the boundary of the touchline. Sunderland's manager toyed with the idea of McClean as a right-sided option in pre-season, enabling him to cut inside and stray from the perilous double-marking tactic that nullified his impact as his spectacular first season drew to a close. Their playing styles similar, too; Bale's knock-it-and-run calling card was the Irishman's opening act on the grand stage with a Stadium of Light fearing another defeat at the hands of Blackburn Rovers. McClean's rangy and powerful frame provided a would-be weapon in O'Neill's counter-attacking system. Yet the new season has seen teams operate an almost doorman-like approach to the VIP space behind right-backs. McClean, tattooed and pale, is rebuffed.
The round-a-bout way of re-establishing McClean is to use the extra attention to Sunderland's advantage. Guppy this week suggested that "It will be harder to limit him because double-marking one player leaves other areas of the park free for us." The problem with this is two-pronged; the coach freely admits that the rest of the team is not as effective as it can be at present, and McClean does not keep the ball well enough. McClean has been dispossessed, on average, almost five times a game. He and Stephane Sessegnon lead the entire league for losing possession - a snapshot of Sunderland's unproductive attack thus far.
McClean, at present, is simply experiencing the other extreme of the spectrum, in the league anyway (he has three goals in the Capital One Cup). Having rocketed from unknown to stardom, his stock is on its way back down. But isn't this what we all expected? The inconsequential bypassed relevancy and became essential. Bale was encouraged to find the middle, McClean just needs to find a middle ground.