Michael O’Neill is enjoying the excitement – and occasional challenge – of managing James McClean.
McClean has come to the fore as a key Stoke City player on the left wing in the winter under O’Neill, upping his assist and goal rate while posting career-best fitness statistics even if he turns 31 later this month.
Off the pitch there has also been the good, bad and daft of a man with fiercely-held principles.
He apologised and was fined by the club for an Instagram post wearing a paramilitary-style balaclava earlier this month – while also privately donating significantly to the Donna Louise Trust and extra much-needed personal protection equipment to his local hospital in Derry.
But he has found a manager who believes in him – and one who believes there is still more potential to be fulfilled on the pitch.
O’Neill said: “For me, James hasn’t been a difficult player to manage at all.
“We obviously come from the same part of the world and I knew James way back.
“I saw James develop as a youngster at Derry City when I was manager of Shamrock Rovers. I remember him coming into the team as a strong, powerful young boy and having a decent impact right away. I’ve followed his career with great interest and seen how well he’s done.
“James is such a willing, whole-hearted player, he just at times needs a little bit of guidance.
“James plays at almost full throttle the whole game and, for me, it’s about taking him away from that a little bit so he’s not always at that point in time.
“I look at how he got hurt in the Preston game, for example, and it’s probably a tackle he doesn’t need to make. He just maybe needs to control his emotions a bit better on the pitch.
“But for me, he’s been excellent when you look at the number of goals he assisted and the number he’s scored as well.
“So there’s a lot of positive things in his play, but he maybe needs a bit of help tactically and that’s something we continue to work on.
“He came into the game a bit late and from a non Academy-style background, so I still think there’s development in James even though he’s 30/31 and hopefully we can add just a little bit of subtlety to his game as well.
“So there’s more to come from James.”
The world of football remains in limbo due to the pandemic – and that includes O’Neill’s other role in charge of Northern Ireland.
A Euro 2020 qualifying play-off against Bosnia remains pencilled into the diary after the Euros were postponed under 2021 – but, if it is held in June, which still seems unlikely, there would be a difficult balancing act with a rush to finish the domestic season.
O’Neill said: “Obviously, if the play-off game was in June, there would be a discussion about whether I would be in a position to take the game or not.
“Then if it didn’t happen in June, at that point in time it would be right to sit down and make the right decision for everyone.
“I don’t think Uefa have necessarily scheduled that game particularly well because I can’t see us starting the (domestic) season and then having to stop for an international break.
“We will also have 16 countries playing in the play-offs, so that’s 16 groups of players potentially travelling, 16 groups of players coming and going to different countries possibly. And all at different stages of where their own football has resumed back again.
“So I must admit, it’s a very, very ambitious date to play the play-offs by and, given the Euro finals has been pushed back a year, they have got a lot of time to play those games.
“So, if the game doesn’t materialise in June, my priority is obviously with Stoke and the nine games we have left to make sure we continue to progress up the table.
“But at that point, the three parties will sit together and find a solution that’s right for everyone.”