JAMES McClean further emphasised his meteoric rise under Martin O’Neill with a third goal of the season to seal Sunderland’s 1-0 success at Stoke City.
But O’Neill believes McClean may not be the last of Sunderland’s rookies to make a successful transition from the reserves to the first-team.
Eight of Sunderland’s youngsters are out on loan in the Football League, with the likes of Ryan Noble, Louis Laing and John Egan all featuring on the bench for the Black Cats first-team this season.
O’Neill has pledged they will not be promoted to the senior set-up before they are ready, yet pointed to the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey, who he developed into England internationals after handing them their chance at previous clubs Aston Villa and Leicester.
But for the moment, all eyes are on McClean, right, as the 22-year-old’s strike settled the weather-scarred battle at the Britannia Stadium.
O’Neill said: “He seems really level-headed, he’s enjoying every minute of it, and I met his father and younger brother for the first time last week.
“They are delighted with him, as am I. He’s a great kid and he wants to learn.
“We’ve got five or six players who have got a chance of making it and we’ve sent them out on loan.
“They’ve seen the breakthrough James has made and they feel they can do it if they go out and get some games.
“First of all, the player has to have ability. You don’t want to fast-track someone who is useless – I’ve tried that before!
“But James McClean is far from useless.
“I have done it before and it’s been great to see the progress of a young Heskey at Leicester or Agbonlahor at Villa.
“So there are comparisons you could draw.”
McClean’s goal was one of only two genuine incidents of note in Saturday’s encounter – the other prompting far more debate as Stoke defender Robert Huth was sent off on the stroke of half-time for a lunge on Sunderland midfielder David Meyler.
O’Neill took the side of referee Martin Atkinson, who deemed Huth had used excessive force.
O’Neill added: “My initial view was that it was going to be a red card, what with the new directives that the referees have been given.”
“The players around it thought it was a red card.”