The boy has wisdom beyond his years. “You learn more about yourself in the tough times than you do in the good times,” says James McClean. Less a boy now at 27-years-old, arms inked akimbo with tattoos on either side, he still maintains the boyish innocence with which he made his name at the Brandywell in Derry City as a thin but steely winger in Northern Ireland all those years ago – a country which has suffered more blood-stained tough times than most people would care to remember.
McClean’s is a career judged not by his accolades on the field of play, his ability with a ball at his feet or even his intelligence and the stamina which West Brom team-mate Darren Fletcher recently described as greater than that of Cristiano Ronaldo; McClean’s is rather a career critiqued by the media and court of public opinion alike by the player’s frequently defiant utterances of anti-establishment political beliefs.
Making his living in an England charged with political tension unreasonably linked arm-in-arm with sport more and more as years go by – which sees clubs rely on its reserved and modest footballers to politely remain out of the story, keep their answers bland and, above all else, uncontroversial like the role models they ought to be – James Mclean is cast in the role of the cracked Republican rebel for each rendition of the year-long pantomime.
It’s a role which started just days before signing his first Premier League contract with Sunderland in 2011, when the 22-year-old declared that he would play senior international football for the Republic of Ireland, rather than the North where he was born in the housing estate of Creggan, a short walk from the haunting scenes of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when British soldiers shot 26 unarmed civilians, killing 14.
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McClean takes a clear satisfaction from ruffling the feathers of the English establishment and is proud to defend his views and the beliefs of his home town. Following Strabane County Council’s decision to rename Londonderry as Derry last year, which caused Unionists to level accusations of sectarianism against the council, McClean tweeted: “Training finished, gym finished, Derry’s officially getting its rightful name back, have a great day folks”.
Speaking to RTÉ earlier this year, McClean offered an explanation as to why he conducts himself in the manner he does in such a public way, and why he feels a strong sense of duty to uphold the beliefs of the people of Derry in the context of controversies such as facing away from the English flag during God Save the Queen before a pre-season friendly game, and more profoundly his annual refusal to wear the Remembrance Poppy each November. “Creggan people … we are very proud people. You grow up and you’ve got that level of toughness about you. You’re born with it, it’s instilled in you. We’re very proud people and we’ve got that never-say-die attitude,” he recently said.
“But I also think with Creggan people and Derry people you’ll find that during troubles everyone has each other’s back. We’ll stand up for what we believe in. You have to have principles about you – I think that’s something that Derry people can be very proud of, that they’ve got their disciplines and that they stay true to who they are.”
Surely no-one can fault McClean for this, as all people by nature yearn to defend the beliefs of their community, especially in a region of the world like Derry which has suffered so much torment during the years of The Troubles – the nationalistic guerilla warfare between republicans and unionists in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the 1998 signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, during which time more than 3,500 were killed.
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McClean’s personal controversy regarding the poppy all began after his move to Sunderland, when in November 2012 he first refused to wear it in a Premier League game against Fulham at Craven Cottage – the flower historically worn each 11 November to commemorate military personnel who had died since the First World War.
The player declined the opportunity to wear his jersey emblazoned with the red poppy – all players in England are given the choice, McClean being the first and only footballer ever to refuse – with the player later receiving death threats which included one tweet including pictures of bullets, saying: “Poppy bullies’ death threats against James McClean! Too right he deserves to be shot dead + body dragged past the cenotaph!!”
Two years later McClean penned a letter to Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan in the days leading up to Remembrance Day 2014, offering an official explanation over his refusal to partake in a custom which has, crucially, only been implemented across all Premier League games since 2010, much to public misconception.
“I wanted to write to you before talking about this face to face and explain my reasons for not wearing a poppy on my shirt for the game at Bolton,” McClean wrote to Whelan. “I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one.”
It continued: “But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me. For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.
“Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history.
“It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people. I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.”
In spite of his explanation, many have continued to take issue with McClean for his not partaking in the commemorations, viewing the decision as purposefully spiteful, disrespectful and indicative of the player’s pro-Republican, anti-British agenda in view of the fact he resides in England and earns his salary there. As many have pointed out in the last year, the decision to wear a poppy is a choice and if the decision is forced upon a player then, by definition, the respect intended in the act is lost entirely.
Despite this, media outlets continue to highlight McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy on a yearly basis in an attempt to raise the topic to a level of controversy which has long been laid to a reasonable and rationalised rest. ‘James McClean refuses to wear Remembrance Day poppy AGAIN in West Brom vs Man City’, read a story inside the Mirror this October, capital letters all inclusive just in case the reader needed an extra jolt to get up-in-arms, red-faced angry about the matter. It continued: ‘The Baggies midfielder continues to abstain from showing respect for members of the armed forces who lost their lives in the First World War.’
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But controversy will always follow McClean wherever he goes because of who he is and where he comes from, all the while looming a shadow over what has in the last 12 months been a blooming and rejuvenated playing career, at the very least in the green jersey of Martin O’Neill’s international side.
McClean has become an integral member of O’Neill’s starting line-up, scoring three times in Ireland’s six World Cup qualifiers this year, including what could prove to be a decisive 1-0 victory away to Austria, on top of stamina-fuelled performances of grit and determination at Euro 2016 against Italy and France having been benched for O’Neill’s opening two group games.
Indeed it was O’Neill, a Derry man, who gave McClean his Premier League debut at Sunderland, and O’Neill’s possible future successor in Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny who plotted his rise from vicarious and bony Derry City winger to Premier League regular, from 2008 to 2011 in the League of Ireland. “I’ve always said how much I hold Stephen in a high regard,” said McClean. “At the end of the day he’s the guy who gave me my break in football. I was a skinny, raw 18-year-old when he gave me my debut. He showed that he had that faith and that trust in me. I’ve always felt that I needed to repay that faith and I think I have. In football terms, he is like a father-figure. Some players need to be verbally abused to get fired-up but Stephen’s man-management is the one thing about him.”
McClean’s playing career began with an unnerving sense of expectation alongside promise when he was included in Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad for Euro 2012, the Italian bringing the young player on for his tournament debut when 3-0 down to champions Spain in the 76th minute in a desperate response to public pleas to utilise the winger’s evident talent, the 22-year-old having gone unused versus Croatia in their opening-day defeat in an aging squad in desperate need of fresh legs, new ideas and young tenacity.
Later making his disapproval of Trapattoni’s decision public, McClean has since been one of the foremost rising stars of O’Neill’s new-look Irish setup who have now risen to 23rd in the FIFA world rankings alongside an extremely strong chance of qualifying for a first World Cup since 2002, sitting atop Group D with 10 points from a possible 12 after four games.
It appears now, at last, heading towards the latter stages of his 20s, that the roughness of youth and political upheaval that moulded what we defined James McClean to be is now being replaced by a more measured, astute and capable football player who could, having represented Northern Ireland at underage level, be the first man from Derry to represent the Republic at a World Cup.
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In his explanatory statement over the poppy debacle to Dave Whelan during his time at Wigan Athletic, McClean described himself as a man of peace and tolerance, something which he himself has grown accustomed to living without. “I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs,” he wrote.
As a defector of Northern Irish international football and as a Catholic, Irish international living in England, he finds himself a lone wolf in an atmosphere of toxic intolerance against anything opposed to the political status quo. As the most recent poppy controversy has shown, where FIFA ruled that the English national side could no longer wear them due to their political nature, football fans have become accustomed to a hand-in-hand approach of respect, memorial and war becoming normalised into the matchday experience and enjoy it.
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Army personnel are a common sight at games, moments of silence are respected no matter what the person who has died’s relevance is to the sport, and customs of marking the deaths of those during warfare are absolutely essential and mandatory, regardless of one’s own beliefs or connections to the conflict in question.
However, in amongst all of this saturated grandeur of respect and memorial and remembering, football fans and officials have become blinded to respecting the very reasons for, sometimes, not paying homage. McClean’s reasoning for his actions are perfectly rational no matter what one’s political views are or allegiances may be.
As McClean himself points out, football fans, like all people, must subscribe to an underlying set of principles which begin and end with an unwavering sense of tolerance. Only then can we move forward and truly honour and respect those who have fallen, in both a unified and meaningful way.
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FIFA’s ruling regarding England’s use of the poppy during international games last month said, “Players must not reveal undergarments that show political, religious, personal slogans, statements or images, or advertising other than the manufacturer’s logo.”
In a glaring loophole which adheres to personal freedoms, McClean adorns a tattoo along his left thigh which reads YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY. He is undoubtedly the most politically-charged footballer in England and while much of the vitriol thrown in his direction is unwarranted, it cannot in any way be surprising or unexpected.
Once a promising 22-year-old starlet, his political viewpoints against English football’s established conventions means his legacy will not be forged on the field of play as he nears closer to reaching his 30s.
While the expectation pinned to his future promise following an explosive start at Derry and Sunderland may have petered low in recent seasons, a rejuvenation in the green jersey throughout 2016 means McClean’s legacy to Irish football could be representing a respected, football-playing Martin O’Neill side at two major tournaments as well as an unprecedented duty towards his community of Creggan and maintaining the beliefs and dignity of his people.
Forever bringing us back to a lingering memory of that skinny, brash 18-year-old piling down wings in the empty vastness of the Brandywell in Derry City, the engravement on McLean’s gravestone after he has passed won’t read his Premier League appearances or goal tally, but rather those words which he wrote to Dave Whelan two years ago: “In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.”