Journey from footballer to political football not in McClean's interest
Sunderland's James McClean in action. Photographs: Getty and Inpho
SOCCER ANGLES:Sunderland winger should forget Twitter and focus on his football career, writes MICHAEL WALKER
On an ordinary weekday at the back end of the last century, an extraordinary man of that time sat in his armchair in Glasnevin, north Dublin, and talked of an Irish life that began in 1923. It was a privilege to meet Con Martin; it was shaking hands with history. Yesterday in Sunderland, meanwhile, Martin O’Neill sat back and discussed, with some wariness, and perhaps weariness, James McClean.
McClean is back in the headlines in the week that Con Martin’s death one month short of his 90th birthday also, rightly, made news. Martin’s passing was momentous; McClean’s Twitter-tweeting was apparently frivolous, but
. . . maybe not. What connects the two men is the game they play, who they have played it for, and Irish identity.
More than 60 years on from Con Martin’s pivotal presence in an escalating dispute between the Belfast-based Irish Football Association (IFA) and the Dublin-based Football Association of Ireland (FAI), the identity issue remains – and it remains contentious.
The reaction to James McClean’s recent tweet concerning a Wolfe Tones song has been stronger than the 23-year-old from Derry anticipated, though it did not require much foresight to think the DUP might not appreciate it. They haven’t, just in case you’ve missed it, building on a dislike of McClean that springs from his movement from the sporting jurisdiction of IFA to FAI.
There is very little McClean could ever do to win over the constituency represented by Gregory Campbell.
The prospect of him wanting to is equally thin. McClean has previously and continues to display the belligerent self-righteousness of many a young man. He would appear to have a strident sense of his Derry self and plenty would say fair play to him for that. And by the way, was Wolfe Tone himself not rather loud on the topic of self-determination?
The problem for McClean and Sunderland is that they are in England and his current newsworthiness is Irish and literally unsporting. McClean is fortunate that in O’Neill he has a manager who knows the geography of the issue. O’Neill said yesterday that the player has not been fined two weeks’ wages – but even the manager’s empathy may have been tested by the repetition of McClean’s darts into broadcast.
The message to the player from his manager was to “clear his head” of non-football matters and concentrate on rediscovering the form of 12 months ago. O’Neill, as he said, wants McClean to consider why Pablo Zabaleta marked him more closely this season than last and what the winger is going to do about that.
Sunderland need McClean to be a nuisance to the opposition, not to Sunderland.
So the young man is off Twitter until the end of the season at least. But that’s been said before and there would hardly be shock were McClean to reappear on the medium in the near future. He may have shown naivety in not expecting such a broadside response, although having received death threats in the past and endured the Poppy-day furore, he should know already what he means to some people.
Deep down there must also be some personal awareness that in the journey from footballer to political football, McClean loses part of the reason Sunderland want him in the first place. This is a moment when McClean’s career can go either way.