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.
It was the same, only different, for Con Martin. Martin’s incredible ability saw him make his Eire – as they were known – debut in June 1946 as a goalkeeper. Five months later he made his Ireland – as Northern Ireland were then known – debut in Scotland at left back.
At the time he had left Drumcondra for Glentoran and found digs at the top of Belfast’s Shankill Road. It was an imaginative choice for a Dublin Catholic.
Martin was not alone in playing for both Irelands. The kits were the same and often so were the personnel. In 1932 a united Ireland team was all but agreed – Wolfe Tone would have been delighted – only for IFA and FAI bureaucracy to break down. But team-swapping continued. Until the late 1940s this was the way of things.
As Martin said: “When I went there [Glentoran] I was asked to play for Northern Ireland and I did and I enjoyed it. There was no conflict between the IFA and the FAI.
“I can remember playing for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park on a Saturday and the south of Ireland on a Monday at Dalymount Park. Players like Peter Farrell, Bud Aherne, Tommy Eglington, they all did that. Jackie Vernon, Davie Cochrane, Billy McMillan, they all played for the south.”
In April 1949 Eire left the Commonwealth as a consequence of the Republic of Ireland Act and six months later, at Goodison Park, the team representing the Republic of Ireland became the first from outside the UK to beat England on English soil.
Con Martin, playing now at centre-half, scored the first in that historic, symbolic 2-0 win.
“We were the first foreign team to beat England at home, though we weren’t put down as a foreign team,” Martin recalled. “But that established the Republic of Ireland at international level.”
Growing self-confidence within the FAI meant that the following March, when the IFA called for Martin again, and Manchester United’s Johnny Carey, there was tension. Now at Aston Villa, where he alternated between goalkeeper, defence and midfield, Martin went to play for “Northern” Ireland on the weekend Villa were playing Man United. Matt Busby did not allow Carey to go.
United won 6-0 and as Martin explained: “The next day the Villa chairman called me into his office and showed me a lot of letters from people in the South calling me Judas for playing for the North.
“Villa were getting threatening letters saying they wouldn’t be welcome in the South if I kept playing for the North. That was when the director of Aston Villa asked me to refuse to play for Northern Ireland ever again.”
Martin agreed, reluctantly. Others did the same. “I was very sorry; that was the turning point.” Martin sadly recalled that he stayed in touch with the people he lived with on the Shankill Road until the late 1960s when they advised him that it was best for them if he ceased contact.
The times were changing. But as Con Martin’s past and James McClean’s present prove, just not that much.