Rebel without a pause: the relentless James McClean

Sideline Cut: The Derry footballer brings the tang of his home city to Copenhagen

James McClean: his leg tattoo reads “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can,  and wisdom to know the difference.” Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

James McClean: his leg tattoo reads “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

 

Barcelona may be the cradle of football civilisation, and may one day gift the world with another Lionel Messi, but deep down they know they will never be capable of producing a player like James McClean. That’s because it’s impossible to imagine the Irish winger emerging from anywhere other than Derry City.

Here he comes again: storming through the dank Saturdays of another November in which he is cast as a figure of hatred across England’s football theatres for his personal decision not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy. Here he is railing against the BBC, Voice of Blighty, for highlighting a heavy tackle he made but ignoring the bottles and coins then flung at him from a contingent of last Saturday’s Huddersfield crowd enraged by his presence.

McClean has moved into the epicentre of the uncompromising, direct and staggeringly unpretty football team shaped by Martin O’Neill

Just a month has passed since Wales were left stricken by Ireland’s lone precision strike throughout 90 minutes of orchestrated anarchy in which McClean was ringleader and scorer of the lone goal. In the five years since he has been playing for the Republic of Ireland – shrugging off the death threats for not declaring for Northern Ireland – McClean has moved into the epicentre of the uncompromising, direct and staggeringly unpretty football team shaped by Martin O’Neill.

Technically, the sight of McClean rampaging along Ireland’s left wing with the ball somewhere ahead of him, not so much eluding opposition players as steamrollering through them, probably draws a pitiful smile from the finesse coaches at the big continental clubs. They may shake their heads in despair at the head-down, stampeding bursts forward that occasionally threaten to see the Irishman sprinting not just beyond the end line but also out of the stadium altogether. They may lament the overwhelmingly left-side-of-the-brain slant to his play and suppress a smile at the occasional wildly ambitious and just plain wild attempts to let fly with a thunderbolt from outside the box.

James McClean: the winger celebrates scoring against Wales in October. Photograph: Athena/Getty
James McClean: the winger celebrates scoring against Wales in October. Photograph: Athena/Getty

But then, like the rest, they begin to realise that McClean never stops, that he can’t be worn down and that he won’t ever be beaten back: he’s the storm tide that never ebbs and therefore a flame-haired Creggan-accented pulsing nightmare for more cultured footballers who like to take a breather and appreciate the nuances of the game.

For McClean a football match is a dive deep into primal instinct and place: like his amusing assertion that “95 per cent of the Irish population probably listens to The Wolfe Tones” – yes, he got into some sort of bother a while back for listening to The Wolfe Tones – it only works if you hurl yourself into the experience, body and soul.

This is the sixth winter that his stance on poppy wearing has flared into something dark and nasty. McClean has tried time and again to explain his reasoning

In a time when professional footballers are warned and coached to say absolutely nothing and to say it as blandly as possible, McClean is almost a renegade. This is the sixth winter that his stance on poppy wearing has flared into something dark and nasty. He has tried time and again to explain his reasoning: while his respect for the soldiers who died in both World Wars is absolute, the poppy is a symbol of remembrance for those who died in all wars.

In an open letter to Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan in advance of not wearing a poppy against Bolton, he acknowledged that Whelan’s grandfather Paddy, from Tipperary, was among the Irishmen to have died in the Great War.

“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.” But as a Creggan child born in 1989 but still reared with an intimate knowledge of Bloody Sunday, in 1972, his belief is that “to wear a poppy would be as much a disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.”

That message hasn’t really got through, and when you are among the crowd 40,000 strong, and see WBA’s enforcer wearing a poppyless shirt, it is all too easy to reduce the image to that of blatant anti-British behaviour by an Irish footballer earning princely living from English football. It is easy, when among the crowd, to reach for the coins, to fling the object. McClean is a throwback: an outspoken footballer unafraid to stand by his views.

His stance on the poppy saw him ask for a transfer from Sunderland, where life had become unbearable, and consider a move to New York Red Bulls before taking a reduced wage at Wigan (“It was a no-brainer,” he said in a BBC interview) and now operating as a fiery, wholehearted winger at West Bromwich Albion.

The easier path for McClean would have been to remain muted and join the ranks of the-lad’s-done-well. But it would have been impossible for him. Think of the voices and sounds swirling around that city: Seamus Deane, The Undertones, Heaney, Eamonn McCann, Martin O’Neill, John Hume, That Petrol Emotion, Nell McCafferty: it doesn’t matter if McClean was bothered by all or any of these voices; he’s been hearing their echoes all of his life.

James McClean: an angry fan points to his chest as he shouts at the Irish winger for not wearing a poppy during West Bromwich Albion’s match against Huddersfield. Photograph: Ed Sykes/Reuters
James McClean: an angry fan points to his chest as he shouts at the Irish winger for not wearing a poppy during West Bromwich Albion’s match against Huddersfield. Photograph: Ed Sykes/Reuters

That’s why he chose to go public with a tribute to Martin McGuinness in the week of his death, knowing that it would provoke criticism that was in some instances understandable and in other instances merely inflammatory.

The common portrayal of Premier League footballers is of spoilt young princelings, rewarded with life-changing wealth before they’ve hardly kicked a football, and cut off from the supporters on the terraces. It has never been that simple.

For McClean that connection with the crowd is everything: it’s the fuel for his game. And it can’t be easy, when November comes around, for McClean to stand steadfastly apart regardless of the booing, the jeering, the missiles and the wilful depiction of his presence as a wilful insult to England’s war dead.

Everyone knows that the vast majority of English people have no interest in, let alone antipathy towards, Irish people or the Troubles in Northern Ireland. That is why it is so easy to reduce McClean’s position to that of insult. As Barbara Windsor – Shoreditch girl, child of the Blitz and landlady to all of England – told Sky News with sincere indignation when selling poppies a few years ago, anyone who doesn’t wear one “can sod off”.

All we know is that McClean will be up for it. He doesn’t try to disguise his football limitations – and will never be discouraged by them either

That’s the impossible no-man’s-land on to which McClean has walked and refuses to budge. Time is a goon: if today’s football stars had simply been around 100 years earlier then they, of course, would be the cannon fodder, rushing to the front lines. It’s not hard to imagine McClean being among them. Instead it’s his destiny to be around in 2017, to be who he is for better or worse and, more immediately, to introduce the tang of his home city to chilly, sophisticated Copenhagen for tonight’s assignment with Ireland.

All we know is that he will be up for it. He doesn’t try to disguise his football limitations – and will never be discouraged by them either. In this way James McClean has become the Pole Star of the Martin O’Neill era of Irish football.

This above all: to thine own self be true.

Who again was it from Derry who said that?

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