Republic of Ireland international James McClean says he received a letter of support from a senior official at the English FA in advance of last week’s Remembrance Day club fixtures in England.
The Derryman declined to name the person who made contact but said that he was encouraged to report any abuse he was subjected to during Stoke City’s game at Barnsley on Saturday. Somewhat inevitably, he was verbally abused during the game, the club’s first under new manager Michael O’Neill, but, he says he appreciated the gesture.
“For the first time ever, I got a text message from the FA showing support on the eve of the game so that’s a first one,” he said this week.
“Maybe the tide is turning. I appreciate the text; it said that if there were any issues, I should report it. It was the first time that such support was shown. It’s a long time coming and it’s something I appreciate. I was shocked because it was a random number. But as much as I was shocked, I appreciate it as well.”
Asked if feels that the move represents the start of a significant shift in the way football’s engagement with Remembrance Day is viewed, he did not sound hopeful.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “But I think if you bang on the door long enough eventually someone is going to answer. Maybe it took me calling it out a few times for them to respond. But they responded so fair play.”
Pressed on the role of the person who made contact he said simply: “High up. That is why I was so shocked that it actually came.”
McClean has a long history of being targeted over his refusal to wear a poppy, a stand made much more obvious by the trend for the clubs to have special shirts, incorporating the symbol, made up for the games around November 11th.
This has been done so that they can be auctioned off afterwards as part of campaign to raise funds for the Royal British Legion but it has only served to add to the discomfort of the very small number of players who have said they prefer not to participate for various personal reasons; publicly isolating them and marking them out as targets for abuse.
In 2014, while playing for Wigan Athletic, the then 25-year-old Derryman won some praise when he sought to explain his position in an open letter to club chairman Dave Whelan who was widely reported to have been unhappy over his stand. The letter also provoked an angry reaction from some supporters, however.
“I get through every November okay,” he says with a sigh. “But yeah, you get abuse.”
The players union in England, the PFA, has expressed support in recent seasons for the right of players who opt out of wearing a poppy and the organisation issued a strong statement on the issue last week.
Still, McClean was abused during the Barnsley game with the match referee apparently reporting incidents of “discriminatory behaviour” as what were described by one newspaper as “anti-IRA” and anti-Pope” were directed at the Irishman.
The English FA has since launched an investigation.