Saturday 16 December 2017

Aidan O'Hara: McClean playing a dangerous game

THE day after Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title in 1964, he announced to the world that he was giving up his Christian faith, joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali. It wasn't the usual 'I'll give him a rematch' mundane stuff.

He became a pariah in many parts of the United States, which was in the grip of racial tensions and, had he lost and made the same announcement, there's a strong chance that his career would have ended on the spot. The difference is, it's much easier to ignore and vilify a loser than a champion.

On Saturday, if he didn't know it already, James McClean discovered if you're going to be different, you'd better be good enough to back it up.

McClean was booed by sections of the Sunderland supporters when he was brought on as a substitute after they had completed a comeback from 2-0 down at home against Fulham.

It was a point at which the crowd should have been supportive of any decision made by the manager having turned defeat into a chance of victory. Usually, the introduction of an exciting winger would be greeted with approval, but it's worrying for McClean that his arrival provoked such hostility.

Had it not been for Twitter, McClean would be seen as a dedicated pro, who doesn't drink alcohol, but is struggling for form and confidence in one of the most competitive leagues in the world. He might have been criticised for not wearing a poppy on his jersey, but the subsequent auction for charity would have served him well in mitigation.

Instead, we know that, in his own words he was "fuming" after not featuring in Ireland's World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan last September; that his previous profile picture on the social media network was of him holding a plaque with the inscription 'Welcome to Free Derry' and that his favourite song is 'Broad Black Brimmer' by the Wolfe Tones.

If you are plying your trade in a country that wouldn't be overly fond of Irish republicanism, it's not the wisest career move to be putting such personal views into the public domain.

There's a school of thought that argues McClean is entitled to his view and shouldn't be forced to conform, but that rather misses the point that the player needs to be clever enough not to put himself, repeatedly, in such situations. It's the sort of argument that could be put forward in an ideal world, where for example, somebody could walk around a busy Irish town on the day of an Old Firm game wearing a Rangers jersey simply because they like the team in the way others follow Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea. If anybody wants to try it for experimental purposes, I promise to visit them in hospital.

Given the views of his supporters, DUP politician Gregory Campbell might have been shooting into an open goal when he went looking for the oxygen of publicity in criticising McClean's choice of song, but three of the words he offered in advice – stick to football – must be heeded quickly.

At the moment, McClean has had as many Twitter accounts this season as he has Premier League goals and the warnings from his manager Martin O'Neill are becoming ever more stark.

"I think he realises the best thing is to leave things alone and concentrate on footballing issues," said O'Neill before Saturday's game. "If you take your eye off the ball, you can disappear very, very quickly."

The problem is that O'Neill was forced to make very similar remarks in September when McClean closed his previous Twitter account after criticising Giovanni Trapattoni and, with it, irritated several senior players within the Ireland camp.

It's impossible to prove that a Twitter account can have a negative effect on somebody's performance on the pitch, but given the bile that athletes – and footballers, in particular – leave themselves open to, it's equally hard to believe that it has no effect.

Also last week, a man two weeks younger than McClean who has endured questions about his nationality, walked off the golf course and into a storm. But the difference between McClean and Rory McIlroy is their level of talent which makes it easier for McIlroy to win a Major or two and have the current unpleasantness put down to the growing pains.

McClean is never going to be the best footballer in the world, but his form needs to improve to the point where McClean as a footballer is not judged because of McClean as a person.

"You've got to think about it a little bit more before you say something or do something," said Tiger Woods, about McIlroy and the spotlight that comes with increasing fame. "It can get out of hand, especially when you get into social media and start tweeting and all those different things that can go wrong, jokingly saying something doesn't always come off. It could be perceived as something else."

O'Neill could do worse than to put Tiger's comments onto the dressing- room wall.

Irish Independent

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