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James McClean exclusive: They were shouting 'f**k the IRA' and stuff about Bobby Sands

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'I truly believe that being Irish is the best thing in the world' says James McClean

'I truly believe that being Irish is the best thing in the world' says James McClean

Republic of Ireland's James McClean sits in the dugout with his left foot strapped during training

Republic of Ireland's James McClean sits in the dugout with his left foot strapped during training

'And I think I’m always going to get some abuse being from Derry and playing for Ireland when I had the choice I had. I think some people are always going to hold that against me, regardless'

'And I think I’m always going to get some abuse being from Derry and playing for Ireland when I had the choice I had. I think some people are always going to hold that against me, regardless'

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'I truly believe that being Irish is the best thing in the world' says James McClean

Where does a lie begin? James McClean thinks he can trace it to a November day in Liverpool three years back, but maybe that's just innocence.

It could be that people think the worst of a man simply because they can, that flapping mouths need to be fed by nothing more than gossip and the carelessness of authority.

So what do you know of him beyond his covenant with a tattooist's needle?

Maybe you see him as spiky, adversarial, challenging. If so, he couldn't blame you. Sometimes he wonders if that's the perception of some managers in the game too, that he's maybe more trouble than he's worth. High maintenance.

Football can leave you sky-high one day, full of emptiness the next and he's rebounded between both extremes. But here's the thing. Even through the worst of it, through the squawking jackdaws in the street, through the social media poison, even through the death threats, he never once regretted what it was he was holding true to. Or, more pertinently, where.

That day in Liverpool?

Sunderland were playing Everton at Goodison Park and, with it coming up to Remembrance Sunday, the plan was that they'd have poppies embroidered into their shirts. For McClean, a child of the Creggan - that giant estate in Derry out of which six funerals crawled after Bloody Sunday in '72 - this was problematic.

He explained his position to both the kit-man and to his manager, a fellow Derry man, Martin O'Neill. Both said that they respected his position. And then? Then a statement was released just prior to kick-off that had the effect of tossing a jug of kerosene on a spark.

What followed degenerated into an ignorant frenzy, Sunderland's supporters turning against him. He remembers a game at Villa Park the following April, the team en route to a terrible 6-1 hiding, and the sound building as he went out to take a corner.

"They were shouting 'f**k the IRA' and stuff about Bobby Sands," he remembers now. His own supporters. O'Neill had, by then, been sacked, the team left to wrestle with the eccentricities of his replacement, Paolo Di Canio.

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Sunderland would just about escape relegation that year, but McClean knew then he had to get away. If there is one good thing he can say for Di Canio, it is that he let him.

*****

Last November, McClean put his name to a beautifully eloquent, respectful open letter to Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, outlining his reasons for not wearing a poppy to mark Remembrance Sunday.

Some friends of his told him after that even they had not, until then, fully understood his stance. But they were the same reasons that he had yearned to put in front of Sunderland's supporters two years earlier only to be told, essentially, that silence might be a better strategy than truth.

To this day, he resents the circus that was allowed usurp his story.

"Speaking honestly, I think I was hung out to dry by the press people at Sunderland," he says now. "That day we were playing Everton, the manager (O'Neill) was brilliant about it. He understood.

"He said 'If that's your decision, I fully support you.' None of the players had an issue with it.

"But pre-game, the press officer went out and issued a statement saying that I wouldn't be wearing a poppy, that it was my own decision and that, as a club, they fully supported the poppy appeal.

"That just drew attention onto it straight away. I don't think it would have been anywhere near as bad as it got if that hadn't happened.

"Then when I asked to be allowed speak about it, I was told that that was a bad idea, not to say anything and let it blow over. So it was kind of brushed under the table and I felt that that was more for the club's benefit than mine.

"I think it could have saved so much hassle. . . when you think two years later I finally get to speak about it. . . for me, that's two years too late! It could have been nipped in the bud from day one. Was there any need to make that statement prior to the game? No, there wasn't.

"To this day I still have a kind of annoyance that that was the case. It irritates me. Because with people not knowing my reasons, even my own fans turned on me. They didn't understand. To them, I was disrespecting their country, disrespecting their fallen heroes, disrespecting their culture, this and that.

"Because I was pushed into a corner and not allowed say anything, people didn't know.

"And they turned on me. It affected me because I could do no wrong before that, then all of a sudden I was getting booed every touch. People saying I shouldn't be in the team and 'f**k off back to Ireland!' Stuff like that.

"I don't know if it's fair to say that I was a scapegoat but, in a way, I think I was. The Sunderland fans are very passionate as it is. When it's good it's good. But very quickly, when it turns bad, it's very bad. They get on to the players really badly.

"And I think it was very easy because of the poppy thing. . . I became an easy target."

There will be a chorus chiming here that McClean, maybe, has not always helped himself. It is a point he isn't inclined to argue. His use of social media certainly wasn't always wise and, perhaps, fuelled the impression of a careless attention seeker. If someone took a swipe, his instinct was to instantly swipe back. It got him into bother. It labelled him.

McClean's love of place became painted as an incendiary personality. Sunderland banned him from using Twitter after he tweeted his love for the Republican folk song, 'The Broad Black Brimmer'.

Having played seven times for Northern Ireland at U-21 level, his decision to commit to the Republic at senior triggered an inevitable blaze of hostility that he was not always inclined to meet with a temperate mind.

He isn't on Twitter anymore now and doesn't baulk at a suggestion that his formative days in professional football might have been less fraught had social media never been invented.

As for the poppy story, he suspects that that open letter to Whelan will have reconciled some critics to his position, but not all.

"I think it will always be an issue," he says quietly. "Because there's a minority of the public who have their views, their strong stances and, regardless of whether I give reasons or not, they'll just see it as disrespectful. That's their view and I respect that. But in return I ask them to respect mine.

CHOICE

"And I think I'm always going to get some abuse being from Derry and playing for Ireland when I had the choice I had. I think some people are always going to hold that against me, regardless.

"That then led onto the poppy stuff, they were adding things up and it even got to the stage where me listening to Irish music became headline news.

"I think it just got a bit ridiculous and added up into people having a bad perception of me. Like, I'm from Ireland. Was it a crime me listening to Irish music? Music that I've grown up with, that I'd say 95pc of the population I grew up with listened to.

"Look I suppose if you're looking for something, you're always going to find something. The thing is I come from Derry where only an odd few knew me. Then I went to England and my every move was scrutinised. It was all so different for me, but I was still the same person I had been in Derry.

"All of a sudden, my every move was in the papers. The stuff I had been doing my whole life.

"Probably naively, I didn't know any different. I was just being me. I was just writing (Twitter) and singing and doing all the things I had done before, but all of a sudden it was all in the papers. I think I learned the hard way that I couldn't be doing that anymore.

"I mean I'm not going to sit here saying I'm some sort of angel. I'm not. I know myself I'm no angel. We all make mistakes and I put my hand up, I've made mistakes.

"I got involved with things I shouldn't have got involved with, letting people intimidate me. Sort of enticing me to get a reaction and being naïve and stupid enough to give them what they wanted.

"When I was with Derry I was kind of the golden boy, there was nothing but good publicity. Now I was getting death threats. I was getting 'I hope you get a career-ending injury', I was being called this and that. And I was like 'Wait a minute who are you to. . .'"

He is a surprise when you meet him. Soft-spoken, engagingly open, polite. And a great, warm smile creases his face when McClean begins to talk about family. Allie Mae started play-school last week. Fifteen months old, a "daddy's girl" and, already, the centre of his universe.

Erin, his fiancée, is expecting again in the autumn. Fatherhood, he says, has changed him, changed him immeasurably. He believes it has educated him on what is truly important in life as distinct from what, essentially, is just noise.

If people seek to pick fights now, he generally takes a deep breath and looks the other way.

That doesn't mean, mind, that his past is a wrecker's yard of regrets. It isn't.

"Look, I'm not going to sit here and say I regret everything I did because, at that moment in time, that was exactly how I felt and how I responded," he explains. "Maybe I'll look back and say I shouldn't have. But I don't really have any great regrets because I am who I am.

"I mean people were saying things like they'd like to see me shot and have my body dragged past the cenotaph or hope you get a career-ending injury. Then you're hearing about my family getting targeted and people abusing them. At the end of the day, I'm only human.

"There's this perception that we (professional footballers) are role models, which we are. A lot of people look up to us. But at the end of the day, we're still human beings too. We're not robots. We've still got feelings and if people touch a nerve, which they're going to do, you are going to respond to it at times.

"I mean some of the people having a go, if someone came up to them in the street and started having a pop at their family, are they just going to walk away? But, because we're footballers and in the limelight, we've just got to brush it away and not respond. Pretend that we're robots.

"It's easier said than done. I'm a very passionate guy on and off the field. I've got my morals, I've got my beliefs, I'm very proud of where I come from and who I am. Sometimes when that's held against you and sort of used as bait, it's easier said than done just to say nothing."

Di Canio's reign at Sunderland was a well-documented car-crash. An autocracy that just grew hooves, a forked-tail and assorted layers of infamy. The Italian insisted on a set menu for the players after training and everybody staying at the table until the last one had finished. It made them feel like children.

"It was like a dictatorship, just all bow down," McClean says. "I think there's a thin line between discipline and going overboard and he well and truly went over that line. In this day and age, rightly or wrongly, players who play at the top level have egos. They're not going to tolerate being spoken to like that."

For McClean, O'Neill's departure had felt like the final straw. Sunderland's Young Player of the Year in his first season, he now felt hopelessly isolated. One week after Di Canio's arrival, he went to the manager's office and told him he wasn't happy.

"I told him it wasn't down to him and it wasn't," McClean recalls. "The story went afterwards that Sunderland got rid of me, sold me off. I just want to clarify that that wasn't the case. I still had two years left after that season. It was my decision. I wanted to leave.

"The fans were on my back. Even when I was going shopping, I was getting abuse in the street. It wasn't a happy place to be. My missus was heavily pregnant at the time, it's not the environment I'd want her in. She was going to the games, hearing me get a lot of abuse. It wasn't nice for her.

"Di Canio said that he didn't want me to leave, that he'd protect me. But I was adamant I wanted to."

The following pre-season, he got his move to Wigan for which - to this day - he is thankful to Di Canio "for not being a stumbling block". His one regret? The conviction that Sunderland never got to see the best of him.

"People seem to forget I didn't have the coaching that everyone else had," he stresses. "I mean I was playing street football until I was 18, until my Derry debut. I was just this raw player who was never properly coached going straight into the Premier League."

To this day, he still hears the odd poisonous chant and, as a wide player, it isn't easy for a man to shut his ears to it. And Wigan are five points adrift of safety in the Championship now, their early-season promotion ambitions long since curdled into a fight for survival.

With just seven games to play, the predicament is testing. McClean says he is hopeful they can still do it, but doesn't shy away from the likely implications of failure.

"Look, I want to stay up with Wigan and hopefully that will be the case," he says. "I honestly still think we can. But if we go down, of course I'll have to re-evaluate my options. I was fortunate enough to play in the Premier League before and that's where I want to be again as soon as possible.

"The prospect of playing in League One is not an option really."

There was talk of a transfer deadline day move to his beloved Celtic that never materialised. His dad rang him that morning to say there was interest and to maybe stay by a phone but, as the day drifted by, he could sense the possibility die. He had a fair idea too that, if he was in Celtic's plans, it was probably as a back-up should their efforts to sign Stuart Armstrong fail.

That afternoon, when the Armstrong deal was confirmed on Sky Sports, McClean knew there would be no mad rush to an airport.

He takes real pride in the man of the match trophy he took home from Gelsenkirchen last year after Ireland's 1-1 draw with the world champions and makes no bones now about the debt he feels he owes O'Neill. "I can't thank him enough," he says. "He gave me my debut in his first game in charge and, from then, my career really took off. When he left Sunderland, I was devastated really."

Before McClean was parachuted into Giovanni Trapattoni's squad for Euro 2012, he'd rejected an approach from the then Northern Ireland manager, Nigel Worthington. It was, he says, an approach he would never seriously consider.

As a child of the Creggan, one of his favourite memories was of the Republic playing in the 2002 World Cup, "getting days off school and the whole place coming to a standstill".

"When I got that call to play for Northern Ireland, I was never going to accept it," McClean reflects. "Northern Ireland is not my country. Unless you're from where I'm from, Creggan - which was a big part of The Troubles when I was growing up - unless you're from there, you don't really understand."

So, the shirt, the anthem, the over-riding sense of playing for his own people now mean a great deal to him.

He has come through the storm of, essentially, growing up in public, surviving the vitriol of the ill-informed, learning the eloquence of restraint.

"I truly believe that being Irish is the best thing in the world," he smiles now. And James McClean looks truly happy.

With the Republic of Ireland v Poland match sold out, the FAI are calling on fans to make the match and show support for the team by kitting themselves out in green on Sunday. Fans are asked to upload their photos using #MaketheMatch on Facebook and Twitter. Prizes will be given for the best displays of support! Twitter: @FAIreland, Facebook: Football Association of Ireland.


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