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Hatred balanced with love: James McClean on mental health, the poppy fallout and how being a dad remains his escape


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James McClean: ‘We’re in 2020 but things seem to getting worse rather than better.' Photo: Ramsey Cardy

James McClean: ‘We’re in 2020 but things seem to getting worse rather than better.' Photo: Ramsey Cardy

SPORTSFILE

James McClean: ‘We’re in 2020 but things seem to getting worse rather than better.' Photo: Ramsey Cardy

Saturday morning in the West Midlands and James McClean throws his curtains open to greet the new dawn peeping through weeping clouds. Did he really expect to see one that was so much different than that which greeted him the day before? Did he really believe that the setting and the rising of the sun would simply mean that a Brexit breakdown would merely be replaced by a Brexit breakthrough?

Alas, he thinks not. Saturday is just another day. Life goes on.

For some, many of them football fans, life will continue with a constant outburst of mostly verbally expressed anger, as much a rage against otherness as a desire to remain closeted from the rest of the world.

McClean is one of many thousands who have borne the brunt of this opprobrium and, although the circumstances may seem unique in his case, and to those of us in Ireland so bleakly familiar, the emotional impacts on him and his family remain the same as they do for any other man or woman, whatever their race, creed or sexuality.

Independence day or Doomsday; can anyone really tell the difference? How do people feel now? Why should they feel any different? Nobody expects Britain to change its relationship with itself just because it has broken its relationship with someone else.

"Maybe?" he wonders hopefully before immediately scoffing at his own naiveté. "I don't know. I try not to get sucked into it. Brexit has had a huge effect on everyone. You'd hope it might calm down now. It's a society thing. People are becoming more and more racist and more and more divisive. And then on the other side it's becoming a more snowflake generation as well.

"And in tandem, those two don't go very well together. Everyone is offended by everyone else. Society! It's just shocking man. The things that are happening in society today. We're in 2020 but things seem to getting worse rather than better."

So yesterday morning, with a few hours off after Friday night's damaging defeat to Derby, when he ran the now familiar gauntlet of hate - not as obviously virulent but hatred is still hatred regardless of nomenclature - there is only one thing for McClean to do. He closes the curtains and walks downstairs. He knows change because he has lived it. Last night he was a footballer. But today he is a father.

"It's amazing. I was so intense and fixated with football before, it would literally take over my life. A defeat would stick in my head for days, I would get worked up and have arguments with my wife. The rest of the family would take the brunt of it. If I scored a goal, I'd be on an unnatural high. But since my youngest was born, I know there are more important things in life. Now if I get beat on a Saturday, I go home and close the door and know that being a father is the most important job of all. And my life is all the better for it."

And downstairs waiting for him is the broadest smile in the world, from a face which seems incapable of emitting even the merest twitch of anger. It is his daughter Willow, briefly breaking away from her siblings on the TV couch to embrace her dad.

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James' wife Erin with daughter Willow at the launch of the sensory hub at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

James' wife Erin with daughter Willow at the launch of the sensory hub at Aviva Stadium. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

She is two-and-a-half now, the youngest of three kids to James and Erin, a sister to Allie-Mae (7) and James Jr (5).

Earlier this month, she spoke her first word. Aptly, given her father's profession, it was 'ball'. Willow has autism, serious enough to delay her speech for so long; until more extensive diagnosis when she is four, they are unsure where she may be on the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

"Things are getting more difficult for her," says McClean. "And then that makes it more difficult for us to do things with her outside of her comfort zone. Which is basically the house, with me and Erin, and her brother and sister. Anything else is hard to deal with. Even when family come over, because it's not part of her regular routine so it's upsetting for her."

And so the flight to Dublin last week, to launch a special sensory room in the Aviva Stadium for families who have children on the ASD, was particularly difficult. As can even the simplest shopping trip.

The family arrive in Dublin on the same day a politician has wantonly deployed 'autistic' as a verbal weapon; in her sphere, an apology neatly smooths the painful damage caused; it jars with McClean's world, where deep political conviction can bring death threats to your family's door.

"It's a real eye-opener in many ways," he says, correctly, not necessarily wishing to demean himself to deal directly with the deeply dim politician. "People who were ignorant in the past probably don't understand but that doesn't excuse them now. When you see a screaming kid on a plane or in a shopping centre, the natural instinct is to try to shut it down and get angry and tell them to stop.

"But now we know what people might be dealing with and it makes you more empathetic. It ensures you don't judge people when you're out and about, if someone is struggling with a child or even an adult. You can't react until you see the whole picture. If you cannot see a disability, it doesn't mean there isn't one there."

Some ignorance replaces anger with condescension, a trait familiar to any parents with children of lesser mental or physical ability. Often, it can be more wounding even if mined from the same pit of ignorance.

"It's not nice in a way even to say 'Ah, poor kid' because the kid's normal," he says in exasperation, recalling one such incident. "She's not a poor kid at all.

"Willow loves her day-to-day life. She's always happy. She's very happy. Just because she doesn't have the level of understanding of the other two siblings, it doesn't mean she's any less joyous in herself. She enjoys a great life and we love her. She's not treated any differently."

Aviva has installed a new sensory hub in Aviva Stadium as part of its sponsorship of the home of Irish rugby and soccer. The hub includes a Cubbie Booth sensory solution and will be accessible to all fans. McClean appreciates his good fortune, that at home, they have been able to create a sensory hub for their daughter, similar to that now in the Aviva but otherwise a rarity, and an expensive one at that, for most normal folk.

It is Willow's safe place, when the world, even her intimate family world, becomes just too much; and so she retreats to the oasis of soothing music, calming lights and toys that are soft and yielding to impatient touch. Somewhere to be when the noise gets too much.

Does her father have a safe place, too? When the noise gets too unbearable? After all, he can't hide on the pitch.

"Aye, I do. I'm one of those who likes his own company. Each day, one of myself or Erin will say to the other, 'I need to have a break.' It's just a breather, a time to relax, to get away from everything, family and work. Switch off for an hour. She'll understand and let me be. Sometimes the kids can come up too, lie beside me and watch a DVD. But all outside contact is shut off.

"Because it can all get on top of you. I've always done it. I've always liked my own company and I know how to be on my own. Sometimes when there's a break from school I don't even go home to Derry straight off. I might take one or two days just to be with myself."

We recall speaking with Lurgan's Northern Ireland international Neil Lennon when he received death threats a generation ago while with Celtic; the toll on his mental health was obvious then but somehow McClean has carried his burden - whatever one's opinion might be on the wisdom of bearing such a weight.

"Mental health is a huge thing now, particularly in men," says McClean, likely to win his 66th cap in the Euro 2020 play-off against Slovakia next month. "But I've never felt depressed or down to the extent it's taking me over. I have bad days but nothing extreme. Maybe what I do is good mental exercise, I never designed it that way but it clearly helps, switching off."

The toll sustained by his noted refusal to wear a poppy seems unbearable but he firmly feels his conviction is worth the price. Slowly, the mood music is beginning to change, even if primarily prompted by the UK's guilt at underlying and hitherto ignored problems with racist abuse.

"As much as I criticise the authorities, they've been very good," he says, before smiling wryly. "Be careful what you wish for! They're nearly annoying me at this stage! My phone hasn't stopped, they're constantly in contact.

"They've charged Barnsley, they're making tannoy announcements, conducting more investigations. And the club (Stoke City) have backed me in the last few months. It feels like someone has my back whereas before I felt isolated. I met the FA and they asked me what was my end goal. It was a good question and caught me by surprise.

"I told them if I could be the fall guy for fellow Irish footballers coming through, hopefully they won't have to go through the same thing. The buck can stop with me. That would be a nice achievement. I'm not a hero. I'm no martyr. I've had to go through so much shit that no person should have to go through."

One may take legitimate quarrel with that conviction but it is impossible to contradict its genesis. He has always had a choice and his life's path made him feel he had to make an honest one.

It's a trait inherited from his parents, especially mother Shauna, and one which, more often than not, gets him into trouble. Before his last appearance for Ireland, he hit the headlines not for his performance on the field, but for his performance off it beforehand, when he called an online journalist a 'fucking weasel'.

"Yeah I carry stuff. That's just personal pride. I don't mind criticism but when someone makes it a vendetta or something personal, that's different. Considering I never spoke to this guy in my life, or done an interview, for him to start suddenly making a name off my back, that's hard to stomach. Criticism is part of the game but I do have an issue with someone over-stepping the line."

McClean is a relative rarity in his sport in that you can challenge him, especially in group interviews, to point out inconsistencies in his arguments; he relishes the combat as if it were one of his crunching tackles.

"If you're able to give it you have to take it. It shows you care. My parents always told me if you don't want to say the truth, don't say anything. I never see myself as one of those robots. You see people in interviews and it's just like so scripted and boring. And the person before does the same one and the person after. You're wondering is that what you really think? Or are you playing the stereotypical footballer?

"I like to be open. I know it might bring flak. At least I know I can hold my head high and know that I've given my honest opinion."

Perhaps that is his fundamental truth. He doesn't care if you like him; in fact it is not his place to do so. Many hate him but for entirely different reasons to the many who adore him. He can't possibly attempt to change any of it. Now or in the future.

"I'm 30 and you're hoping society should get better, especially after everything the world has been through. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't worry me how my children are going to be growing up.

"As a parent you always hope things are going to improve. But there's no guarantee. It might even get worse again. It's a scary thought anyway, the prospect of your kids growing up. But it's even scarier thinking about the kind of society they're growing up into. You just try to do the best for your kids."

There's much more to his life than meets the public eye. That he can enjoy it all, even with its challenges and obstacles, means that it doesn't matter what he sees when he opens the curtains every morning. For everything he really wants is right here.

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