'I thought it was a fake account' - How James McClean personally reached out to make dreams come true for Down Syndrome team
It was a week from hell for James McClean as he attended the funerals of two friends, Ryan McBride and Martin McGuinness.
Derry native McClean paid poignant tributes to the two men after they passed away within days of each other. In a busy week for the Ireland winger, he also picked up the man of the match award in Ireland's draw against Wales at the Aviva Stadium and featured in the 1-0 defeat to Iceland at the same venue four days later.
And somewhere in between, the big-hearted 27-year-old managed find them to bring a few friends together and take on Oxford Bulls - a Down Syndrome team from Derry.
The Oxford Bulls first featured in the Belfast Telegraph and derrynow.com at the start of the month with both publishers pointing out that they had no-one to play against.
This is where McClean stepped up to reinforce popular opinion that he is one of football's great guys when he personally reached out to Kevin Morrison, whose son Adam plays for the Bulls.
"John Norris, father of one of the players, is a barber and he cuts hair for a lot of Derry players," Morrison told Independent.ie.
"James used to pop in ask about his son Conan and always said he would pop down to meet the players.
"Out of the blue I got message on Facebook from James himself on the Monday night and he said he would be up on the Wednesday. I thought it was a fake account.
"There was a mad rush to get them ready. He confirmed it on Tuesday and said he would bring a few mates and give the lads a game.
"My son Adam is a huge fan of James. He was in awe. He walked in very low key with his Ireland gear on. Adam just stood pointing at him. We thought they would stay for 15 minutes but they were there for over an hour-and-a-half.
"Paddy McCourt was down with us on Sunday through John Norris. Maybe he was talking to James but it was brilliant. The lads are floating on air since it happened.
"We have been talking to Everton, who have a Down Syndrome team, to maybe get over there for a little tournament."
Morrison posted a report on the match itself on Facebook with many of the Bulls side putting themselves in the international shop window.
"The game itself was a tight affair as the two McClean brothers signalled their intentions early on that this match was to be anything but "friendly". Tackles were flying in thick and fast, when the Oxford lads sneaked into a quick 2-0 lead - Conan and Keigan with the opening goals. McClean's lads gradually began to get back into the match when Nathan Moore scored the first of his 4 screamers from outside the box. Tiernan and Man of the Match Kyle wrestled with the midfield and provided loads of ammunition for top scorers Keigan and Conan to test the visitors defence. Shaun was detailed to stick to James McClean like glue and the West Brom star found it hard to shake off the attentions of the Bulls midfielder - who even resorted to hugging McClean at once stage to stop him in his tracks !! Meanwhile Adam had a quiet game - seemingly star-struck by the appearance of his Ireland hero on his home patch !!! Jack had no such qualms about tackling the premiership star, and a few of JR's tackles wouldn't have looked out of place at Ravenhill. The game was eventually decided by young Caoimhin who struck in the last minute to give the Oxford Bulls their first official win.
"The session finished with a penalty shoot-out with our illustrious visitor going into nets for the lads !!! (Now I'm not gonna reveal if he saved any, but suffice it to say none of the Oxford Bulls missed the target !!!)
"So I just want to say a huge thank you to James McClean and his mates for coming down to see our lads today and giving them their first big game experience !!! The lads are still buzzing and our Adam is still a little Star-struck !!! And I don't think James will ever appear in a more chaotic team photo as he did today (check out our photos To see what I mean lol), and yet he handled it with all such great patience and grace. So thank you James and co. for a most memorable day !!! As usual our wee video will follow shortly so watch this space !!"
McClean truly is one of our country's finest ambassadors.
Here is a bit of backround on the Oxford Bulls from the Belfast Telegraph article on March 10
A football team like no other has been formed in Londonderry. Every player in the Oxford Bulls has a strong passion for the beautiful game - and also has Down's Syndrome.
The team was set up to give them a chance to take part in a sport they love.
But the young footballers, who take to the field every Sunday with great gusto, need competition to keep them in top form.
They meet up at the Foyle Futsal Centre, where their "star player", Keigan Taylor, bursts through the door each time, impatient for the kick-off.
His mum Serena explains: "Keigan loves football but there was never anywhere we felt was safe for him to play, until now.
"The transformation in him because of the Oxford Bulls cannot be over-estimated - not just in his ability to play but also in his confidence.
"At the start, Keigan's enthusiasm used to get the better of him and he would lift the ball as soon as it came near him, run with it to the goal and try to score a goal.
"Now he understands he can't do that, he knows he is part of a team and he shares the ball with the other children.
"They have formed such a bond, there are high-fives and hugs all over the place. Playing on the team is the thing he looks forward to most all week.
"He enjoys watching football on the television more now too. He even shouts at the screen along with his daddy."
The idea for the team came from Kevin Morrison. His son Adam (11) loves football, but was too shy and wasn't keen on loud noises so never took part in a game.
That was until his dad came up with the idea of forming a team with other Down's children.
With help from parents contacted through Foyle Down's Syndrome Trust, they booked some time at Foyle Futsal Centre at Skeoge Industrial Estate. and the training began.
Kevin said: "My son Adam loves being outside, he loves football and seems to have taken after his grandfather Vinny, who played for Derry City and Belfast Celtic in his day.
"I suppose this really began after Philip Devlin, the under-10 team coach with Oxford United, made Adam a mascot for their team during the Foyle Cup.
"They were brilliant and brought Adam into the changing rooms for team talks and even called him onto the pitch to play for a few minutes at the end of one of their games.
"I could see how t his made Adam's confidence grow, so I spoke with a few other parents through Foyle Down's Syndrome Trust about the idea of taking our children to train.
"They were really keen so that is really where it all began," added Kevin.
"The training sessions at the start were all over the place because we didn't really know what we were doing and the children were so shy. It was a struggle but then the senior players with Oxford United came to the Futsal Centre to help, and that was a big breakthrough.
"Our boys were impressed with the way the Oxford team turned up looking really professional in the team tracksuits - they started to pay attention.
"Philip Devlin was amazing - he applied for funding and sponsorship for us and the boys got the rigs and footballs, but the biggest thing of all has been the transformation in the boys themselves.
"One of our players, Shaun McCaul, used to take about 20 minutes to get through the door because he was so shy, but now he lets go of his daddy's hand and runs straight to his teammates."
The team divide themselves into two and play against each other because, despite Kevin's best efforts, they can't find another team to play against.
Kevin continued: "What the boys really need is a few games against similar teams but I cannot find any anywhere.
"Michael Hutton, the organiser of the Foyle Cup, is looking to include the boys in the cup but really they need teams at their level.
"So if there are other teams like the Oxford Bulls out there, we would really like them to get in touch."
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