Tuesday 20 August 2019

'A bunch of hypocrites... I'm a white Irishman, to put it bluntly' - James McClean hits out at English FA

Republic of Ireland International James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland International James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile

Daniel McDonnell

James McClean turned 30 in April, a landmark birthday that tends to be a threshold for players as they move towards veteran territory.

That tag doesn't quite tally with the Derryman's persona.

Mick McCarthy spoke earlier this week about how McClean's attitude in training was a staff talking point during the camp in Portugal.

Before taking over, he'd heard stories about the winger's energy and exuberance, but it only really hit home when he was stood on the side of the pitch watching his intense match-day-like approach to a routine session.

The fire in the belly is still there, on and off the park, and it's difficult to envisage McClean operating without it. It's entwined with his personality.

Critics say that a combative streak and a loose approach to social media has attracted unwelcome attention, but McClean is defined by a clear sense of his own identity, as evidenced by his stance on the poppy.

Republic of Ireland Internationals Izzy Atkinson, James McClean and Josh Cullen along with (l-r) Anna Dowling-Gavigan, aged 12, from Clonee; Alannah Ferrari (11) age 11, from Ringsend and sisters Quinn (6) and Eden Murphy (9) from Ringsend, Co Dublin at the Aviva Soccer Sisters Dream Camp. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland Internationals Izzy Atkinson, James McClean and Josh Cullen along with (l-r) Anna Dowling-Gavigan, aged 12, from Clonee; Alannah Ferrari (11) age 11, from Ringsend and sisters Quinn (6) and Eden Murphy (9) from Ringsend, Co Dublin at the Aviva Soccer Sisters Dream Camp. Photo: Sportsfile

This has made him a magnet for extraordinary levels of abuse in English football grounds. Around his own patch, he's a hero. Over the water, he's a villain and it often strays beyond pantomime territory.

His decision to release the contents of an abusive birthday card that came through the post was pointed.

This is his normality; rambling abuse that is centred around his nationality. In this particular missive, there were references to Bobby Sands and regrets that the Waffen-SS weren't dispatched to Ireland.

"The Irish are a race of inbred, subhuman parasites," wrote the author, his message scrawled in block capitals. "Bloody Sunday. Bloody good laugh. 13 nil to us. Ha, ha, ha, ha. Should have been 13,000 of you sub human b******s."

Did it shock McClean?

He is sitting in a box overlooking the pitch at an Aviva Soccer Sisters event as he shrugs off the question. In his mind, this was a written representation of a familiar terrace soundtrack.

The strong contention he makes is that the authorities should be taking it as seriously as the racist abuse aimed at Raheem Sterling and others.

"The only reason I put it up was to prove a point and I think I proved it right," he asserts.

"It's that Kick It Out and the FA are a bunch of hypocrites, a bunch of cowards. Look at the Sterling case, previously.

"He's been lauded as this kind of hero for speaking out. Getting awards. (Sterling received the Integrity and Impact Award at a BT ceremony for his stance against racism - after an Instagram post highlighting the newspaper treatment of black players).

"What he got is nothing compared to what I've got for the past seven or eight years," McClean continues.

"And there hasn't been a peep, a single word or contact. I got a token gesture from Kick It Out after people highlighted it and went after them (the equality organisation released a statement of support condemning sectarian abuse).

"Nothing will ever be done. I'm a white Irishman, to put it bluntly. That's not high on the agenda in England."

It is put to McClean that people would say that, in the case of Sterling, he receives grief simply because of his skin colour whereas the Irish international is on the receiving end because of his politics. In other words, he's brought some of this on himself.

He doesn't agree with the premise, arguing that he doesn't have a choice about who he is either.

Principled

"I like to think I'm a principled guy and I'm not going to sell myself out for something I don't believe in," he replies.

"I would rather be true to myself... and be perceived by the people that matter, the people of Derry, rather than bow down and sell myself out for just an easy life. I don't think I deserve it at all.

"Being from Derry, growing up in the aftermath of (the worst of the Troubles) and seeing the effect it had on people and knowing my history. I don't think I have a choice to wear a poppy. I know everyone is entitled to their own opinion... but I don't agree with someone wearing a poppy and coming from Derry."

So what does he want from the FA?

"Consistency," he says. "They never contacted me for starters. Do youse watch Sky Sports News? Have you ever seen a story about me being discriminated against? The reason I was doing it was to simply highlight what a bunch of hypocrites they are.

"The same thing happened on the pitch this year, with the Middlesbrough game (with his club Stoke in November) where I clearly got abused.

"People were trying to come on the pitch and I called them uneducated cavemen, which they were. I get a warning from the FA. It's only when I fire back at the FA publicly that they kind of back off and just give me a warning rather than taking any action."

Another voice asks if Sterling would have received a sanction for the caveman statement. McClean warms to the question. "He'd probably have got another award," he shoots back.

Off-the-cuff comments such as that are likely to attract more raised eyebrows, but there's a sense that he is way beyond the point of worrying about mainstream condemnation.

His isolation is a striking part of his story, with other players generally keeping shtum about his plight, including other Irish pros - although the recently-retired Jon Walters did call out the FA and Kick It Out in the aftermath of the birthday card.

Does he get much support from fellow players?

"In private, aye. Publicly, no."

Would he like that?

"Look it lads," he replies. "I get it. People want an easy life, don't they? Fair play.

"It's not nice, obviously, getting the abuse. If they want to avoid that, I've got no issue with it whatsoever."

The grief will go on.

He will return to Stoke after his summer break, feeling that he still has a future with the club after some early uncertainty around his standing under new boss Nathan Jones.

McClean tends to work his way into a manager's plans and while Jones remains loyal to the idea of a diamond midfield, he sees the Irishman as an option to learn the nuances of full-back.

Before then, there's the small matter of two significant Euro 2020 qualifiers, which will be followed by a group outing to Las Vegas that was booked by his wife Erin as a surprise present.

He would prefer to be spending the business end of next June on working duty, determined for a taste of a third European Championships. With age, these experiences do mean more. Poland 2012 is a blur. All of the jerseys, boots and other mementos were given away.

Four years later, his approach in France was different. Seeking opposition shirts isn't his thing. "I don't like giving them the satisfaction," he grins. "But I would with the Irish lads."

His favourite is his shirt from Lille, and that magic win over Italy that prolonged the Euro 2016 journey.

And yet, that also brings him on to a rare regret. "If I could go back to one moment in time, it would probably be half-time in the France match," he says.

"We're 1-0 up and you're thinking 'see the first 15 minutes out, keep it tight and who knows?'

"But you can't rewrite history."

That's one point that McClean has always grasped.

James McClean was speaking at the Aviva Soccer Sisters Dream Camp in Aviva Stadium where over 100 girls were given the opportunity to play on the same pitch as their international heroes. See aviva.ie/soccersisters for further details.

Irish Independent

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