Monday 21 May 2018

James McClean uncovered - Daniel McDonnell shines a light on the man behind the headlines

A portrait picture of McClean taken by David Maher. Photo: Sportsfile
A portrait picture of McClean taken by David Maher. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

This is Creggan. It's Friday lunchtime and Tony O'Doherty is pacing up and down in his usual spot outside the Corned Beef Tin, the area's community centre on Central Drive.

The 70-year-old is wearing his Derry City jacket because he will later function as head steward at the final home game of the season for a club where he served as both player and manager.

In Creggan, he has the presence of a manager on the sideline, monitoring everything that is going on in front of him. There is a wave, a shout or a gesture for everyone that passes. The beep from a milk van gets his attention.

"Alright Charlie," O'Doherty shouts. The driver, Charlie Ferry, was his team-mate on the 1974 Finn Harps FAI Cup-winning side.

They know their football in these parts.

Across the street from where O'Doherty is standing, there's a mural of his younger self, a decorated player in both the Irish League and League of Ireland and a twice-capped Northern Ireland international.

James McClean in training at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen where a tricolour hangs from the stands. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean in training at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen where a tricolour hangs from the stands. Photo: Sportsfile

He was one of the chosen ones when artists were tasked with producing portraits of sporting stars to cover the graffiti-laden walls dotted between shop fronts. The theme was local heroes.

To the right of the profile of O'Doherty, there is a sketch of Olympic boxer Charlie Nash.

To the left, there is an artist's impression of Creggan's most famous sporting son, with a flame-coloured border tracing his distinctive features. It's a proud Irishman with an 11 on the chest and a face that appears to be roaring in celebration. James McClean is instantly recognisable.

Around these parts, there are constant reminders that he is one of their own. In truth, it only takes a matter of seconds.

James McClean challenges Seamus Coleman during the game against Everton in November 2012 at Goodison Park, the game in which the Sunderland winger decided against wearing a poppy. Photo: Getty
James McClean challenges Seamus Coleman during the game against Everton in November 2012 at Goodison Park, the game in which the Sunderland winger decided against wearing a poppy. Photo: Getty

"Look," barks O'Doherty, "There's James' mother now."

He points to a couple coming out of a shop and getting into a car. O'Doherty flags the vehicle down and introduces McClean's parents, Patrick (Waxsy) and Shauna, to the stranger from Dublin.

He asks if they would be open to a chat with a journalist looking to learn about their son's background. Waxsy pauses. "Aye," he says, gruffly. "Bring him up to the house."

It turns out that O'Doherty, a mentor to the young footballer as he climbed the ranks, is a man who can quite literally open doors.

On the short walk to Creggan Heights, he provides a brief history lesson. The first part is viewable along the way. Just around the corner from the murals, and past a car wash, there is a giant display presenting a black and white photo-history of Bloody Sunday.

James McClean celebrates his goal against Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean celebrates his goal against Wales in Cardiff. Photo: Sportsfile

It chronologically lays out the events of that fateful January day in 1972. The last board features a row of coffins laid out in the neighbouring St Mary's Church.

"The march started just over there," he says, pointing in the direction of the Bishop's Field sports complex next to the Corned Beef Tin - a centre that is named as such because the old building on the same site looked remarkably like a Fray Bentos container.

School is about to break up and the memorial means the kids from the Holy Child Primary that stream out onto Central Drive will always be aware of the area's history. Their present is shaped by the past. McClean is their modern-day idol.

Outside of here, he can be depicted in less flattering terms. The aggression when he's on the pitch and the tackles, the tweets, and maybe even the tattoos, are used to cultivate an image. And in November, the month where there is a space on his shirt where every other professional footballer in England wears a poppy, that image can be spun into a caricature. There are people who see what they want to see.

Erin McClean, wife of James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile
Erin McClean, wife of James McClean. Photo: Sportsfile

But to understand James McClean, one must understand Creggan. This can be the only starting point for his story.

'On one side, we had the army that would give us a bit of grief. On the other side, the IRA kinda left us alone because even though they weren't political at that time, they recognised the usefulness of what we were doing'

The place

James McClean was on the brink of leaving his beloved Derry City for Lincoln. Photo: Sportsfile
James McClean was on the brink of leaving his beloved Derry City for Lincoln. Photo: Sportsfile

It's fitting that Tony O'Doherty was born in 1947, the year that the first houses were built in Creggan estate, because he has lived every bit of its history since moving there as a child.

The new community was the local corporation's response to overcrowding in the Bogside. Housing for Catholic families was a pressing need and the geographical location - up a steep hill near the border with Co Donegal - allowed the Unionist majority to manage the electoral wards and maintain their influence.

By the time that O'Doherty had reached adulthood, the population was rapidly growing, and so too was the disillusionment. His football career was taking off and in 1970 he played at Wembley for a Northern Ireland side that included George Best in the game where Bobby Charlton won his 100th England cap. But as the Troubles accelerated and took hold, he lost his appetite for football. "I couldn't see the point of it," he sighs. "I was with Coleraine, a wonderful club, but I was coming home past barricades and burning buildings and people I knew getting hurt and even killed.

"I wouldn't use the word ghetto, but people didn't go outside the area because it was dangerous. The army was here. So a group of us decided to look at what we could do for people inside the area. I thought I was better off here so I took a year out."

That was the beginning of the Creggan Football Association. The founding group, which held their first meeting in a disused launderette, included two other men that can be found stewarding at Derry City matches, Charlie Tierney and Gerry Duddy. The latter's teenage brother Jackie was shot dead on Bloody Sunday. Six victims hailed from Creggan, including Charlie Nash's sibling William - Charlie would go on to box for Ireland in Munich later that year. In difficult circumstances, the Creggan FA sought to provide hope. The Bishop's Field became their playground.

"We used to have football morning, noon and night, especially in the summer, we had all leagues for all ages," says O'Doherty. "I'd never felt so alive. To say I dedicated myself to it makes it sound like a sacrifice when the truth was I loved it. Just the sheer energy of being involved with great people. Gradually, it developed into a welfare association. Help for this, help for that. We ran film shows on a Sunday night on an 8mm projector. It wasn't community work, it was just life.

"On one side, we had the army that would give us a bit of grief. On the other side, the IRA kinda left us alone because even though they weren't political at that time, they recognised the usefulness of what we were doing. Martin McGuinness was a friend of mine, we went to school together, and remained that way until he died. We never had a problem. People saw it for what it was - it was something good."

Word spread and the well-known English reporter Peter Taylor came to Creggan to produce a documentary that was never broadcast. O'Doherty was told the British government had blocked it because it portrayed the community in a sympathetic light. They had the power to slap a Defensive Advisory Notice (D-Notice) on any material related to the Troubles. British Army Saracens came by in the following weeks to drive across the field and destroy the surface. O'Doherty and his counterparts persevered to try and offer positivity to a society that needed it.

McClean was born in 1989.

A year later, Charlie O'Donnell took over as the Principal of the Holy Child Primary School. The outlook was bleak.

"We had 96pc of the children on free school meals," he explains. "And unemployment was probably 85pc to 86pc, the highest in Northern Ireland. There was no employment and then they would ask why people here were getting involved in alcohol and drugs and things like that and the answer is quite simply because they had nothing to get up for.

"Even now, while it has improved considerably, the problem we are experiencing here is the lack of employment. There's very little investment in Derry. We're still waiting on the good road from Dublin to Derry, from Belfast to Derry."

These days, O'Donnell is chair of a healthy living programme that looks after residents of all ages. The HQ is just down the street from the Corned Beef Tin which is officially the home of the Creggan Neighbourhood Partnership - a registered charity that could reasonably be called a spin-off of the Creggan FA's work.

The brief is wide, ranging from offering help with welfare claims and running back-to-work programmes to organising the cleaning up of the area and graffiti. The Heal to Hurt organisation supports those battling addiction.

At night time, there's a kids club which McClean attended when the original Corned Beef Tin lookalike was still standing. When that was demolished and an enhanced version constructed in its space, he was the star at the official opening (2015) and drops in to say hello whenever he's back. Martin O'Neill, an old acquaintance of O'Doherty, has stopped by too. (The host teased the Irish manager by reminding him that only one of them owns an All-Ireland medal - a Hogan Cup with St Columb's College in 1965.)

Creggan still has problems. Community leaders have to contend with anti-social behaviour and it's a challenge to encourage kids to stay on the right path when there are negative influences in their midst. Sport is a positive vehicle. "We're very proud of Trojans (football club) and Sean Dolans, our GAA club, because they don't just make athletes or footballers," says O'Doherty. "They make citizens. Kids who are involved rarely end up in trouble."

In McClean, who lined out for both teams, they have a helpful example. "I'm always saying to kids now you could be the next James McClean and you can just see them smiling," enthuses O'Donnell. "It's about self-esteem. They're six inches taller because they can say, 'I've a hero that lives over the street.' And he's never forgotten where he comes from."

‘When he was 15, all of his buddies would have taken a drink. James would be in watching Match Of The Day’

The boy

"You know he started off as a goalkeeper," laughs Patrick 'Waxsy' McClean, as he settles back into his chair in a living room that is stacked with family photos. We are sitting in a house on Creggan Heights that is only distinguishable from the others on the estate because of the two nice cars that are parked outside.

There's an open-door policy for friends and family and it's a hive of activity. James' brother Brian comes in and then departs with a gearbag over his shoulder. An uncle, Paul, drops in to sit on the couch and listen as the proud parents, who are understandably guarded at first, discuss the household name that grew up between these four walls.

Shauna comes in and out as there's a child making noise in the kitchen. Waxsy does most of the talking. "I used to be quick, like lightning, and the older boys in the estate called me Wacky after that cartoon Wacky Races," he says, revealing the origins of his nickname. "It got cut down to Waxsy."

He's a jovial character - the earlier gruffness is really just natural suspicion - and he laughs heartily with O'Doherty as they recall a story from the memory bank when 'Doc' was brought in to manage his Saturday morning side. The experienced football man was trying to make things look professional and was going along the line inspecting the studs when he made it as far as Waxsy who was wearing a pair of slip-on shoes having failed to make it home from the night before.

His son would doubtless shake his head at that type of match preparation, and not just because of passion for football boots that always put them at the top of his birthday and Christmas lists as football began to dominate his every thought.

Gerry Colhoun, his manager at Trojans from 9 to 12, didn't spot star potential. James was a quiet boy - that is O'Donnell's recollection too - and a diligent trainer. "He was just one of the average local players," says Colhoun, who comes into the kitchen of the Corned Beef Tin with the Trojans' 75th anniversary book in a plastic bag. "He never missed a session and would play at left-back or left midfield."

At the age of 15, he was pitched in with the Sunday morning adult team, a character-building experience. "We believe it was around then where James mentally made the decision he wanted to be a footballer," says Colhoun,

"It was like he flicked a switch. He didn't drink or smoke, he just trained his socks off."

Waxsy recalls the family watching a David Beckham documentary where the subject spoke of being in bed on Saturday night watching 'Match of the Day' when the local lads were out on the street drinking.

"I think that planted a wee seed in James' brain," muses Waxsy. "When James was 15, every single one of his group of friends would have taken a drink, a bottle of cider, the normal stuff. James chose not to; his buddies would be out until all hours but James was lying watching 'Match of the Day'. That's guaranteed.

"He was a slow starter, that's true, but he was dedicated and knew where he wanted to go. It was all football, football, football.

"I got him into training to work for a guy who does air conditioning, a friend of mine, and he came back to me a week later and said, 'Waxsy, there's horses for courses and he's not made for the building sites. All he does is talk about football'."

Staff in the Corned Beef Tin have vivid memories of the fair-headed boy who invariably had a ball at his feet. Then there was the running, the non-stop running that continued right through to his pro career. The hills around Creggan were made for endurance training. Sightings of James running around Sheriff's Mountain alarmed Derry City staff, but any protests were in vain. Even in the snowy winter of 2010, he set off for a Christmas adventure.

On another occasion, he happened upon a half marathon that was kicking off on Creggan Drive. Despite his improper attire of a tracksuit and flat shoes, he managed to wangle an impromptu entry. His mother's eyes light up at the anecdote. "He came seventh!" she laughs. "There was a fella in a bar who was telling us he'd trained the whole year for it and James shot past him."

As a first-teamer at Derry City, he would still venture up to the Trojans' facility off Circular Road, hop over the fence and carry out his own training session for an hour.

Colhoun remembers going over to tell McClean to call ahead whenever he was planning to pop in so they could put on the heat and let him have a shower or a cup of tea. But the offer was refused. "He would never want to be a nuisance," says Colhoun. "Other boys were in the pubs on Shipquay Street and James would be running past them. Derry's had a lot of talented footballers, but if they had half James' dedication we'd have a lot more players in this town."

'He never went out and sought fake friends or crowds to fit in with. James is very principled in that he's his own man'

The man

In the Derry City dressing room, the teetotallers were in the minority.

"It was uncommon," says Eugene Ferry, a sixth form classmate of McClean at St Peter's High who played in goals for the Candystripes' reserves. A spell with local Irish League outfit Institute had frustrated McClean and he was keen to get a foot in the door with the club he'd always wanted to represent. Ferry spoke with staff about his mate's situation and set the wheels in motion.

They became firm friends with an aversion to alcohol bonding them. Donegal lad Rory Kelly, another goalkeeper and non-drinker, quickly became part of the group.

"There was David McDaid as well who didn't really drink either," says Ferry, whose family had Creggan roots. "We would still go out together - I was the driver - but we would always go home at the same time. James wouldn't even take a bag of chips."

McClean was firm on his approach to alcohol. When in the company of drinkers, he would not get sucked into buying a round, an approach that has lasted to this day.

"He's never taken a drink so he doesn't see the point of getting it for anyone," says Eugene. "He's not tight, he's as generous a guy as you'll meet. He'll buy food until the cows come home but not drink."

Talented players from their generation had succumbed to it. "When they got to 22/23 they were probably looking at James thinking, 'Maybe if I didn't drink...' but it was too late," says Eugene.

McClean didn't need it to be happy. Rory was responsible for a landmark night on the town, a date with his then girlfriend where they both brought a companion along.

Rory arrived with James and his now ex-girlfriend brought Erin Connor. That was the start of James and Erin, a relationship that has grown into a marriage and a family of three young children.

"I know Erin's family," says O'Doherty. "And she has a good business head. It was a good match."

Eugene and Rory became part of McClean's tight inner circle along with a small group of childhood pals from Creggan. "He's always had the same people around him," says Rory. "He never went out and sought fake friends or crowds to fit in with. James is very principled in that he's own man. He's very loyal."

That core group was a crutch when he was elevated to stardom. It took him a while to get there, despite his eagerness to make an impression at Derry.

Eugene chuckles as he describes an 11 v 11 with the seniors on his first day where the cub gave the old timers hell, and Rory speaks about McClean's lack of respect for big reputations, for seasoned pros with hundreds of games on the CV.

The fresh-faced firebrand said little in the dressing room but was brimming with confidence once he crossed the white line. He proved that theory by scoring on his debut, a League Cup game with Bohemians in 2008, where Owen Heary was his direct opponent. McClean had walked to The Brandywell with his boots in a brown paper bag.

But he had to wait another year and a half to become a key first-team player with Derry's demotion to the First Division due to financial irregularities the catalyst.

When uncertainty lingered, a move to Lincoln was agreed but his pals felt it might be too soon for the homebird to fly the nest.

Derry got their act together and Lincoln boss Chris Sutton agreed to rip up the contract provided he didn't move to another English club. A sliding door moment.

By the summer of 2011, Derry were in the top flight, the aggressive and powerful winger was in demand and Sunderland made their move. Six months later, he burst onto the Premier League stage.

"We were scratching our heads," says Waxsy, "And saying, 'Is this happening? Is it real?' And then when the big contract came, it was like a storm. That was crazy, unbelievable."

"He was a late bloomer," says Eugene. "And I always say he wasn't noticed for a while because scouts missed just how consistent he was and how he approached every match the same way. It was just another game, and he took that attitude with him into the Premier League."

After a bad performance with Derry, McClean would get the running gear on and head off back up Sheriff's Mountain. He was hard to stop after the good performances too.

In England, he hit the ground running in a manner which left people wondering just how far he could go.

But what goes up must come down. The fairytale couldn't last forever.

‘If the poppy just represented the two World Wars, everybody here would respect it. But it

represents everything, it represents all conflicts’

The myth

Everton away, Saturday, November 10, 2012. Just another match.

Rory was studying in Liverpool and came to meet McClean in the team hotel on the eve of the game. They were sitting and chatting, eating a few sweets which is about as far as the bad eating habits goes.

It was Remembrance Day weekend and Sunderland were due to wear the now customary poppy embroidered shirt.

"Are you going to wear it?" Rory asked.

"I've asked them to bring a normal shirt," said James, calmly.

That was more or less the extent of the discussion.

"We didn't think any more of it," said Rory, "I'm not sure if anyone had even mentioned it to him."

The previous November, McClean was an unknown in his new surrounds, waiting for O'Neill to discover him.

Mistakes were made in tandem with the meteoric rise that brought him to Euro 2012. He was struggling to come to the terms with the power of his words; his tweets now had a reach of thousands, not hundreds. Senior pros admonished him for lashing out at Giovanni Trapattoni's team selection in Kazakhstan.

But he did not consider the poppy-free shirt to be a provocative act. After the match, he flew to Dublin to pick up a prize at the PFAI awards. Eugene was with him and the chat was about the on-pitch duel with his pal Seamus Coleman. It was only upon their return to Derry, and a full perusal of the Sunday morning papers, that they realised a section of the British population now had a new public enemy number one. There were death threats. Outrage.

And questions. Why would he take English money without respecting their tradition? Why do the other Irish lads go through with it? The compliant Argentine players and the Falklands even got a mention.

Sunderland is a place with a strong affinity towards the armed forces and a section of fans were furious. The club were at pains to stress they supported the poppy appeal and McClean was urged to say nothing against his better instincts, and the storm clouds hung. He'd already waded into social media tiffs with Northern Ireland fans who chipped away at the fact he represented them at underage level before defecting when his lifelong ambition became attainable. "He would say himself that he used the system," admits Rory.

By biting back, McClean stirred things up. His manager, O'Neill, was exasperated by the attention he was generating, and his performances suffered too with defenders getting to grips with the surprise package.

Eugene had finished college and was called by McClean's agent, Graham Barrett, who proposed the idea that he would move across for a couple of months to help a mate that was living alone and suffering from a boredom that was leading him to type himself into trouble.

"The story was twisted," says Eugene. "People thought I was employed by Sunderland. My granny had just passed away and my mate was going through a hard time and I went across to try and help get him back on track.

"He didn't drive and was getting taxis everywhere. He'd be home from training at 1.0 and that was it for the day. We didn't do much. Some days we might be on the PlayStation and not even talking to each other. His brother Patrick (who now plays for Waterford) came over and I think he thought we were really boring but James just needed the company. Erin moved across then too."

The poppy furore meant fame had been replaced by infamy and hysteria. Political opinions and musical preferences that were part of his identity were flagged as an issue; Sunderland were angry with a tweet about his favourite Wolfe Tones song.

With his days numbered there, Wigan came next. The club's owner, Dave Whelan, couldn't understand McClean's poppy perspective. In 2014, the player penned an open letter to Whelan which articulated a stance that boiled down to: 'Unless you're from Creggan, you don't understand.'

That explanation is readily available, and there has been measured commentary on his position, but the catcalls will follow him as long as he plays in England. It's a cheap anger generator; last weekend the 'Huddersfield Examiner' reported the West Brom man wouldn't be wearing a poppy on his visit to town as if it was fresh news.

A rash tackle late in his sub cameo attracted a predictable torrent of abuse. "Convenient how Match of the Day cameras pick up my tackle but fail to pick up bottles, coins, and lighters being thrown," he tweeted. Type 'McClean' and 'poppy' into any search engine and it's easy to find the parish he will never win over. It includes West Brom followers.

Eugene hates this period of the year. "Any time there's talk of James going to some club, the next question is, 'Will they take a chance on him because of what the poppy thing brings?' As his mate, and I've never told him this, I find that hard to take."

But he will stay true to his beliefs. His viewpoint was clearly understood by those whose opinions mattered.

The family are sick of the coverage that presents their son as a bad boy. "It's a myth," says Waxsy, "It's unbelievable because anyone who comes into contact with James, their views change in seconds. They soon realise he isn't the monster he is portrayed to be.

"There was an awful lot of stuff happened around here and he's old enough to know that. James is a proud, young, Catholic nationalist from a nationalist area. This is where he's from. This is who he is. They expected him to be something he's not, which wouldn't be fair on James, his family or friends."

O'Doherty gets animated when 'the elephant in the room' comes up.

"I would just love for people to examine what James said," he says, his voice rising. "Please examine it. What he said was totally respectful. He's speaking for everybody in this community. If the poppy just represented the two World Wars, everybody here would respect it.

"But it represents everything, it represents all conflicts. We're all aware here the hurt was on every side, we get that. And if you don't, you're not human in my opinion. I can totally understand the hurt of the mother of a soldier in Sunderland if her son was damaged over here. But this is where I'm from.

"The death of Gerry Duddy's brother is still unresolved. The British Army have done incredible damage to this area."

Where critics saw dissent, Creggan saw courage.

"Just think about it," says O'Doherty. "In a world of football dominated by obscene amounts of money that the ordinary person up here could never dream about it, just imagine having the moral fibre to do what James did. It would have been so easy to say, 'Look, I'm earning my trade here. I don't really like it, but I have to do it.' He didn't do that and that's amazing... amazing. But unfortunately in this part of the country and in some parts of England, it gets taken in a different way."

Colhoun, the Trojans stalwart, is a Northern Ireland fan who goes to Windsor Park regularly to cheer on Foylesiders Daniel Lafferty and Shane Ferguson.

He does hear chants about McClean and wishes the detractors knew the real person. "James is a not a bad soul," he says. His West Brom clubmates Gareth McAuley, Chris Brunt and Jonny Evans, three senior members of Michael O'Neill's Northern Ireland squad, found that the reputation contrasted from the reality. In August, Banbridge lad Jack Chambers spoke about how McClean had helped him since coming over from Linfield. "I didn't really like him before but he has done nothing but help me," said the teenager. "He keeps me going about the Protestant Catholic thing but it's just banter. He's been just as big a help as the Northern Ireland players."

There is an ironic back story to McClean's brief Northern Irish career. He didn't have a passport for his maiden trip and, at 48 hours' notice, securing one from Belfast was a no-go. An Irish passport would be accepted and, with the help of ex-Derry chairman Jim Roddy, O'Doherty was directed to Dublin and given a name that the youngster could drop to skip the queue and get fast-tracked. When Peadar Carpenter, a helpful contact in the Department of Foreign Affairs, visited Derry in the following weeks, 'Doc' went in to buy him a drink and say thanks. "Well you never know," replied Carpenter. "He might do a turn for us one day."

‘It’s not a hunger you don’t see much of in modern-day football. You don’t see much of it in modern-day life’

The moment

"Erin says he sleeps with the boot," says Shauna, doubling over in laughter as discussion turns to that goal in Cardiff.

On the chart of proud family days, October 9 is pushing for top spot. After every game, McClean FaceTimes his mother and this call was special. He was driving back to Birmingham with Erin holding the phone and a full car singing along to his ballads. Shauna and her gang were in the local waving back, screaming and cheering.

When that crisp right-footed strike found the bottom corner, O'Doherty jumped out of his sitting room chair, felt his knee lock and ended up sprawled out on the ground. While he was laid out, he tapped out a text to the cause of his predicament. The amused McClean replied the following morning to ask if he was ok.

The 28-year-old's growth to a position of authority in this World Cup campaign has enlivened Creggan; Denmark has been on the lips for weeks. On the day after the Wales win, Waxsy met a man who delivered a succinct match report. A Derry goalscorer, a Derry man of the match (Duffy) and a Derry manager.

McClean will thrive on the play-off responsibility. Much as he would like to be playing more at West Brom, his family and friends all stress he has reached a level of contentment in his life that had eluded him in his early days overseas when homesickness brought him back at every possible opportunity.

The turning point, according to Rory Kelly, was really knuckling down when he found himself in a poor Wigan side plummeting to relegation from the Championship.

As a father, he needed to refocus and his performances earned him a move back to the top table. "James has really grown up in the last few years," says Rory, who now works for the London office of McClean's representatives Platinum One. "And that's because he's a daddy. It's an exciting time for them; his eldest is starting school in September. They've found a base there."

"What James has now is the whole package, everything he's wanted," says Waxsy. "He's got his family, a seriously successful career. The wains (kids) dream about it; he made the dream come true."

England will never be home, though, and there is no doubt that James, Erin, Allie, James Jnr and Willow Ivy will relocate to Derry eventually; there will be more outings at the Brandywell and more time with his friends. Eugene is a father now too, juggling that with a demanding job in a residential care home for young people, and the WhatsApp chats seldom veer into football business.

Their catch-ups revolve around their new pressures, or nostalgic chats about the way things used to be. "Sometimes I forget that he even plays for Ireland," he says.

Behind it all, it's the same James, much as he can afford the nice clothes and cars that were out of reach when he was a lowly-paid Derry player who would spend any of his disposable income on designer gear. If they are his treats, the addiction to punishing training has not left him.

Eugene went to visit after a game with Liverpool last season and discovered that the method of unwinding was disappearing out back for a boxing session on his punchbag. "That's typical James, he just sticks at it," Eugene laughs. "We try and keep him grounded, we give him a hard time. But I did text him after Wales and said I was proud of him and all of that. He wrote back and told me ,'You've gone soft'."

But Derry people know McClean has a soft side too. The visits back may have reduced in quantity because of family commitments, but his footprint is still visible. O'Donnell gets emotional when talking about his former student's charitable gestures.

They go beyond his well-documented support for the families of his old friends and team-mates, the much-missed Ryan McBride and Mark Farren. Strangers benefit from his generosity; the tales are well known in Derry. "We hear of tragedies," says O'Donnell. "And I've heard so many times on the grapevine that James has sorted that out, he's paid for a funeral or tried to help somebody that's in conflict.

"John Hume taught me. And when I was in the Holy Child, he would come to the school and sign books and chat to people. James is like that when he's home, he gives up his time. You're looking at me saying, 'He's putting James on the same level as John Hume'. John did a different thing for people but James is doing a lot for young people in this area. If everybody showed the same respect for life and for communities, the world would be a better place."

And that is the context in which O'Doherty frames the success story. "We would use James as a role model," he says. "But take football out of it. We're not telling kids they're going to be Premier League footballers.

"What we say is that he's achieved what he's achieved with sheer hard work. It's not just a hunger you don't see much of in modern-day football. You don't see much of it in modern-day life."

He's not infallible. With his new-found wealth, McClean mistakenly presumed that his folks might fancy a change of scenery and splashed out on a lavish house 'out in the back roads'. They lasted a couple of weeks in the countryside mansion and returned to their terraced house. His mother hated being away.

"I reared them all here, the six kids, and I just wanted to come back," Shauna says, "No, no, no.. this is where we all grew up. This is home."

This is Creggan. This is James McClean.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport