Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The FA should be ashamed of itself - if the abuse was aimed at a black player they would act'

‘A player should not be subjected to a weekly ordeal because he refuses to honour an army which murdered unarmed people in the streets of his home town.’ Photo: Sportsfile
‘A player should not be subjected to a weekly ordeal because he refuses to honour an army which murdered unarmed people in the streets of his home town.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

James McClean was wrong to describe those who attacked him for not wearing the poppy as "cavemen". The caveman was a pretty impressive character who in between eluding the attacks of sabre-toothed tigers and discovering fire, found time to create magnificent paintings at Lascaux and Altamira. He shouldn't be compared to the parade of cranks, assholes and nitwits who surface this time every year.

Bedbugs or maggots are probably more appropriate analogies for the mob who sit in the stands or at their computers, showering abuse on McClean and his family, delivering death threats and anti-Irish songs, throwing things at the player, thoroughly enjoying this annual festival of bullying and stupidity.

This has been going on for seven years now. Seven years during which McClean has politely and articulately explained why he's declining to wear a shirt with a poppy on it while making it clear he casts no aspersions on those who choose to do so. It's made no difference to those who persist in abusing him.

I'm actually sorry I have to write the next sentence but we might as well be truthful about what James McClean is up against: One guy sent him a message saying, 'You're (sic) address will be all over social media soon. Big mistake posting a picture of your slag wife I'll tattoo a poppy on her ugly face you ginger IRA rat.'

I find that message upsetting. God knows how the McCleans feel about it. I suspect there are worse ones which James' wife didn't reveal. Savour too the sheer stupidity of a man who can't tell 'your' from 'you're'. His English patriotism obviously doesn't extend to learning the language properly.

Seven years of this and what happens last week? The Stoke City player describes the section of his own team's support who booed him during a match with Middlesbrough as "uneducated cavemen", and the English Football Association launch an inquiry into the comments.

He also used the word "c**t," but it's not true to report, as some have, that he called someone a c**t. McClean merely made the observation that "no c**t" would stop him sticking up for his beliefs. That's a very different thing. And his criticism of one set of Stoke supporters was accompanied by praise of those who've taken the trouble to understand his position.

The FA decided to let McClean off with a warning. But the very fact they investigated the comments in the first place was an insult to a player who points out that "week in, week out for the past seven years I get constant sectarian abuse, death threats, objects being thrown, chanting which is heard loud and clear every week which my family, wife and kids have to listen to. They turn a blind eye and not a single word or condemnation of any kind."

Read more here:

'It was a difficult one' - James McClean booed as Stoke boss admits he feared upsetting fans by picking him

'I sincerely apologise for any offence' - James McClean issues statement as he is disciplined by Stoke 

He's right. The FA have not once stuck up for the player by making it clear he is entitled to abstain from wearing a poppy. Yet when McClean snaps once they pounce on him. I know where they should stick their investigation. So do you and so does James McClean, but he's too polite to say so.

The FA's opportunistic decision to have a dig at McClean merely reveals how cowardly they've been over the past seven years. Football makes a huge deal out of being against racism. There are ad campaigns and players reading out anti-racism pledges before big matches. The likes of Samuel Eto'o, Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng have been praised for walking off the pitch in response to racist abuse; Juventus, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid have had parts of their stadiums closed because of racist chanting by their fans.

Yet there seems to be very little concern cross-channel about the constant sectarian abuse levelled at McClean. When Huddersfield Town fans pelted him with bottles, coins and lighters last year Match of the Day opted not to show it and the FA refused to take any sanction against the club. Anyone who says, "What can the FA do? They can't stop the fans chanting," should remember that if the same kind of abuse was aimed at a black player the FA would act quick enough.

The English media, which delights in highlighting racism perpetrated by Eastern European fans and never tires of writing self-congratulatory pieces about how the game has moved on from the racist banana chucking days of yore, has opted to ignore the campaign against McClean.

Last week, Nemanja Matic announced that he wouldn't be wearing a shirt with a poppy on it because NATO bombed his village in Serbia when he was a kid. It's striking to examine the contrasting ways in which his and McClean's refusals have been treated. The coverage of Matic has been largely sympathetic with his explanation being published at length and without adverse comment in papers whose reaction to McClean had generally been along the lines of, "Grow up you stupid Paddy."

Manchester United's Nemanja Matic wears a shirt without a remembrance poppy during the match on Saturday. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

It's as though the Continental is respected because he's making the kind of intelligent and considered decision English papers don't think an Irishman is capable of.

It's as if English people believe anti-Irish racism isn't really racism. Funnily enough they'll often use the same kind of argument Peter Casey fans used in connection with Travellers, "It can't be racism because the Irish aren't a race." But whether you call it racism or bigotry or just plain prejudice, it's long been a stain on English society.

You can see it today in the insistence that the Irish government are being completely unreasonable in pursuing legitimate national interests during the Brexit negotiations. When you live over there, and sometimes when you meet English people over here, you encounter it in the shape of condescension, ignorance and outright bad manners. It's behind the refusal to treat James McClean fairly.

Those who'd prefer not to confront this unpalatable truth seek to blame the player. They say he shouldn't engage with his tormentors on social media. But there's no moral equivalence between a man trying to explain his position and a legion of morons only interested in being as obnoxious and hurtful as possible. McClean's opponents have no interest in engaging him in debate because most of them aren't able to put a coherent argument together.

Others suggest McClean should wear the poppy because he's earning his living in England. That's nonsense. Like any other Irish person working in England he's been given the job, not out of charity, but because he's the right person for it. Your employer purchases your labour, not your conscience. Otherwise you're just a servant.

James McClean has walked a long, hard and lonely road on this issue. A lesser man might have folded but McClean has kept going. He hasn't let the controversy affect his form and has given sterling service to Sunderland, Wigan, West Brom and Stoke even when their fans haven't given him their full support.

He has also achieved something important by providing a focus for debates on the way in which the poppy is used, the kind of debates which a civilised and self-aware society needs to have. He has struck a blow for freedom of conscience and against mindless conformism. History will be kind to him.

There are obvious parallels between James McClean's stand and that of Colin Kaepernick and the other NFL players who've taken a knee during the US national anthem. The English are very quick to deride what they see as the mindless jingoism of the Yanks. They think they're pretty nice people by comparison.

Yet though the players involved in the anthem protests have received plenty of criticism on social media and from the likes of Donald Trump, they are able to play without being booed every time they touch the ball, without objects being thrown at them and without racist chants ringing in their ears. The gesture they're making is a more radical one than the one made by James McClean, yet in what's ostensibly a more divided society they don't have to run the same gauntlet of hate that he does.

English people should consider why that's the case. Perhaps only a minority of their football supporters treat McClean this way. But by not speaking out against such behaviour, not just the FA, but the majority of English fans are complicit by their silence. This has been going on far too long.

A player should not be subjected to a weekly ordeal because he refuses to honour an army which murdered unarmed people in the streets of his home town. The authorities should be investigating seven years of sectarianism rather than a single social media comment by its target.

If they don't have the stomach to do so every one of their pious pronouncements on racism, diversity and inclusion is rendered utterly meaningless. Their action last week has emboldened thugs and bigots by letting them believe the FA is on their side. The decision to warn the player will surely lead to an increase in the abuse inflicted upon him. The FA should be ashamed of itself.

Rave on James McClean. Pass no heed.

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