'There's something refreshing about a footballer who believes in something; anything'
Let me tell you a secret. I don’t much like the national anthem.
Quite apart from the fact that sending a lady “happy and glorious” when she is already worth an estimated £340 million and lives in a big palace is probably just a touch superfluous, it’s not even a very nice tune. La Marseillaise, there’s an anthem.
The Italian one is a delight. God Save The Queen lacks any verve or spirit. It’s tame, dry, unsure of itself. It’s a Malted Milk biscuit in musical form.
So on an artistic level at least, I can empathise with James McClean. Last week the West Brom winger was in South Carolina for a pre-season friendly when, in a curious display of ostentation far outstripping the prestige of the actual game, the national anthems were played and the English flag unfurled overhead.
While his team-mates turned to face the flag, McClean turned his back and refused to acknowledge it.
McClean is from a Republican area of Derry in Northern Ireland, and has previously opted not to wear a Remembrance Day poppy because of his political beliefs. For this he received death threats, taunts about the IRA, boos from his own fans.
Despite all this, it is McClean’s impoliteness under the microscope, as if he were a house guest who has insulted the decor. His manager Tony Pulis publicly rebuked him, warning of a developing “stigma around him” and ordering him to “face the flag” in future.
A Derry MP advised West Brom to sack McClean, adding that “he’s not worth the trouble”.
Now, McClean’s politics might not be to everyone’s taste, and nor might his methods of expressing them. But in an age when footballers are becoming increasingly anodyne, there is something refreshing about one who believes in something; anything.
Not that you know it from the furious reaction. One of the great things about social media is that it allows you to find out what idiots are thinking without actually having to talk to them, and sure enough McClean’s gesture provoked the sort of anger that the internet has turned into a performance art.
The criticism essentially runs thus: if McClean is content to earn a living in Britain, why does he hate it so much? Why not go back to where he came from (which, we should probably point out, is technically also Britain)?
This idea that earning a living from a country should entail tolerance for its customs and rituals remains surprisingly tenacious, if inconsistently applied.
At what stage, for example, should we inform the Chinese and Russian investors buying up large swathes of London about the ancient British tradition that houses are lived in, rather than left empty and used as investment vehicles?
Jose Mourinho, meanwhile, admitted in an interview last year that he dislikes British food. Are we obliged to lynch him, or can we just put him on a plane home?
Instead, McClean’s lack of reverence is singled out, largely by the same people who thought Gazza pretending to play the flute during the Old Firm derby was absolutely hilarious.
In 1938 the England team famously performed the Nazi salute whilst playing in Berlin. And the irony is that had one of the England players dissented and turned his back on the swastika, he would now be hailed as a principled hero.
McClean, meanwhile, is being reproached for turning his back on God Save The Queen, which as we’ve established isn’t even a good song.
Of course, the analogy doesn’t work, because it implies some sort of correlation between the Queen and the Nazi salute, which would be entirely ludicrous.
The issue for the game here is obvious enough. Footballers seem increasingly disconnected from the wider world, and the McClean furore encapsulates why.
Take a stand and get pilloried by fans, dressed down by your manager, painted as a troublemaker. Far better to keep your head down, son. Don’t cause any trouble. Face the flag.