Tuesday 23 January 2018

'The player who speaks his mind lives in danger of being ostracised'

Derry ace insists he has no regrets after season filled with controversy for both club and country and vows to remain true to himself

James McClean working on his ball skills at training
James McClean working on his ball skills at training
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE attentions of James McClean are drawn to one of the many tattoos that decorate his arms. It bears a simple message. 'Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.'

THE attentions of James McClean are drawn to one of the many tattoos that decorate his arms. It bears a simple message. 'Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.'

He smiles a little sheepishly. "It's a bit ironic that tattoo," he says. "But it's a great motto."

There have been times this year when some people wondered if the fiery 24-year-old from Derry would ever take heed from anything, as he plunged headlong from one drama into another.

The indiscretions have been well documented at this stage, the tweeting in Kazakhstan that infuriated Trapattoni and several Ireland players, the social media run-ins with disgruntled Northern Ireland fans, the conscious decision to request a Sunderland jersey without a poppy.

A backlash followed, with boos from a section of Black Cats supporters, and death threats from elsewhere.

Although McClean promised to leave the temptation of Twitter behind, he popped up from time to time under new guises to test the waters and also the patience of his then boss Martin O'Neill. He's still there now, under a lower profile, despite all that's happened.

In the process, he has faced the wrath of his team-mates, with John O'Shea leading a chorus of Irish players who dressed down McClean in Astana when he described his non-involvement in the 2-1 World Cup qualifying win as a 'f**king joke.'

Giovanni Trapattoni made an example of him in front of the squad, but a chat a couple of days later healed up their differences and, while he may not start against the Faroes Islands tomorrow, he started both qualifiers in March and is very much part of the camp now whereas Trapattoni could have thrown him out the door post-Kazakhstan.

"It was stupid of me," says McClean, speaking in the sunshine of Malahide after another training session in the lengthy build-up towards tomorrow's match.

"I've no God-given right to be in the team but I think we've moved on from there, and I've a good relationship with him now."

O'Shea was also a source of guidance. "I think at times, John think he's my Dad, he tells me off a lot of the time," McClean adds, with a grin. "Ah, but he's A1, so he is, a top man."

Friends of the player are often exasperated by his trigger-happy temper, but they are also vexed by the circus that now accompanies every little thing he does.

He deserved flak for his Kazakh-tweets and getting mired in rows with Northern Irish fans, but there was a farcical element to the politically driven outrage about his admission of fondness for a particular Wolfe Tones song.

The poppy issue, on the other hand, went to the heart of his Derry roots. O'Neill understood, as a fellow countyman, and it's clear he will miss him.

"He knew the ins and outs," says McClean. "It was obviously a help, him being from the same part of the country. He sat me down and said: 'You can't do this and that and concentrate on your football, you'll learn from this'. He was a massive help.

"I was a lad from Derry and that probably went against me a bit. But that's how it is.

"At Derry City I would have got away with things, because you're not really in the spotlight. I've had to learn I can't do that. Looking back I probably haven't been the easiest to work with, but I've taken that on board."

McClean accepts that keeping his mouth shut goes against his natural instincts, referencing his upbringing where speaking the mind was the norm.

"That's how I was reared," he explains. In football, the man who speaks his mind always lives in danger of being ostracised, cast aside for not recognising the code of the dressing-room.

Paolo Di Canio is often described in those terms, and numerous observers wondered aloud how he would interact with McClean.

The winger was pressed on the new harsher regime yesterday and what he didn't say was more significant, with his answers on the current Sunderland boss short and sweet.

"Each manager has their own style, do you know what I mean? So I will just leave it at that."

There were reports that Di Canio had McClean down on the list of players that he intends to herd into a cattle car and send in the direction of the exit door.

"I'll look at what happens over the summer and push on and do the best for me personally and whatever comes of that, comes of that," says the player – a statement which could be construed as keeping options open.

After a 10-day break, he plans to hire a personal trainer and work on his strength and conditioning before pre-season. He accepts that his form was below par last term and has identified areas where he has to improve.

"It's been a difficult season at the club for me, my form was indifferent" he concedes. "I came to England first and played for six months (in his first season) and footballers are not stupid, so they know you after that.

IMPORTANT

"Obviously, there is a lot I can work on in my game to get better. My right foot is one area; it's important to work on it. And things like the final pass as well."

It is suggested that he might have honed this skill if he was in the English academy system at 16, yet that is batted away.

"I'm happy with the way I came through," he asserts.

"I really enjoyed my football in the League of Ireland and I think it's the best way to go to be honest.

"Play your football there and then go across if the opportunity comes along. If I had gone over at 16, it might not have worked out."

The extra time on home turf meant that he arrived in England his own man, with firm ideas.

"I'm the same person I was in Derry," he stresses, "and what I want is to just be me and what comes of that, comes of that."

In the world he now occupies, that simple wish is ambitious. The hope for tomorrow is that the learning continues.

Irish Independent

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