I accompanied my retweet with “I laughed WAY too loud at this. Sorry.” But I wasn’t sorry that I instinctively guffawed. It was my instinct, about which, by definition, I can do nothing. I was only sorry if someone saw the original post and hadn’t laughed. Out loud. In a room on their own.
On March 27th, I read about an Instagram post made the previous day by Stoke City winger and Ireland international James McClean. The existence of the post was brought to my attention by this site’s editor, Ian King, the one who writes all the really good pieces on here. And in it, McClean reportedly “posed for a photograph in a balaclava” pretending to take his two eldest kids, seven-year-old Allie-Mae and five-year-old James Junior, “for a ‘history lesson,’” as UK schools had just, belatedly, closed to slow the coronavirus spread.
In response to local newspaper reports of McClean’s apology for said Instagrammery, Ian tweeted that he found “stupidity exhausting” (he must be absolutely shattered by some reactions to the Covid semi-lockdown). “He knows how much shit he gets,” he added of McClean specifically. “Why do that to yourself?” Having seen the post described, my view was that “the amount of shit he receives and has received week-in and week-out for YEARS for daring to be an Irish republican doesn’t justify a daft media post like that, but it fucking explains it” (my, we DO swear a lot on Twitter).
Then, last week, I actually saw the post, as the Guardian newspaper’s website had helpfully placed it alongside Ben Fisher’s report of McClean’s apology. It was much as I’d imagined it to be, except that the looming balaclava-wearing figure loomed larger than I had expected and, I instinctively believed, comically so. It was captioned “Today’s school lesson – history,” with three (to use the technical term) “rolling on the floor laughing” emojis placed at strategic positions for the hard of thinking. It looked laughably preposterous. And I laughed. Out loud. In a room on my own.
Stoke fined McClean two weeks’ wages for what they called an “inappropriate social media post.” This had been “exclusively revealed by Sportsmail,” the sports news wing of the Daily Mail newspaper. And the Mail’s report included examples of the predictably outraged twitter response, such as the one asking Stoke City “what action will you take against your player, who posted this violent image?” and the one who “never ever” commented on McClean “as his business isn’t worth a penny to me,” yet still saw his Instagram post and felt the need to…erm…comment.
A statement issued in McClean’s name said: “I never wanted to cause any offence but I now realise that I did so and for that I apologise unreservedly. I have spoken to the club and will be deleting my Instagram account.” Of course, this ‘realisation’ was largely brought on by Stoke’s PR department. But that was likely enough to fool anyone who thought the initial image “violent” or felt the need to comment on someone upon whom they “never ever” comment. “Exhausting stupidity,” it was apparent, stretched far beyond one Instagram post.
So far, so James McClean. As it was on March 18th, when the Derry Journal newspaper’s Kevin Mullan reported that McClean had “made a donation towards supplies for people who have been unable to source essential items amid the ongoing coronavirus bulk-buying frenzy.” Mullan added that “the Derry footballer said he wanted to help elderly people, families with young children, and people under economic pressure, struggling as a result of the COVID-19 emergency.”
McClean himself “revealed” that “we’ve made a donation towards nappies, medicines, toilet roll, baby supplies, cleaning products etc, which will be made into hampers and given out over the next few days when the full stock is brought in.” The stock was to be distributed from the “Corned Beef Tin,” a neighbourhood centre on Derry’s Creggan Estate, where McClean grew up.
McClean gave “massive thanks to my brother Brian, Danny and Rachel Lafferty for volunteering their time and effort today and tomorrow to go and get the supplies and also a huge thanks to Tony O’Doherty for, at the drop of a hat, opening up the ‘Corned Beef Tin’ for us to use the facility to store and distribute, and last but not least, Daniel McLaughlin, for supplying his van.” And he added: “It’s a small gesture but one that I hope can go a long way in helping.”
So far, so James McClean. As it was last Friday, 3rd April, when Dr. Nicola Duffy, a general practitioner at the coronavirus centre in Derry city’s Altnagelvin Hospital, told BBC Radio Northern Ireland’s ‘Talkback’ programme that he had “bought ‘kit, equipment and sanitisers’ for frontline healthcare workers battling the coronavirus pandemic.” This was in a near-immediate response to her on-line appeal for such help. It was later reported that McClean had bought “around 400 pairs of gloves, 100 face masks, protective visors, 10 hand sanitisers and over 100 gowns” on-line.
Indeed, McClean’s good works, charitable and otherwise, far outweigh the cod controversies about his political beliefs and how he manifests them. To cite the most unusual of many examples, two years before his response to Dr Duffy, he responded to a Facebook appeal from the Oxford Bulls, a Derry football team of Down’s Syndrome children. The Bulls were struggling to find opposition. So McClean and “a few mates” turned up at the Foyle Futsal Centre, the Irish international in his Ireland kit, to play a genuine game. “The lads are floating on air since it happened,” noted Bulls boss Kevin Morrison.
Not that these good deeds go unpublicised. They were easily enough researched. But often when they are publicised, they are almost invariably caveated with the ‘other stuff.’ The last paragraph of Kevin Taylor’s report on the Altnagelvin donations in the Irish Daily Mirror was a standalone reference to the Instagram controversy, which served no discernible purpose, other than perhaps to provide the faux balance which scourges modern-day print and broadcast journalism.
And so it was last Sunday, although this time, McClean actively facilitated it, giving an ‘exclusive’ interview to Sky Sports News (SSN), encompassing the Altnagelvin donations, an outstanding wider discussion on football and footballers’ reactions to the Covid crisis, and what the Mail, with trademark snark, called McClean “attempting to defend” the Instagram post (which has arguably received greater attention and been exposed to a wider audience since being taken down).
The full interview is worth consuming. And McClean’s comments on his Altnagelvin donation were especially thought-provoking. He explained that he “was going through Facebook and saw a post asking for help. I just typed into Google to see what I could get and was fortunate to find equipment.” This, he admitted, wouldn’t “solve all the problems.” But it “(begged) the question if I’m able to go online why can’t the authorities supply enough equipment?”
McClean, then, could be a PR-dream for a football industry which currently needs a few…if it wasn’t for those pesky posts and politics. He must almost be on auto-pilot during this nation’s increasingly lengthy remembrance period (from two minutes to two months over recent years), when he annually explains why he doesn’t wear a poppy and swathes of the nation gets outraged by his actions AND explanation. So, why does he do stuff like the ‘history lesson?’
Ian’s amusing hot-take on McClean’s ‘apology’ had been: “’I never wanted to cause offence,’ says man who presumably posted the picture in the middle of tripping over.” But, as noted above, that ‘apology’ merited the inverted commas. He was clearly not under orders when telling SSN: “If I said I don’t regret things I’d be lying but I can take a lot of abuse and can’t have fun back? It was supposed to be a light-hearted joke (though) I can understand why it didn’t go down well. It gets annoying when things like that get all this coverage.”
The idea that McClean should stop doing such things to placate certain people is odd, especially when they complain loudest about the wide variety of racial slurs they “can’t say anymore” because of “political correctness.” As he told the Sunday Independent newspaper’s David Kelly in an interview published on 2nd February: “I know it might bring flak (but) I can hold my head high and know that I’ve given my honest opinion.”
So, he isn’t about to let the ‘idiots’ win. And rightly so, when they included people such as the Mail commenter who was less appalled by the “history lesson” stuff than McClean “having a balaclava in your house and wearing it in front of your children.” They might be surprised by a “history lesson” about the balaclava.
And the age-old idea that McClean “brings” all the abuse he receives “on himself” is as bollocks today as it has always been. A point made with considerable force by McClean’s brother Patrick, who plays for East Belfast-based Irish Premiership club Glentoran. Among many other things, Patrick told the Derry Journal’s Simon Collins: “James’ only crime is being Irish and being from Derry. But because of where he’s from and what he stands up for, he’s the worst in the world.”
This article was illustrated by screenshots of two recent abusive tweets. An ill-punctuated “fuck it would be geg if ur house went on fire with ur wife and kids inside u rebel bastard.” And a topical “Hope ya kids get corona and die,” accompanied by a Union Flag, showing the patriotic fervour behind wanting McClean’s seven-and-five-year-olds and their two-year-old autistic sister Willow to die horribly. And if you think McClean “brings” remotely that sort of abuse “on himself” by wearing a doppy balaclava in a daft Instagram post, fcuking think again.
This penny, and more, is dropping in England. The Wigan Today and Stoke Sentinel newspapers last week published articles headlined “Ex-Wigan Athletic star has heart of gold” and “This is the side to James McClean that football should learn to love.” In February, the FA fined Barnsley £20,000 after McClean received widespread “sectarian” abuse from home fans while playing there for Stoke last Remembrance weekend.
Not all stupidity is equal. And while the “cycle of stupidity” involving McClean may be wearying, he should not and will not deny his politics, or sense of humour, to end it. That responsibility remains predominantly with his abusers and those who resent him being a proud Irish republican, who has every right to be so.