West Bromwich Albion’s Real McClean

by | May 12, 2017

I am not one for “unfriending” people on Facebook. But I made an exception in March when an ex-friend charmingly captioned a photograph of Irish international James McClean and former Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness “a stupid c**t and a dead c**t.”

I entirely accept that many people would echo the comment about McGuinness, given his pre-political life in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. But the comment about McClean was not acceptable in any sense.

McClean the footballer has done many stupid things, for which he has received yellow and red cards. And, while not excusing my ex-friend’s language, I hope that he was moved to comment as he did by those on-field indiscretions. Because the abuse the 29-year-old Derry man has received during his career for “the other stuff” which surrounds him is as stupidly c**tish as it gets.

The “other stuff” is the “politics.” Living in Derry city’s Creggan Estate during the last years of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland gave McClean the temerity to regard British militarism with less fondness than does the average English football follower. As a result, he, like many people in this country lest we f**king forget, annually declines to wear a poppy during what has in recent years elephantined from “Remembrance Day” into “Remembrance about-six-and-a-half-weeks.”

This defines McClean in “British” (mostly English) eyes; an example of an “anti-Britishness” which supposedly led him to represent the Republic of Ireland, managed by fellow Co. Derry man Martin O’Neill, rather than his native Northern Ireland.  However, this almost the opposite of defines the “real” McClean, an anomaly highlighted by and during his recent interview with Juliette Ferrington on the BBC’s Football Focus weekly magazine show.

Ferrington reported that she found McClean “incredibly warm, open, engaging and friendly,” almost as if her expectations had been governed by the image of McClean which still attracts booing at some Premier League grounds. And the McClean in the 11 minutes of the interview broadcast on Focus was instantly recognisable as the refreshingly honest post-match interviewee at Ireland games.

McClean will never say the “most important thing is the three points,” as so many modern players would have you believe, noting, correctly, that they “are given a script, which is boring, it’s not them.” And “being me,” alongside being “an Irish lad” was the interview’s recurring theme. “If I did change, I’d be a fraud.”

Being himself and an Irish lad has caused many of his off-field problems. In 2013, he was lazily pilloried as “pro-IRA” after tweeting that he passed the time on a flight with “headphones in, Wolfe Tones on.” My eyebrows raised so high that they started hurting when he told Ferrington that “95% of the population of Ireland probably listen to the Wolfe Tones.” But he was “an Irish lad growing up.” Nothing, his non-plussed facial expression implied, is unusual or wrong with that.

“I’ve never been anti-British,” he said he’d made “quite clear in the past.” But “there’s certain things I don’t agree with.” He was “uncomfortable” with “certain aspects” of responses to that and, rightly, asked “why should I feel uncomfortable playing football?” He recalled the death threats he’d received “for declaring for my country,” and the Sunderland supporter who threw McClean’s matchday shirt back at him when he tried to give it to the man’s son.

It spoke volumes that he could label that confrontation “a funny story.” And he has dealt with all such nonsense via refreshingly straightforward philosophies: “If you like me, you like me, if you don’t, you don’t.” Followed by “You can abuse me but I have to like you? No. You abuse me, I don’t like you. Why should I?”

The emotion with which he spoke about the sudden death in March of former Derry City team-mate and mate Ryan McBride was nothing new to those who took heed of the dignity he displayed before during and after Ireland’s 0-0 draw with Wales in Dublin three days after McBride’s funeral. From the low-key but heartfelt tribute of wearing the number five shirt in tribute to Derry centre-half McBride to the “unflinchingly honest” post-match interview with RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue.

McClean spoke of having had “better weeks” after “losing two good friends,” admitting to McGuinness’s “big influence on my life” (which might have disturbed the sort of people similarly influenced by Nigel Farage). And he even admitted that “Wales were better than us,” which was most observers’ view but was rare honesty from a post-match interviewee.

That he was a post-match interviewee at all was remarkable. No-one could have blamed him for not wishing to go in front of a mic after his “tough week” but he was in front of the mic having given a man-of-the-match display, despite everything. Maybe even because of everything. Either way, it was a mature, positive use of his emotion. “Hopefully I did the two lads proud,” he said. He had.

Multi-layered players such as McClean are too often viewed as “complex”, “enigmatic” or, worse, “flawed” by lazy media. Even the usually-excellent Ferrington marvelled at how someone as “softly-spoken” as McClean could be so aggressive on the pitch, as if the transformative effect of a competitive sporting instinct was a new scientific discovery.

McClean the player has used this aggression more wisely with time. Amid the occasional rash challenges (such as the one which had Bournemouth’s Adam Smith “doing five roly-polys” to get McClean red-carded last season), he has developed into an established Premier League player, with fewer problems getting regular first-team starts than many of his international colleagues. And as a result, he firmly belongs on the international stage, a hugely-influential goalscoring part of Ireland’s genuine challenge for a 2018 World Cup finals place.

McClean the person, meanwhile, is exactly as he came across in this interview. Thoughtful, articulate (once you master the Derry accent), emotional and searingly honest. A cut above the vast majority of the rest in a robotic world where “the most important thing is the three points.”