As we know from experience, a conversation with James McClean can only rarely, if ever, confine itself to what he calls “the finer things” in the game.
So when a few of us met up with him this week in Lansdowne Road, where he was attending the Aviva Soccer Sisters Dream Camp, while there was plenty of illuminating revelation about the more positive aspects of his relationship with football, it wasn’t too long before the discussion moved into much more troubled and troubling territory. To begin with, the mood could hardly have been more upbeat, McClean speaking about how his commitment to staying on top of his game meant that, when his season ended with Stoke City, he promptly took himself off to a training camp in Dubai before joining up with the Irish squad at their training camp in Portugal.
Reflecting on the changing of the guard in the management of the Irish team, he allowed that, though he was “shocked” by Martin O’Neill’s departure — and felt guilty as a player that, by not delivering on the pitch last year, he would have contributed to the end of his Irish managerial reign — he finds himself much taken with Mick McCarthy.
McClean revealed that, like Roy Keane, he has never liked giving opposition players “the satisfaction of going over and asking them to swap jerseys” but makes an exception for “the Irish lads”. So he’s got “a few nice ones”, he smiles, including “Duffer’s when he was at Fulham, Sheasy’s and that.”
From his own Irish career and related store of memorabilia, there’s a special fondness for his jersey from the Euro 2016 win over Italy (“that speaks for itself, doesn’t it?) while his debut cap is a “prized possession” on the wall in his mother’s house. And the longer he goes on in the game, he confessed, the more he appreciates the significance of such things.
“I think, eight years ago, you’re more carefree,” he reflected. “You don’t think about things a lot, you just do. In my case that hasn’t always been good for me, it’s got me in trouble over the years. But, definitely, you do think more about the game as you get older, you appreciate the occasion more, the sentimental things.
“Funny, I was speaking the other day about the first Euros (in 2012). It was all new to me and I’ve got no jerseys kept from it, no boots, gave them all away. If that was the case now, I’d definitely have something to show for it. Like, at the last Euros I got every jersey signed, shinpads, boots, from the Italy game and this and that, so I definitely think you appreciate the finer things more as you get older.”
But far from the finer things, there’s the other stuff, the ugly, stuff, the recurring vitriol to which the Derry native has been subjected throughout his career in England.
Much of our discussion this week had been framed in the context of McClean having turned 30 in April, a personal milestone which saw him on the receiving end of a particularly odious ‘birthday card’ which, among many other grim references, called him a ‘Fenian Sub-Human bastard’, hoped for his death on his birthday, dubbed Bobby Sands the ‘1981 Slimmer of the Year’ and made derogatory mention of Bloody Sunday.
Having long been a target for abuse from the stands in England and on social media for his refusal to wear a Poppy, McClean told us this week that he couldn’t honestly say he had been shocked by the card. That wasn’t the reason, he explained, that he opted to post the contents on his own Twitter account.
“The only reason I highlighted it and the only reason I put it up was to prove a point and I think proved it right,” he said. “It’s that (equality and inclusion campaigners) Kick It Out and the FA are a bunch of hypocrites, a bunch of cowards.
“Look at the (Raheem) Sterling case, previously. He’s been lauded as this kind of hero for speaking out. Getting awards and this and that. What he got is nothing compared to what I’ve got for the past seven or eight years. And there hasn’t been a peep, a single word or contact. I got a token gesture from Kick It Out after people highlighted it and went after them. Nothing will ever be done. I’m a white Irishman, to put it bluntly. That’s not high on the agenda in England.
"It’s just a fact of proving a point that they are a bunch of hypocrites and a bunch of cowards. ”
On the long-running repercussions of his stand on not wearing the Poppy, McClean said: “I like to think I’m a principled guy and I’m not going to sell myself out for something I don’t believe in. I would rather be true to myself and be perceived by the people that mattered, the people of Derry, my own people, for staying true to myself, rather than bow down and sell myself out for just an easy life.
“Being from Derry, growing up in the aftermath and seeing the effect it has on people, and knowing my history, I don’t think I have a choice to wear a poppy. I know everyone is entitled to their own opinion (but) I don’t agree with someone wearing a poppy and being from Derry.
McClean said he wants the Football Association in England to be “consistent” in the way they respond to all instances of discrimination in the game.
“They never contacted me for starters,” he said. “Do you watch Sky Sports News? Have you ever seen a story about me being discriminated against? There wasn’t a peep about the birthday card. So, just be consistent.”
When reference was made to the formal warning he received from the FA in 2015 after a goal celebration while playing for West Brom - in which he appeared to taunt jeering Sunderland supporters - sparked angry scenes on the pitch, McClean remarked: “The same thing happened this year, with the Middlesbrough game where I clearly got abused. People were trying to come on the pitch and I called them uneducated cavemen, which they were. I’m getting a warning from the FA. It’s only when I fire back at the FA publicly that they kinda back off and just give me a warning rather than taking any action. But sure, lookit, that’s what it is.”
Asked if he thought that Manchester City’s Sterling, who has been rightly praised for speaking out against racism in the game, would be sanctioned if he called abusive fans ‘uneducated cavemen?’, McClean quipped: “No, he’d probably have got another award.”
McClean said that while, privately, he has received support from some fellow players, they have declined to come out and back him in public.
“Lookit lads, I get it,” he said. “People want an easy life, don’t they? Fair play, it’s not nice, obviously, getting the abuse. If they want to avoid that, I’ve got no issue with it whatsoever.”
As to whether the abuse ever spills over into his private life, say when he’s out and about on civvy street, McClean admitted, “I get nothing, no”, before adding, “people are 10-foot tall behind the computer and two foot tall in real life.”