Martin O’Neill says he understands what James McClean is going through, having himself experienced hostility from the crowd at Windsor Park when, as a young Catholic during the Troubles, he first broke into the Northern Ireland team in the early 70s.
O’Neill always speaks fondly of his time playing with, and eventually captaining, Northern Ireland to a good run, most famously at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, and at his latest Republic of Ireland squad announcement in Dublin yesterday he made a point of doing so again.
“We had a great spirit, a great camaraderie between the Catholics and Protestants in the side, very, very strong,” he said.
“People can go their separate ways after that but I would defy anyone who participated in that to say that the bond didn’t exist.
“That’s not to say we didn’t have different convictions about things but we mucked in together in the games. It was genuinely terrific. ’82 will live with me for a very, very long time. It was really great and I’ll not forget the night that we beat Spain in Valencia. That was a major highlight.”
However, O’Neill also revealed that he had endured something of a baptism of fire in his early appearances for the North.
“I had to battle through those early days there, tough matches, the crowd not accepting you at Windsor Park,” he said.
But you battle through that, you come through it, and it was great. Those games when it was Celtic versus Rangers as well. Big games.
While clearly not wanting to dramatise the extent of the abuse he shipped in his early days at Windsor Park — “maybe it’s because I was playing crap,” he quipped at one point — O’Neill did concede that he would regard his own experience as an advantage when it comes to talking to James McClean about the abuse he has received at Stoke City and elsewhere as part of the now annually recurring controversy in England over the player’s refusal to wear the poppy.
“Absolutely, yeah,” he said. “I know this word DNA is being used. Everything now is DNA. It used to be a really nice phrase but now everybody is saying DNA. The plastic on that there is DNA. It’s ingrained in you. But I know what James is going through.”
O’Neill, who made it clear that he believes McClean’s “strong view should be respected”, said he plans to sit down with the Stoke City man to discuss the situation on Sunday or Monday, as the Republic’s squad begins its build-up to the high-profile friendly against Northern Ireland at the Aviva next Thursday.
O’Neill said he wouldn’t envisage the player’s participation in that game being a problem, although it was noticeable that, in almost the same breath, he did make a point of asking how many Northern Ireland supporters are likely to be in the Aviva. (3,000 is the expected number).
Asked if, as manager, he might consider following Jurgen Klopp’s bid to defuse political tension by leaving Xherdan Shaqiri out of the Liverpool squad for the Champions League game against Red Star in Serbia last night, O’Neill observed: “Shaqiri (would have been) travelling to Belgrade. But James is not travelling. If this game had been up in the North, I think then I would be having a look at it. Not that I won’t be now at this minute, but if this game was up North and he was going to be subjected to whatever he might be, then at the end of the day, I would certainly have a look at that.”
As it happens, McClean is not the only professional footballer currently declining to wear the poppy in England but O’Neill is of the view that Nemanja Matic’s stated objection to sporting the emblem is not likely to prove as controversial.
Naturally Matic, I think, would be out of this because this is very much a British thing, isn’t it, in terms of James and his involvement at club level,” he said. “Whereas Matic can say it’s because he’s a Serb playing in England and I don’t think it would have the same effect.
While O’Neill has himself worn the poppy when doing punditry work on ITV, he gave a terse response yesterday when asked if it had been a difficult decision for him.
“I don’t think you should be asking me that, if you don’t mind,” he said.
Republic of Ireland provisional squad
: Darren Randolph (Middlesbrough), Colin Doyle (Hearts), Caoimhin Kelleher (Liverpool), Sean McDermott (Kristiansund BK)
: Seamus Coleman (Everton), Cyrus Christie (Fulham), Matt Doherty (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Richard Keogh (Derby County), Shane Duffy (Brighton & Hove Albion), Ciaran Clark (Newcastle United), Kevin Long (Burnley), Jimmy Dunne (Hearts – on loan from Burnley), John Egan, Enda Stevens (Sheffield United), Darragh Lenihan, Derrick Williams (Blackburn Rovers), Greg Cunningham (Cardiff City).
: Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick (Burnley), Harry Arter (Cardiff City – on loan from Bournemouth), Conor Hourihane, Glenn Whelan (Aston Villa), David Meyler (Reading), Alan Browne (Preston North End), Shaun Williams (Millwall), Richie Towell, Ryan Manning (Rotherham United – on loan from QPR), Callum O’Dowda (Bristol City), James McClean (Stoke City).
: Shane Long, Michael Obafemi (Southampton), Scott Hogan (Aston Villa), Sean Maguire, Callum Robinson (Preston North End), Aiden O’Brien (Millwall), Ronan Curtis (Portsmouth).