James McClean says that sectarian abuse aimed at him in football grounds has “simmered right down” since the authorities began taking belated but decisive action to deal with a problem which has dogged the Derryman’s career in England ever since he first took a public stand against wearing the poppy on his club shirts.
McClean has previously been critical of what he saw as the FA’s lack of meaningful support but, following their decision to charge Barnsley over chants directed at the player in November — and with Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield investigating similar abuse by sections of their own support — the Ireland international and Stoke City winger reported that he has noticed a significant improvement on the ground.
“It’s been huge,” he said yesterday in Dublin. “I’ve been critical of them (the FA) in the past and rightly so but, credit where it’s due, they have been brilliant recently. I think the major turning point was charging Barnsley. I’ve had statements in the past which were token gestures and nothing was done about it, so for them to actually charge Barnsley — and to have investigations regarding Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield and whoever else — that’s massive.
And the abuse in the last few games has simmered right down, which was something that I thought was probably never going to happen.
“Before each game now, the EFL and the FA have made the referees aware that if they hear anything, then they report it straight away.
“So I then do not have to. It became a bit of a pain in the hole for me having to go to referees all the time.
“There are also announcements over the tannoy as well, so the last few games have been fairly quiet.”
Asked if he has to assume that the improvement is probably down more to supporters being wary of damaging their own clubs rather than any new-found respect and understanding for his beliefs, McClean replied: “I would not say that it’s an attitude change towards me. I don’t think that they could care less about my feelings. So I would probably say that it’s more the first one, but I’m not complaining. It’s a first step.“
Praising Stoke City for their support, McClean revealed he recently took part in a meeting at the club’s training ground which was attended by the EFL, Kick It Out, the PFA, the FA, and Staffordshire police.
“I was asked the other day in a room with all the powers-that-be what I would like to achieve from this,” he said.
And I’m not trying to sound like some sort of big hero, but if I have to be the fall guy for young Irish footballers coming through, so they don’t have to suffer this, then I’m happy to do that.
McClean is enjoying a resurgence of form under Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill at Championship side Stoke, but he said talk of a possible All-Ireland Euro 2020 play-off decider has so far been confined to some humorous asides.
“I think in the last international break he (O’Neill) joked that if that was the case he would make me do another 20k in training that week but, no, I think that one is on the backburner, in both our minds,” says McClean.
“Don’t worry, I’ve been analysing everything that we are doing to feed back to the camp (laughs). He’s doing a great job with us and you can see why. His attention to detail every day, it’s brilliant.”
McClean, who came to prominence with Derry City, gave his backing to plans for an All-Island League and while he doesn’t know all the “in and outs” of the FAI crisis (“I just know the FAI made a balls of it all”), he never feared that Ireland’s play-offs in March would be threatened.
“I don’t think it would have ever come to that,” he said. “Things about the League of Ireland being in jeopardy, that would have been a real shame. Why should people have to suffer because a few people made a cock-up? Hopefully it gets resolved pretty soon and, going forward, the same mistakes aren’t made.”
McClean was speaking at the unveiling yesterday of a new sensory hub in the Aviva Stadium which will be accessible to all fans attending matches, including the upcoming Six Nations home fixtures. It’s an initiative which is very close to his heart, his family having already installed a similar facility in their own home.
“My youngest daughter (two-year-old Willow) is autistic,” he explained.
As she gets older, it seems like things are getting more difficult for her. If she has a bad day, it affects all of us. It’s difficult but, in the same sense, she’s amazing. Every day is a challenge, but a good challenge.
“My two eldest kids love coming to see me play, but for Willow, it’s a different experience. She doesn’t like crowds, or any very busy or noisy places.
“Football games, which are such a huge part of our lives, are quite overwhelming for her. A facility like the Aviva Sensory Hub will make all the difference for her and many other people with sensory needs when coming to matches.”