James McClean’s speed of light journey from the Airtricity League to the European Championship finals might well be the feelgood sports story of the year.
But it was the player’s decision to swap playing for Northern Ireland for playing for the Republic back in August which continues to generate headlines, even in the week when the 23-year-old realised his dream of making Giovanni Trapattoni’s squad for Poland.
On the back of death threats and abuse, and his own feisty response to provocation from some Northern Ireland supporters, the Sunderland man closed his Twitter account this week.
“I was chatting with the club and it was best all round that that happened,” he said in Dublin yesterday. “To be honest, (the abuse) didn’t really affect me or bother me. To me, I saw it as a bit of banter. But it was best for all parties that I closed it down.”
Clearly a tad uncomfortable about fielding numerous media queries on the subject, McClean sought to move on when asked if, in an era when Celtic manager Neil Lennon can be physically attacked in a football stadium, he had any concerns about his own personal safety.
Said the player tersely: “I don’t really want to talk about it. The case is closed. But no, I don’t.”
But the issue refused to go away, with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness weighing in with his backing for McClean.
“If a young fella decides to opt for the North or the South, I don’t think anyone should interfere politically with their choices,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “If they believe their career is best served by whatever team they play for, we should support them.”
For his part, McClean said yesterday that growing up in the Creggan, his allegiance in matters of football was always to the Republic.
“Being from Derry, it’s a nationalist city where everyone supports the Republic of Ireland and you are brought up that way,” he said. “Even back in 2002 during the Korea and Japan World Cup, I remember being at school watching the games and just the whole city came to a standstill. Now to be a part of that and knowing the support you are getting back at home — it’s going to be tremendous and I am really looking forward to that.”
By contrast, McClean says he never felt at home in the shirt of Northern Ireland, for whom he played at U21 level seven times.
“I gave a piece, an article, not that long back and I was just describing how as a Catholic in the squad, you don’t feel part of the squad,” he reflected. “You don’t really feel at home. I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those flags and hearing the songs and chants. For me, personally, I didn’t feel part of it. It’s probably the wrong thing to say but it was just a stepping stone in my career.”
But McClean did play tribute to new Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill, as well as welcoming any effort to make the team more inclusive to players of the nationalist persuasion.
“It’s important that happens,” he said. “Michael is a great man and he was very supportive of me and the decision I made. It is really important that happens and Catholics feel more positive and more welcomed when called up to the squad.”
McClean’s inclusion in Giovanni Trapattoni’s Euros squad caps an astonishing change in the player’s fortunes, one encapsulated by his memory of preparing for a League of Ireland First Division game with Derry City on Suirside in September 2010 — the very night that Ireland were opening their European Championship qualification account with victory in Armenia, thanks to a Keith Fahey goal.
“I remember we were sitting in the hotel in Waterford and watching it on TV. We went out that night and got beat 2-0 so it wasn’t a great night for us. As a team we were sitting around the hotel after the pre-match watching the game and saw Keith score the winner. To think I’ve gone from there to now...
“My only ambition at that time was to help get Derry back up to the Premier and then make my mark in my first full season. It has always been a dream to go back across the water and try to establish myself with Ireland. I remember when Derry made the move to the Premier, there was talk about interest from Brighton and things like that. But I remember (then Derry manager) Stephen Kenny saying to have a good year here and saying, ‘I promise you, you will get your move’. That was nice and things worked out for the best.”
From a manager of Derry City to a manager from County Derry — it was Martin O’Neill’s decision to give McClean his Premier League debut at Sunderland which utterly transformed the player’s profile.
“Definitely, he’s given me a lot of confidence,” says McClean of the former Northern Ireland international. “He threw me in without experience and I owe him a lot. Without Martin I wouldn’t be in the squad now because he’s given me game time. He just told me ‘listen, just go out and play your normal game and things will take care of themselves’. That alone gives you confidence, that he’s got faith in you and you’ve got to have faith in yourself. Then it’s just a feeling of there being no nerves whatsoever, I’ve been waiting my whole life for this sort of moment, I was just excited. He just threw me on and told me to play with confidence and play my normal game.’’
Meanwhile, before he can fully focus on the Euros, McClean has the small matter of a game against his boyhood heroes Manchester United on Sunday.
“I want to win the game,” he says. “It’s our last game of the season and we want to sign off on a high. I know it’s well publicised about the title race — and I’m a big United fan — but if I get the chance to score the winner, then I’ll be delighted.”
Right now, you wouldn’t put anything past him.
n James McClean and Keith Duffy were in Dublin yesterday to launch ‘The Dublin Staff Relay 2012’. The Dublin Staff relay is a 5 x 5km fun relay involving staff members from organisations around the Dublin area. The event takes place in the Phoenix Park on Thursday May 24 at 6pm. Irish Autism Action is the official charity partner of The Dublin Staff Relay and 20% of every team entry will go directly to charity. www.dublinstaffrelay.com
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