Ea­monn Sweeney

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The English FA have not once stuck up for James McClean by mak­ing it clear he’s en­ti­tled to ab­stain from wear­ing a poppy. Yet when he snaps once they pounce on him.

JAMES McCLEAN was wrong to de­scribe those who at­tacked him for not wear­ing the poppy as “cave­men”. The cave­man was a pretty im­pres­sive char­ac­ter who in be­tween elud­ing the at­tacks of sabre-toothed tigers and dis­cov­er­ing fire, found time to cre­ate mag­nif­i­cent paint­ings at Las­caux and Al­tamira. He shouldn’t be com­pared to the pa­rade of cranks, ass­holes and nitwits who sur­face this time every year.

Bed­bugs or mag­gots are prob­a­bly more ap­pro­pri­ate analo­gies for the mob who sit in the stands or at their com­put­ers, show­er­ing abuse on McClean and his fam­ily, de­liv­er­ing death threats and anti-Ir­ish songs, throw­ing things at the player, thor­oughly en­joy­ing this an­nual fes­ti­val of bul­ly­ing and stu­pid­ity.

This has been go­ing on for seven years now. Seven years dur­ing which McClean has po­litely and ar­tic­u­lately ex­plained why he’s declining to wear a shirt with a poppy on it while mak­ing it clear he casts no as­per­sions on those who choose to do so. It’s made no dif­fer­ence to those who per­sist in abus­ing him.

I’m ac­tu­ally sorry I have to write the next sen­tence but we might as well be truth­ful about what James McClean is up against: One guy sent him a mes­sage say­ing, ‘You’re (sic) ad­dress will be all over so­cial me­dia soon. Big mis­take post­ing a pic­ture of your slag wife I’ll tat­too a poppy on her ugly face you gin­ger IRA rat.’

I find that mes­sage up­set­ting. God knows how the McCleans feel about it. I sus­pect there are worse ones which James’ wife didn’t re­veal. Savour too the sheer stu­pid­ity of a man who can’t tell ‘your’ from ‘you’re’. His English pa­tri­o­tism ob­vi­ously doesn’t ex­tend to learn­ing the lan­guage prop­erly.

Seven years of this and what hap­pens last week? The Stoke City player de­scribes the sec­tion of his own team’s sup­port who booed him dur­ing a match with Mid­dles­brough as “un­e­d­u­cated cave­men”, and the English Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion launch an in­quiry into the com­ments.

He also used the word “c**t,” but it’s not true to re­port, as some have, that he called some­one a c**t. McClean merely made the ob­ser­va­tion that “no c**t” would stop him stick­ing up for his be­liefs. That’s a very dif­fer­ent thing. And his crit­i­cism of one set of Stoke sup­port­ers was ac­com­pa­nied by praise of those who’ve taken the trou­ble to un­der­stand his po­si­tion.

The FA de­cided to let McClean off with a warn­ing. But the very fact they in­ves­ti­gated the com­ments in the first place was an in­sult to a player who points out that “week in, week out for the past seven years I get con­stant sec­tar­ian abuse, death threats, ob­jects be­ing thrown, chant­ing which is heard loud and clear every week which my fam­ily, wife and kids have to lis­ten to. They turn a blind eye and not a sin­gle word or con­dem­na­tion of any kind.”

He’s right. The FA have not once stuck up for the player by mak­ing it clear he is en­ti­tled to ab­stain from wear­ing a poppy. Yet when McClean snaps once they pounce on him. I know where they should stick their in­ves­ti­ga­tion. So do you and so does James McClean, but he’s too po­lite to say so.

The FA’s op­por­tunis­tic de­ci­sion to have a dig at McClean merely re­veals how cow­ardly they’ve been over the past seven years. Foot­ball makes a huge deal out of be­ing against racism. There are ad cam­paigns and play­ers read­ing out anti-racism pledges be­fore big matches. The likes of Sa­muel Eto’o, Sul­ley Mun­tari and Kevin-Prince Boateng have been praised for walk­ing off the pitch in re­sponse to racist abuse; Ju­ven­tus, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid have had parts of their sta­di­ums closed be­cause of racist chant­ing by their fans.

Yet there seems to be very lit­tle con­cern cross-chan­nel about the con­stant sec­tar­ian abuse lev­elled at McClean. When Hud­der­s­field Town fans pelted him with bot­tles, coins and lighters last year Match of the Day opted not to show it and the FA re­fused to take any sanction against the club. Any­one who says, “What can the FA do? They can’t stop the fans chant­ing,” should re­mem­ber that if the same kind of abuse was aimed at a black player the FA would act quick enough.

The English me­dia, which delights in high­light­ing racism per­pe­trated by Eastern Euro­pean fans and never tires of writ­ing self-con­grat­u­la­tory pieces about how the game has moved on from the racist ba­nana chuck­ing days of yore, has opted to ig­nore the cam­paign against McClean.

Last week, Ne­manja Matic an­nounced that he wouldn’t be wear­ing a shirt with a poppy on it be­cause NATO bombed his vil­lage in Ser­bia when he was a kid. It’s striking to ex­am­ine the con­trast­ing ways in which his and McClean’s re­fusals have been treated. The coverage of Matic has been largely sym­pa­thetic with his ex­pla­na­tion be­ing pub­lished at length and with­out ad­verse comment in pa­pers whose re­ac­tion to McClean had gen­er­ally been along the lines of, “Grow up you stupid Paddy.”

It’s as though the Con­ti­nen­tal is re­spected be­cause he’s mak­ing the kind of in­tel­li­gent and con­sid­ered de­ci­sion English pa­pers don’t think an Ir­ish­man is ca­pa­ble of.

It’s as if English peo­ple be­lieve anti-Ir­ish racism isn’t re­ally racism. Fun­nily enough they’ll of­ten use the same kind of ar­gu­ment Peter Casey fans used in con­nec­tion with Trav­ellers, “It can’t be racism be­cause the Ir­ish aren’t a race.” But whether you call it racism or big­otry or just plain prej­u­dice, it’s long been a stain on English so­ci­ety.

You can see it to­day in the in­sis­tence that the Ir­ish govern­ment are be­ing com­pletely un­rea­son­able in pur­su­ing le­git­i­mate na­tional in­ter­ests dur­ing the Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions. When you live over there, and some­times when you meet English peo­ple over here, you en­counter it in the shape of con­de­scen­sion, ig­no­rance and out­right bad man­ners. It’s be­hind the re­fusal to treat James McClean fairly.

Those who’d pre­fer not to con­front this un­palat­able truth seek to blame the player. They say he shouldn’t en­gage with his tor­men­tors on so­cial me­dia. But there’s no moral equiv­a­lence be­tween a man try­ing to ex­plain his po­si­tion and a le­gion of mo­rons only in­ter­ested in be­ing as ob­nox­ious and hurt­ful as pos­si­ble. McClean’s op­po­nents have no in­ter­est in en­gag­ing him in de­bate be­cause most of them aren’t able to put a co­her­ent ar­gu­ment to­gether.

Oth­ers sug­gest McClean should wear the poppy be­cause he’s earn­ing his liv­ing in Eng­land. That’s non­sense. Like any other Ir­ish per­son work­ing in Eng­land he’s been given the job, not out of char­ity, but be­cause he’s the right per­son for it. Your em­ployer pur­chases your labour, not your con­science. Other­wise you’re just a ser­vant.

James McClean has walked a long, hard and lonely road on this is­sue. A lesser man might have folded but McClean has kept go­ing. He hasn’t let the con­tro­versy af­fect his form and has given ster­ling ser­vice to Sun­der­land, Wi­gan, West Brom and Stoke even when their fans haven’t given him their full sup­port.

He has also achieved some­thing im­por­tant by pro­vid­ing a fo­cus for de­bates on the way in which the poppy is used, the kind of de­bates which a civilised and self-aware so­ci­ety needs to have. He has struck a blow for free­dom of con­science and against mind­less con­formism. His­tory will be kind to him.

There are ob­vi­ous par­al­lels be­tween James McClean’s stand and that of Colin Kaeper­nick and the other NFL play­ers who’ve taken a knee dur­ing the US na­tional an­them. The English are very quick to de­ride what they see as the mind­less jin­go­ism of the Yanks. They think they’re pretty nice peo­ple by com­par­i­son.

Yet though the play­ers in­volved in the an­them protests have re­ceived plenty of crit­i­cism on so­cial me­dia and from the likes of Donald Trump, they are able to play with­out be­ing booed every time they touch the ball, with­out ob­jects be­ing thrown at them and with­out racist chants ring­ing in their ears. The ges­ture they’re mak­ing is a more rad­i­cal one than the one made by James McClean, yet in what’s os­ten­si­bly a more di­vided so­ci­ety they don’t have to run the same gaunt­let of hate that he does.

English peo­ple should con­sider why that’s the case. Per­haps only a mi­nor­ity of their foot­ball sup­port­ers treat McClean this way. But by not speak­ing out against such be­hav­iour, not just the FA, but the ma­jor­ity of English fans are com­plicit by their si­lence. This has been go­ing on far too long.

A player should not be sub­jected to a weekly or­deal be­cause he re­fuses to hon­our an army which mur­dered un­armed peo­ple in the streets of his home town. The au­thor­i­ties should be in­ves­ti­gat­ing seven years of sec­tar­i­an­ism rather than a sin­gle so­cial me­dia comment by its tar­get.

If they don’t have the stom­ach to do so every one of their pi­ous pro­nounce­ments on racism, di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion is ren­dered ut­terly mean­ing­less. Their ac­tion last week has em­bold­ened thugs and big­ots by let­ting them be­lieve the FA is on their side. The de­ci­sion to warn the player will surely lead to an in­crease in the abuse in­flicted upon him. The FA should be ashamed of it­self.

Rave on James McClean. Pass no heed.

If the abuse was aimed at a black player the FA would act

‘A player should not be sub­jected to a weekly or­deal be­cause he re­fuses to hon­our an army which mur­dered un­armed peo­ple in the streets of his home town’

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