Re­lent­less McClean brings the tang of Derry City to Copen­hagen

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Keith Dug­gan

Barcelona may be the cra­dle of foot­ball civil­i­sa­tion, and may one day gift the world with an­other Lionel Messi, but deep down they know they will never be ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing a player like James McClean. That’s be­cause it’s im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine the Ir­ish winger emerg­ing from any­where other than Derry City.

Here he comes again: storm­ing through the dank Satur­days of an­other Novem­ber in which he is cast as a fig­ure of ha­tred across Eng­land’s foot­ball the­atres for his per­sonal de­ci­sion not to wear a Re­mem­brance Day poppy. Here he is rail­ing against the BBC, Voice of Blighty, for high­light­ing a heavy tackle he made but ig­nor­ing the bot­tles and coins then flung at him from a con­tin­gent of last Satur­day’s Hud­der­s­field crowd en­raged by his pres­ence.

Just a month has passed since Wales were left stricken by Ire­land’s lone pre­ci­sion strike through­out 90 min­utes of or­ches­trated an­ar­chy in which McClean was ring­leader and scorer of the lone goal.

In the five years since he has been play­ing for the Repub­lic of Ire­land – shrug­ging off the death threats for not declar­ing for North­ern Ire­land – McClean has moved into the epi­cen­tre of the un­com­pro­mis­ing, di­rect and stag­ger­ingly un­pretty foot­ball team shaped by Mar­tin O’Neill.

Tech­ni­cally, the sight of McClean ram­pag­ing along Ire­land’s left wing with the ball some­where ahead of him, not so much elud­ing op­po­si­tion play­ers as steam­rol­ler­ing through them, prob­a­bly draws a piti­ful smile from the fi­nesse coaches at the big con­ti­nen­tal clubs.

They may shake their heads in de­spair at the head-down, stam­ped­ing bursts for­ward that oc­ca­sion­ally threaten to see the Ir­ish man sprint­ing not just be­yond the end line but also out of the sta­dium al­to­gether. They may lament the over­whelm­ingly left-side-of-the-brain slant to his play and sup­press a smile at the oc­ca­sional wildly am­bi­tious and just plain wild at­tempts to let fly with a thun­der­bolt from out­side the box.

Storm tide

But then, like the rest, they be­gin to re­alise that McClean never stops, that he can’t be worn down and that he won’t ever be beaten back: he’s the storm tide that never ebbs and there­fore a flame-haired Creg­gan-ac­cented puls­ing night­mare for more cul­tured foot­ballers who like to take a breather and ap­pre­ci­ate the nu­ances of the game.

For McClean a foot­ball match is a dive deep into pri­mal in­stinct and place: like his amus­ing as­ser­tion that “95 per cent of the Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion prob­a­bly lis­tens to The Wolfe Tones” – yes, he got into some sort of bother a while back for lis­ten­ing to The Wolfe Tones – it only works if you hurl your­self into the ex­pe­ri­ence, body and soul.

In a time when pro­fes­sional foot­ballers are warned and coached to say ab­so­lutely noth­ing and to say it as blandly as pos­si­ble, McClean is al­most a rene­gade. This is the sixth win­ter that his stance on poppy wear­ing has flared into some­thing dark and nasty. He has tried time and again to ex­plain his rea­son­ing: while his re­spect for the sol­diers who died in both World Wars is ab­so­lute, the poppy is a sym­bol of re­mem­brance for those who died in all wars.

In an open let­ter to Wi­gan Ath­letic chair­man Dave Whe­lan in ad­vance of not wear­ing a poppy against Bolton, he ac­knowl­edged that Whe­lan’s grand­fa­ther Paddy, from Tip­per­ary, was among the Ir­ish men to have died in the Great War.

“I mourn their deaths like ev­ery other de­cent per­son and if the Poppy was a sym­bol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one.”

But as a Creg­gan child born in 1989 but still reared with an in­ti­mate knowl­edge of Bloody Sun­day, in 1972, his be­lief is that “to wear a poppy would be as much a dis­re­spect for the in­no­cent peo­ple who lost their lives in the Trou­bles – and Bloody Sun­day es­pe­cially – as I have in the past been ac­cused of dis­re­spect­ing the vic­tims of WWI and WWII.”

That mes­sage hasn’t re­ally got through, and when you are among the crowd 40,000 strong, and see WBA’s en­forcer wear­ing a pop­py­less shirt, it is all too easy to re­duce the im­age to that of bla­tant anti-Bri­tish be­hav­iour by an Ir­ish foot­baller earn­ing princely liv­ing from English foot­ball. It is easy, when among the crowd, to reach for the coins, to fling the ob­ject. McClean is a throw­back: an out­spo­ken foot­baller un­afraid to stand by his views.

His stance on the poppy saw him ask for a trans­fer from Sun­der­land, where life had be­come un­bear­able, and con­sider a move to New York Red Bulls be­fore tak­ing a re­duced wage at Wi­gan (“It was a no-brainer,” he said in a BBC in­ter­view) and now op­er­at­ing as a fiery, whole­hearted winger at West Bromwich Al­bion.

The eas­ier path for McClean would have been to re­main muted and join the ranks of the-lad’s-done-well. But it would have been im­pos­si­ble for him.

Think of the voices and sounds swirling around that city: Sea­mus Deane, The Un­der­tones, Heaney, Ea­monn McCann, Mar­tin O’Neill, John Hume, That Petrol Emo­tion, Nell McCaf­ferty: it doesn’t mat­ter if McClean was both­ered by all or any of these voices; he’s been hear­ing their echoes all of his life.

Pro­voke crit­i­cism

That’s why he chose to go pub­lic with a trib­ute to Mar­tin McGuin­ness in the week of his death, know­ing that it would pro­voke crit­i­cism that was in some in­stances un­der­stand­able and in other in­stances merely in­flam­ma­tory.

The com­mon por­trayal of Pre­mier League foot­ballers is of spoilt young princelings, re­warded with life-chang­ing wealth be­fore they’ve hardly kicked a foot­ball, and cut off from the sup­port­ers on the ter­races. It has never been that sim­ple.

For McClean that con­nec­tion with the crowd is ev­ery­thing: it’s the fuel for his game. And it can’t be easy, when Novem­ber comes around, for McClean to stand stead­fastly apart re­gard­less of the boo­ing, the jeer­ing, the mis­siles and the wil­ful de­pic­tion of his pres­ence as a wil­ful in­sult to Eng­land’s war dead.

Ev­ery­one knows that the vast ma­jor­ity of English peo­ple have no in­ter­est in, let alone an­tipa­thy to­wards, Ir­ish peo­ple or the Trou­bles in North­ern Ire­land.

That is why it is so easy to re­duce McClean’s po­si­tion to that of in­sult. As Bar­bara Wind­sor – Shored­itch girl, child of the Blitz and land­lady to all of Eng­land – told Sky News with sin­cere in­dig­na­tion when sell­ing pop­pies a few years ago, any­one who doesn’t wear one “can sod off”.

That’s the im­pos­si­ble no-man’s-land on to which McClean has walked and re­fuses to budge. Time is a goon: if to­day’s foot­ball stars had sim­ply been around 100 years ear­lier then they, of course, would be the can­non fod­der, rush­ing to the front lines.

It’s not hard to imag­ine McClean be­ing among them. In­stead it’s his des­tiny to be around in 2017, to be who he is for bet­ter or worse and, more im­me­di­ately, to in­tro­duce the tang of his home city to chilly, so­phis­ti­cated Copen­hagen for tonight’s as­sign­ment with Ire­land.

All we know is that he will be up for it. He doesn’t try to dis­guise his foot­ball lim­i­ta­tions – and will never be dis­cour­aged by them ei­ther. In this way James McClean has be­come the Pole Star of the Mar­tin O’Neill era of Ir­ish foot­ball. This above all: to thine own self be true. Who again was it from Derry who said that?

He is a flame-haired Creg­gan-ac­cented puls­ing night­mare for more cul­tured foot­ballers who like to take a breather

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