A late November friendly International match between the Republic and New Zealand was hardly likely to create a lot of interest especially when it came after a disappointing Euro qualifying campaign for the Irish which ended with the manager Stephen Kenny relinquishing his post.
New Zealand, unlike their famous counterparts, the All Blacks, sit 101 in the world rankings and the Republic 47, it was a game as attractive as Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer discussing Scottish Independence. 26,000 attended and we were part of the smallest crowd at a Republic game in living memory as a 1-1 draw confirmed the malaise which has descended on the Aviva since the days of Jack Charlton, Trapattoni and Martin O’Neill.
The Republic were regular participants at World Cups and Euros since ’88 but have fallen off the radar in recent times. A young boy was born in Derry in ’89 just after a Gary Mackay goal for Scotland had jettisoned the Republic to the Euros in Germany in a perverse way.
James McClean was born to be a footballer, growing up in the Bogside in Derry, not exactly a child of the conflict but playing ball on the streets of the Creggan which had seen turmoil for 3 decades. Derry was always a soccer city, the GAA stadium ironically sits beside the Brandywell (Derry City stadium) and is called ‘Celtic Park’ but while the Derry county team came close to winning the All Ireland last year it’s the soccer team which has always claimed the allegiance of the Derry working class fans.
McClean graduated through the ranks at Derry and played almost 80 games for his hometown team before signing for Sunderland in ’08 and his career blossomed under a certain Martin O’Neill, a Kilrea, Co Derry man himself. While playing over 60 games for the Premier League outfit his career began to have problems out with football when he refused to wear a poppy for the annual Remembrance Day commemorations, as a Derry man where British Paras had murdered 14 innocent civil rights marchers less than 20 years before he was born there was no way he was going to wear the little flower which has also caused controversy at Celtic over the years as well.
McClean moved on to Wigan where the controversy followed him but the club backed his principled stance unlike Sunderland but he still received abuse at every ground he played at. His next career move was back to the Premier with West Brom but the controversy followed him as his own supporters gave him abuse and even player confrontation.
Stoke City was his next port of call and he actually played his best football there and voted Player of the Year and also converted to overlapping left back from his normal left wing. As his career began to wind down McClean joined Wrexham who had been bought by Irish American film directors.
While not an outstanding Premier league player he has had a steadfast career and is a player who I personally think would have done a great job at Celtic. I always thought McClean was a perfect fit for Celtic, imagine his first tackle v Rangers as he did with the Republic and put the left winger in row Z, the Green Brigade would have loved him. Whether it was the greater money available in the EPL or maybe Lenny, BR or Ange didn’t fancy him is hard to fathom, there was also the chance it wouldn’t work out as in the case of Shane Duffy.
But it’s James McClean’s International career which has been the signature tone of his life. While born in Derry and eligible to play for ‘Norn Irn’ it was never a consideration for him. He did feature 7 times for the ‘NI’ U-21’s but when called up for the full international he declined and waited for the Republic to call.
This was a decision made by many nationalist players born in the 6 counties and especially the better players. The reality is that if you play for ‘NI’ you have to stand for ‘God Save the King’ and the Union Jack flying over Windsor and also listen to the Linfield/Rangers fan base who support that team, McClean wasn’t prepared to do that.
To quote McClean; ‘You are looking around and seeing Union Jacks and listening to the songs and I just didn’t feel at home’. He made his debut for the Republic in 2012 ironically replacing Celtic man Aiden McGeady. He then played at the Euro finals against Spain and although the Republic lost 4-0 against the magical Spanish tiki-taka team of Xavi and Iniesta, McClean would definitely have felt at home as the Republic fans took over the stadium in Poland with a last 15 minute rendition of ‘the Fields of Athenry’.
McClean would go on to claim a regular spot on the Republic team and played at the Euros in ’16 in a stellar career which brought him 103 caps and the 5th most in the Republic’s history, many more than luminaries like Liam Brady and Roy Keane.
James McClean was probably the most victimised Irish footballer in England ever, but he was a strong character and refused to bend the knee, he has strong principles and explained as a Derry man there was no way he could wear the poppy.
He said if it was just about WW1 there was no problem but it includes every campaign that the British Army have been involved in since which includes Palestine and Ireland, McClean’s stance was recognised by many including the Wigan Chairman. Most Irish players in England take the money and keep the head down but McClean was different, Neil Lennon received similar abuse for his principled stand from sectarian bigots during his career and was also abused with death threats and physical assaults.
We went along to the game, we have two season tickets and go regularly this game wasn’t the most attractive, if truth be told it was in recognition of James McClean who took us up on a cold night in November. The Derry man was a special player, a family man with an autistic child and recently diagnosed himself with a form of it; it took great courage to go public with it.
On the night he played his last time for the Republic, the President Michael D Higgins shook his hand and a beautiful girl singer serenaded ‘Amhran na bhFainn’ with the flag of the Republic fluttering in the wind, James McClean was at home.
To read more quality articles from More than 90 Minutes Issue 130 download below