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James McClean exclusive interview: 'I respect your beliefs - all I want is the same in return'


James McClean exclusive interview: 'I respect your beliefs - all I want is the same in return'

The hate is corrosive, contouring his professional experiences and covering every corner of his social media existence. He is accustomed to waking up to death threats and going to bed to direct messages that are too atrocious to type out.

James McClean can't really remember life any other way; how could he when this has been his reality for 11 years?

He was 23 when his world effectively changed, ultimately because he chose to remain true to himself, where he is from, and what he believes in. McClean hails from Creggan, a housing estate in Derry, Northern Ireland that hugs the border to County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland.

Derry is known to a significant number of its citizens as Londonderry, but according to the 2021 UK census the majority of its population identifies as Irish - as people across Northern Ireland are legally entitled to do under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement which largely brought an end to violence in the region.

That violence included 1972's 'Bloody Sunday', when British soldiers opened fire on a civil rights march in Derry, killing 13 unarmed people and wounding others, one of whom later died.

The Saville Inquiry in 2010 concluded that none of those fired at were "posing a threat of causing death or serious injury" and none were in possession of a firearm. Several victims had been shot in the back while running away from soldiers, one was injured while tending to his dying son and another was killed instantly by a bullet to the head "as he was waving a piece of cloth."

Many of the soldiers involved "knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing."

This short history lesson is important to understanding why on November 10, 2012 McClean - then representing Sunderland away at Everton - declined to wear a shirt with a red poppy embroidered on its chest.

A statement read: "As a club Sunderland AFC wholeheartedly supports the Remembrance Commemorations. It was James' personal choice not to wear a shirt on this occasion."

McClean received death threats and was interviewed by the police over the spate and severity of them.

The abuse rolled on, almost every matchday. Two years later while at Wigan, McClean articulated himself in an open letter to the chairman, Dave Whelan.

Dear Mr WhelanI wanted to write to you before talking about this face to face and explain my reasons for not wearing a poppy on my shirt for the game at Bolton.I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars - many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those.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.I want to make that 100% clear. You must understand this.But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me.For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry. scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland's history - even if like me you were born nearly 20 years after the event. It is just a part of who we are, ingrained into us from birth.Mr Whelan, for me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of 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 WWl and WWII.It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy. I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. Since last year, I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent.Tam very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you're a man you should stand up for what you believe in.I know you may not agree with my feelings but I hope very much that you understand my reasons.As the owner of the club I am proud to play for, I believe owe both you and the club's supporters this explanation.Yours sincerely,James McClean

Despite his reasoning, supported by the British Royal Legion, the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic abuse McClean receives still rages on. There are still the death threats, which extend to wishing ill on his wife Erin and four young chidren. The perception of McClean - "troublemaker," "controversial," "hate-baiter" - couldn't be more removed from the modest, silently charitable, proud Creggan native who is a doting dad. He is a passionate advocate for autism awareness; his daughter Willow-Ivy is autistic and McClean discovered earlier this year that he too is on the autism spectrum.

Now playing for Wrexham, he is a symbol of longevity. McClean is supremely conditioned, regularly winning the bleep tests in pre-season and possessing one of the most crucial assets in football - availability - as he rarely gets injured. McClean is only the seventh Irish player to make 100 international appearances.

A line that has coloured the 34-year-old's career is "he brings it on himself." There are former team-mates and high-profile pundits who have suggested McClean should have taken the route of no resistance: wear the poppy, stay silent, get on with the job.

There are others who respect his right to choose whether he wears one or not, but bristle at his reaction to the abuse he receives: pointing to his Free Derry tattoo, winding up opposition fans, the provocative social media posts…

For more than a decade, McClean has faced sustained hate. He has been forced to fight. It has been an exhausting battle - and a truly traumatising one for his family.

In a rare interview, he sits down with Sky Sports News to share his experience.

You haven't had much of a chance to just focus on football and enjoy your football. It seems like you've spent probably over a decade in a fight, and often times in the fight on your own…

Yeah, look, it's not ideal, but it's made me a far more resilient person. I can definitely say that sometimes you just have to take the fight on. The majority of it has been alone.

You say you have to be resilient and in this game you have to have thick skin. But you shouldn't have to shoulder all this hate and abuse.

No, I know. But I found out very, very quickly that you do this alone because there's not going to be a lot of help coming. I've been quite vocal about that in the past. I've highlighted the lack of support and I stand by that. I have been quite critical to the FA for the lack of support over the years but twice in the past few months they have taken action against clubs (Blackpool and Millwall were both charged this year over abuse aimed at McClean from the stands. Blackpool were fined £35,000 in July).

So as much as I've been critical, I'll also praise them when its due. At the minute it is due because they have taken action. It's a start and hopefully it'll stamp it out. But if it doesn't, then I'll just continue doing a lot of what I've always done and take the fight head on. It was like three charges in 11 years and then now two in the last few months. So like I said, it's probably better late than never. I'm not going to hold my breath but we'll see where we go with that.

The FA indicate action has been taken when there was clear evidence of sectarian abuse and they have worked closely with the Police to ensure the appropriate channels of investigation are there should abuse occur.The FA continue to encourage all participants and fans who believe that they have been the subject of, or witness to, discrimination to report it through the correct channels: The FA, the relevant club or via our partners at Kick It Out.

When we're talking about abuse, we're not just referencing the sectarian chanting, which is bad enough in itself. But there's been death threats and a lot of horrible things towards your family.

Yeah. I'm quite thick-skinned. And I'm a product of my environment and where I've come from, it's a place that's very headstrong, very stubborn, filled with resilient, proud people. And sure I'll take that all day - you can abuse me, I'll take it but when you start bringing my children and my family into it, then that's crossed the line. That's a whole different ballgame.

There's nothing that can stop you from feeling fear or unease, sometimes that sense of helplessness, when you're getting pictures of bullets or people saying that they want to set your house on fire and other horrid things…

Yeah, look, it's a very unfair one because we're in an environment where, you know, our hands are basically tied behind our back because we can't do anything. If we retaliate, anything, in any way whatsoever, we're the bad guys. You have these people out there, they just can stay, seem to do whatever they want and nine times out of ten they get away with it. We can't do any form of retaliation because of the consequences that will come our way. It's just not worth it. So that that's kind of it, isn't it?

That's an interesting point you make, because whenever you have stood up for yourself, when you've been abused, you've had this massive push back and pile-on and this description of you as the most hated and abused footballer in Britain. And that's because you have stood up for yourself, because for the vast majority of your career, no-one else has done that.

Of course. I can't change people's perception of me; the perception and reality are two completely different things. The people that judge me don't know me. Never spent ti

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28 of September 2023