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Wednesday 11 December 2019

McClean happy to go his own way

'I'd rather stand for something than fall for nothing . . .'

PROUD: James McClean poses for a portrait at the Republic of Ireland team hotel in Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile
PROUD: James McClean poses for a portrait at the Republic of Ireland team hotel in Dublin. Pic: Sportsfile

This reputation precedes him. James McClean has often felt like the most open of his books, his tattooed limbs almost an invitation to be read and interpreted as a signal for attack.

And when that happens, wherever it happens, his instinct almost always prompts him to smote back. Almost always.

"You get this reputation. People make fun of you. "Oh he's going to get booked even before the game has started!"

"And I have to think well, I've only been booked once in this campaign, in the first game!"

Must be softening in his advancing age you suggest; an immediate riposte gently perishes the thought.

"I'm not mellowing. Maybe the opportunity hasn't come up when the ball is kinda 60-40, you know?"

We do. We were here a year ago, when he chided those seeking to decry Martin O'Neill and his wilting side.

"Sometimes when we're not doing well you thrive on it a bit more," he spat; this writer sternly begged to differ, explaining it was not good business for media to welcome a World Cup qualification failure.

On the brink

Twelve months on, Ireland are on the brink once more; of what we do not yet know.

The team's mood is brighter and yet the performances remain fitful; McClean's own have been subject to widespread fan and media debate. The question is a 60/40 ball so he responds, studs showing.

"Well I'm off social media but of course I see what you write," he says; he has been in spiky form this morning. "Luckily enough for me, I couldn't give a shit what you write, to be honest."

It is necessary, not for selfish reasons, to point out that the criticism is not confined to the media gathered before him.

"No, as long as the manager picks me, that's all that matters. He obviously feels I can do a good job. Luckily enough they don't pick the team either so I'm fine."

Another voice chimes, wondering about the praise he has received in print, whatever about from his fans.

"Yeah but he's asking about the criticism. When you criticise me it doesn't bother me. That's the question he asked."

And when you've done well?

"Obviously it's nice to read nice things about you but I wouldn't have my head in the clouds and think 'I'm a great player'

"Because you are only one or two bad games away from...So I think you're maybe reading a bit too much in me saying I don't give a shit."

We enjoy these exchanges; they are human, revealing a passionate soul and a beating heart in a sport filled to the brim of personalities devoid of either.

Without his intervention, remember, Ireland may not have clawed back the Dublin draw against Switzerland when he raced back to retrieve a lost cause before providing David McGoldrick with a late leveller.

This sums up McClean's enigma; the qualities that so many deride remain vital to his very sense of being, as a footballer and as a person. Without them he would not be his true self.

Sometimes it is necessary that the unwillingness of others should bend towards his personality, rather than the other way around.

And so it was with such surprise that he received a text message from the FA last weekend, urging him to report any abuse suffered as a result of his now well-known refusal to wear a Poppy.

Seven years since his former employers, Sunderland, ignorantly isolated him when the issue first arose, and five after his eloquent public letter explaining his reasoning, the authorities have finally deigned to submit to the authenticity of his beliefs.

Seven years in which he has been forced to endure in frustrated silence the spite-spittled obscenities that showers him not just in November, but every month.

Imagine walking down a street every day and being abused for your belief or your race and refusing the inclination to hit back?

Hardly anyone can contemplate what it is to stand in his shoes; perhaps understandable he must vent in controlled situations like a media session where he is open to some questions, though not all.

"I am fine, it is more my family, my wife and especially my mother. They have to deal with it just as much as I do.

"For me it is water off a duck's back, I just get on with it. The way I see it, it's just name calling.

"It's cringy but as the quote says 'I would rather stand for something than fall for nothing'.

"They have their own views. I can sleep better at night knowing that I can stand up for what I believe in and take whatever comes my way."

This year, the fetish for poppy paraphernalia has seemed to reach a peak; McClean is not alone in pointing out the irony of how the celebration of a nation's fight for personal liberty has instead culminated in the restriction of that very freedom.

"It doesn't bother me. It is their country. I am not there to change their views. I respect everybody's right to wear what they wear.

"But that is where they hypocrisy comes in. Because as much as I agree that they can wear whatever they want, they don't agree that nobody can tell me what to wear."

He is keen to talk about a battle he can influence.

"We have a big game on Monday and I don't want this to be a sideshow. I would rather talk about the game."

Implosion

He says nothing will right the wrong of last year's World Cup play-off implosion; instead, Ireland must summon up the spirit of famous evenings like the German win in 2015, Lille in 2016 or Cardiff in 2017.

That night two years ago marked the Derryman's last goal for his country; he is one away from entering the top ten of all time and would like to do so sooner rather than later.

"Hopefully I can get into that top ten, add a few more goals, get plenty more caps, one or two more major tournaments.

"I'm really pleased with how it has gone since leaving Derry. If you had asked me back then, I would have snapped your hand off for where I am now.

"But I feel I'm due a goal. I'm the first to hold my hands up, I'm my own biggest critic. I don't need other people telling me.

"I know how I play myself. I haven't scored but I still feel I've contributed, I've played every game. We're one win from qualifying. But it would be nice to score."

A sense of softening? Perhaps. He would settle on any score; he also wants to settle another score, specifically with Denmark boss Age Hareide, a constant critic of Ireland's style.

'Hopefully, he's even more pissed off after Monday night! I couldn't give a shit what he thinks. No point lying. I couldn't care less.

"Hopefully, he's coming off the pitch on Monday night and he's thinking "I never want to see these again. It doesn't bother us."

You really think James McClean doesn't worry what people say? Think again.

All he can do it deliver his best response on the field. He knows it's time he did.

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