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Wednesday 14 November 2018

Fellow pros need to stand beside James

James McClean. Photo: Getty
James McClean. Photo: Getty

James McClean won't play for the Republic of Ireland in Denmark on Monday week.

He's fine with that as it's his own fault, having picked up bookings in the most recent Nations League games against Denmark and Wales. And McClean doesn't get paid to play for his country.

But it's by no means certain that he will play for his club - the people who do pay his wages - this weekend. Stoke City have a game, away to Nottingham Forest.

With just one win from the last four games, you'd think they would want their best players on the field of play so they can achieve the best-possible result for the club.

McClean has, admittedly, struggled at Stoke since his summer move, but he's still a player who can win them points.

But manager Gary Rowett will not have an easy night's sleep tonight as he knows that picking McClean in the team, or even in the match-day squad, will earn him grief.

Focus

The focus on McClean for tomorrow's game away to Nottingham Forest would go beyond anything you'd expect from a fringe player in a game between the teams placed sixth and 15th in England's second tier. Rowett is in a very hard place.

Pick McClean and he knows that the winger will be targeted every time he touches the ball, and not just by home fans as many Stoke supporters are unhappy with the Derry native's stance on the poppy.

Even naming McClean on the bench will offer no relief as eyes will be on McClean from the second that the Stoke team coach enters the City Ground. Bile will be at boiling point.

Omit McClean from the squad and ask him to stay at home and Rowett's Saturday will be a lot easier, but that would set a very, very dangerous precedent. It could also kill off McClean's football career in England as, if he retains his stance on not wearing a poppy (and there's no sign he will waver), then the same will be expected in November 2019, that McClean will be 'unclean' in the eyes of English football and is not allowed anywhere near a match around Remembrance Day.

"If I'm going to face criticism either way then the reality is that I have to do what I think is the right thing to do," says Rowett.

"I always knew that there was always a chance that this type of signing might create a stir but I will reiterate what I said when I brought James to the club: it's about what I think he can do on the football pitch.

"I appreciate there's going to be a very mixed reaction to whatever decision I make but I stand behind him as a footballer and I stand behind him as one of our squad members.

"I will work as hard as I can to get him playing for Stoke City and showing the desire and the drive you could argue has been lacking in this team for 18 months."

Easy for Rowett to say in the confines of a press conference yesterday - a media briefing which, ironically, took place in a boxing club - but it will be a severe test of him as a coach and as man when he has to hand in his teamsheet tomorrow.

Dangerous

Football has now entered dangerous territory. There was a precursor of this earlier this week, when Liverpool left Xherdan Shaqiri out of their squad for a Champions League game away in Belgrade, fears over the safety of the Kosovo-born player over his goal celebrations against Serbia at the World Cup finals.

Yes, Arsenal had left Henrikh Mkhitaryan back in London when his team-mates travelled to Azerbaijan for a Europa League game, as it would indeed have been dangerous for an Armenian to travel to Baku. But the Shaqiri decision was a strange one, even someone with an Irish background could see that.

Admir Softic, the Bosnian-born, Cork-raised player who had a spell with Cork City a decade ago, was irked as he took the decision to play for Cork away to Red Star Belgrade in a Champions League tie when memories of war were a lot more fresh.

"Find it extraordinary that a team like Liverpool and an experienced player like Shaqiri can't deal with this game. Remember 2005, we played Red Star in the CL quali and as 19 year old I dealt with the situation though my home City was under siege for 4 years during the war," Softic wrote on twitter from his current home in Germany.

Stoke could lose tomorrow's game with or without McClean. But football will be the loser if he is not able to travel and play for his club.

As an act of solidarity with a fellow professional, all of the players from both clubs could tonight take a moment to think about what they'll do.

McClean could do with some other footballers taking a stand and saying that if McClean is unable to (safely) play football just because he does not wear a poppy, then his fellow pros should consider going poppy-less as well. It's called freedom.

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