When James McClean left Sunderland in 2013, his poor performances on the pitch were overshadowed by his stance on the poppy off the field. Few would have given the Derry man any hope of resurrecting his career, especially when the annual poppy debate followed him to Wigan, where he tried his best to put his career back on track.
Fast forward to 2016 and it is a very different James McClean that the public and indeed the footballing world are seeing right now. While at Wigan, one of the most important things he did was not on the pitch, but off it. Writing a letter to the chairman, Dave Whelan, articulating his reasons for not wishing to wear the poppy. That letter was the turning point for McClean, as it offered an honest and sincere insight into the mind of a man, who cherishes the city of his birth.
Instead of a 150 character rant on twitter, here was McClean offering an insight into the hurt that is still palpable in the Bogside, a hurt that lives on from the events of January 1972 and a hurt that McClean is all too aware of. From that moment, McClean was no longer an ‘IRA apologist’ or accused of disrespecting dead soldiers, he just simply didn’t want to commemorate soldiers, who shot and killed members of his community. From that moment on, the poppy fascination was put into the shadow and the footballer re-emerged.
His move to West Brom was marred by an unsavoury incident, where he refused to stand attention for the British national anthem in America, which earned him few fans and it was at that point that this writer decided that he was more hassle than he was worth. However, he has put that behind him and become a leading player for both club and country.
Off the field, McClean has endeared himself even more to the Derry faithful (if that were possible) with his charity work and selflessness that belies the character that is portrayed in the English media, a character, we in Ireland, long stopped reading about.
Last week’s performance in Vienna was an example of what McClean offers any team. It wasn’t his goal that caught the eye, but the lung busting performance that accompanied it. His stats show what a hard worker he is and fans and managers both appreciate that type of drive. Irish teams, over the past few years, have been accused of lacking the desire and hunger to win games, which we became accustomed to during Roy Keane’s heyday, but under Martin O’Neill, we have regained that hunger and it is his fellow Derry man who typifies the character needed to do that.
When McClean burst onto the scene at Sunderland, it was O’Neill who was at the helm and Irish fans thought they had found a rough diamond, who had been hiding in the Brandywell. His early form was impressive, so much so, that he was drafted into the Irish team that travelled to Poland that summer. However, he failed to live up to that early promise, although he was playing in a struggling Sunderland side. He looked like a one trick pony and many thought he would disappear as quickly as he arrived. We obviously didn’t know the real James McClean. Now we definitely do.
His rise back to the Premier League has been remarkable, yet has all the hallmarks of hard work, dedication and a commitment to succeed. He has shown the type of resolve that has got Derry through the darkest days of the troubles, he is the epitome of his home city and embodies all that is good about the walled city.
As an Irish fan, praying that we can get to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, it is the likes of McClean that I am looking to, to show that will to win, to drive the others forward, to bridge the sixteen year gap, since we last graced the greatest stage on earth. C’mon James and C’mon YBIG!