Was anyone remotely surprised when James McClean, the Republic of Ireland footballer from Londonderry, turned his back during the UK National Anthem, before a pre-season match in the US? The winger was representing his new club, West Bromwich Albion, and their American hosts had organised music and an English flag, in honour of the visitors.
McClean has been involved in controversy after controversy since leaving Derry City to play full-time football in England.
He was still in the process of negotiating a transfer from his home town club, when he withdrew from the Northern Ireland international squad and announced his intention to defect to the Republic. Subsequently he refused to wear team kit with poppies woven into the shirts when he played for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic, at matches on Remembrance Day weekends.
McClean has also found himself in trouble several times following injudicious use of Twitter, causing public disagreements with managers Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trappatoni. Infamously, he used the social media site to express his appreciation for the IRA song, The Broad Black Brimmer. The player’s Twitter account was deleted for a short while, as a result.
You might detect a thread running through many of the incidents around McClean. He has cited his nationalist political beliefs and upbringing in the staunchly republican Creggan estate, in Derry, to explain involvement in various controversies. There has been no lack of commentators, from inside and outside football, ready to do the same.
It could be argued that McClean’s issue with the poppy is a matter of personal preference and political opinion. Still, it’s worth remembering that an act of remembrance from a football club, whenever it weaves a symbol onto its shirt, is primarily corporate rather than individual. If a player has difficulties with the communal ethos of a club and its supporters, he should examine why he’s happy to be employed by them in the first place.
That’s ultimately an internal matter for the clubs. If they want each player to have a choice whether or not to wear an emblem on team kit, or whether, for instance, they wear a black arm band to mark a tragedy, presumably they’ll communicate that policy to their employees.
There’s no comparable defence for McClean’s actions during the National Anthem in South Carolina. It was a display of public disrespect and bad manners. He didn’t need to sing, or put his hand on his heart or even acknowledge the tune in any meaningful way. He just needed to stand quietly, show a little dignity and not draw attention to himself – like the rest of his teammates, who come from across the world, including the Republic of Ireland and other places where some people have historical or political issues with Britain.
McClean’s conduct shouldn't be excused either by constant references to his ‘upbringing’. The player is 26 years old, which means that he was born in 1989 and cannot realistically remember the worst violence in Northern Ireland. Indeed his unreconstructed attitudes hint at how Troubles era bigotries and hatreds are being passed down to a younger generation, in spite of decades of the ‘peace process’.
Sportspeople, like anyone else in society, are entitled to voice their views and express their values. However, it’s possible to espouse principles, even dubious ones, without being disrespectful and antagonistic. James McClean is not some sort of political crusader; he’s just a very rude and very naughty boy.