Wrexham and Republic of Ireland winger James McClean: "I can't change people's perception of me. The people that judge me don't know me, never spent time with me. You have two sides; you have someone with one set of values and someone with other values. I'm just asking for respect."
Wednesday 20 September 2023 06:56, UK
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 Whelan
I 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.
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 time with me. You have two sides. You have someone with one set of values and someone with other values. I'm just asking for respect.
I wouldn't say: "Oh, look at him wearing a poppy." It doesn't bother me that people have their views. I understand that people have different values from me and different beliefs. I respect that. Just because I don't fall in line, that doesn't mean I disrespect or I hate youse. All I'm asking for is to be respected for my beliefs in return. It's as simple as that.
You mentioned perception then. Do you feel that because you had to stand up for yourself that people maybe think you're this aggressive person?
I think that I am standing up for myself. I don't go out and, you know, ignite these little fires and wars and whatever. It's like there's a perception that I'm a troublemaker and 'we don't want him near our club because he just brings trouble'. But I don't. I've only ever had one bad relationship with one manager and that was at Stoke before I left. If you speak to any other manager and player over the years and asked them what I'm really like, you'll get a different picture to what is put out in public.
Is it tiring? Is it exhausting? It must be?
It can be. it's exhausting when you have to keep explaining yourself over and over and over like that. That's the tiring part. I'm no angel and, look, I've made mistakes like the lockdown Balaclava picture. I regret that. I regret it in one sense because it's given people now an opportunity to say 'well he brings it on himself.' Every time my name gets brought up, they just attach that picture to it.
In March 2020, McLean posted a photograph on his Instagram of himself sitting above his two children as they looked up at him, his face covered by a balaclava, with the caption: "Today's School lesson - History."
His then club Stoke fined him two weeks' wages over what the club has described as 'an inappropriate social media post'.
The midfielder also agreed to delete his Instagram account following the post, which provoked online criticism.
That was just bad judgement on my part. It was supposed to be a joke and it wasn't a joke. And it turned out just to be an absolute disaster judgement call. It's given people an opportunity to justify the abuse. But that picture happened in lockdown which is 2020, I've been getting abuse since 2012. You have eight years of abuse, where you get it from all angles. You mess up once and it's labelled against you and it's like the hate in those eight years, doesn't matter anymore. It was like 'you done this, you bring it on yourself.'
I made the stupid call to put it on social media and it annoys me because people actually believe out there that I sat and spoke to my children about the history. Come on. It was just a picture. I grew up straight after the conflict. So it was ingrained in me, I'd seen it first hand.
My kids know nothing about the past and what went on. Whereas it was different for me because I grew up straight in the aftermath. So the people who actually think that I sat there and educated my children on it… honestly, come on.
You used a phrase there, which I think every single time I've ever mentioned your name, it's been said to me. 'He brings it upon himself.' I don't know how people use that as an explanation for abuse, because you were still young in 2012 when you decided not to wear the poppy. You were very respectful and you were very clear about your reasons. You weren't allowed to articulate it publicly then, you only did that down the line…
Yeah, I explained my reason for not doing so. I haven't made a a song and dance about it. I just bow my head, I do a silent protest. I don't jeer, make noise, try and make a big spectacle about it so the whole 'I brought it on myself' is just based off that that one stupid judgement call. People don't want to be educated. People have their views no matter what. Hate on James McClean and it's popular.
They don't know why they hate on me. They hate me because the person beside them hates me and they just think they well, that's the way it goes. On a Saturday when I go to away ground or when away fans come and I'm getting abuse, I've used it for fuel, for motivation. It's kept me going. If you're abusing me, I'll use it as motivation. And that's just because there's nothing else I can do. So for those 90 minutes, I might as well try and use it to my advantage.
How does all of this affect your family?
My mam is a very anxious, worried person anyway. And yeah, it's been hard on her because you know, as much as I can take it head on and 'do your worst' and whatever to me, but you sometimes forget the people who are dealing with this with me and who haven't built the same mentality as you.
So it's been quite scary for my wife. And she's been quite worried over the years like my mother has been. Sometimes it's probably my fault where I don't think about how they're feeling because I'm just like straight on. It has been quite hard. But like I said, it's probably never going to change and I'm not expecting a big change.
Have they ever tried to say to you, stop…
Yeah. Oh yeah. The balaclava picture, the fact that I put it on social media I got a fair telling off from all angles for a week. They've definitely tried over the years to calm me down.
Have you felt because you have been so alone in this and the only one who wants to correct course and say anti-Irish and anti-Catholic abuse does not belong in football, just like homophobic abuse doesn't belong in football, racist abuse, or any kind of discrimination that you have had to be on the attack all the time?
Yeah, look, maybe I was a bit naive in thinking you know, with me being the one that took the stand first, it'll pave way for young Irish lads coming through and it doesn't seem to be the case. I speak to a lot of people and I've had players say that they don't believe in wearing the poppy and they wouldn't wear it, but they just don't want the hassle. So in a way, you know, I was kind of hoping by me doing it that would open a door for them to kind of do that themselves when they're doing something that they don't want to do. But probably they're afraid of the backlash and that's fine. You know what you don't want because it's horrific abuse and it can be quite taxing. So I understand why they don't want that. But I'm always of the belief that if you don't believe in something, then, you know, take a stand.
You know what, after all the abuse you've endured over 11 years, you are probably going to change things because we have now seen The FA taking action and it shouldn't have had to take this long…
It's been a lot of dark days, it has been a struggle. But if I can be the one that paves the way for this to stop and for any young Irish player coming across and you know, if I ever stop them from getting abuse and they feel free to do what they believe and avoid the consequences that would be the ultimate goal. It will be all worth it then.
You mentioned dark days and I know you want to do the whole 'I'm strong' approach. But it does permeate?
It does, of course. You might have a bad game and a bad result and you're off form or you might get taken off or whatever and then you get abuse and you're already like frustrated, annoyed. And sometimes that can boil over and I probably act off of that and it might trigger a mood for longer than it should. Nobody's perfect. I mean, like, of course if you were getting constant abuse day in, day out, you know…
It's not even about being perfect. It's just human…
In this whole footballing world, you have to be perfect. You have to just be this model professional and, you know, just fall in line with everybody else. And how dare you step out of line? If you step out of line here, you're controversial. I've seen the article already a "controversial 100 cap international joins Phil Parkinson at Wrexham."
So it's just like no matter what articles there are about me, even the good ones, there's always the paragraph about the poppy. It's just like they recycle the same article over and over every year. Like nobody cares. I'm not going to ever wear a poppy. It shouldn't be a surprise, let it go. But the media trying to sell papers, trying to get clickbait and trying to whatever.
Have you ever thought, I can't deal with this anymore?
If I ever thought that, you're letting them win and I would never do that. I would never do that because I would never give them the satisfaction.
We've spoken about the misperception around you. James McClean actually does a lot for charity. And I know you're probably not going to want to talk about this at all because you do it very quietly. And the only way we ever know that you've done it is, is the people you've helped coming forward to talk about it.
I think it's important if you're in a position to be able to help people who are less fortunate, to do so. Sometimes you have to give a cause a bit of publicity because it can grow legs and it will give a wider range of kind of coverage, bringing in more money and awareness for it. If you want to help but you only do it for selfish reasons, to say, 'well, look what I'm doing,' I think that defeats the purpose. The person you're doing it for will still be appreciative regardless but if you're constantly making a song and dance about it, then it kind of defeats the purpose.
One thing that's very close to your heart is autism…
I'm learning each day along with my daughter and so I don't know already everything about autism. And if I sat here, trying to give it the big one, I would come across as ignorant. Every day is a new challenge. And every time, we learn something new. I wouldn't change it for the world. Like she's so content, she's so happy, and she's a wee character. I wouldn't change a thing. It's definitely made me a better person. So since she's come along, I've matured you know, it's opened my eyes a lot.
I went and got myself tested and got myself a diagnosis and the way I see it, autism is something I was born with. So if I didn't have autism, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. I probably wouldn't be as as dedicated and obsessed with football like I am. It's important to raise awareness. I remember when I got my diagnosis and shared it, I had people write 'oh sorry to hear. Get well soon.' It just shows you that there's not really an understanding. It's not an illness, you can't get better from it. It's just something that you are. I'm not ashamed, I'm actually proud that I am autistic and speaking up might help other people to know it doesn't stop you achieving your goals.
I know external views don't matter to you because you're very concrete in yourself and what you believe in. But do you have anything to say to people?
I respect your beliefs, even if I don't honour them in the way you do, I respect them. All I'm asking for in return is for the same courtesy. Judge me if you spend time with me. Don't judge me when you don't know me, because then it just makes you ignorant.