It’s that time of year again. Remembrance Day is coming and with it, it seems, a repeat of the bullying over how individuals and football teams should commemorate the British war dead. Most clubs and players will wear shirts with poppies stitched onto them. James McClean won’t.
McClean knows what’s coming. He knows about the imminent tidal wave of bullshit because he doesn’t just get it at this time of year, he gets it all the time. He knows that many will argue, with straight faces, that people should be forced to wear symbols to commemorate those who fought for freedom. He knows that they will be outraged at his decision not to wear the poppy, which remembers the British armed forces, members of which killed 14 people in Derry, his hometown, on Bloody Sunday in 1972. He knows this because he’s abused and booed for his stance most weeks when he plays football. He knows that his point of principle will be held as a sign of disrespect. He knows what heinous, depressing, short-sighted nonsense the whole thing is.
Presumably in an attempt to head off the incoming criticism, McClean spoke to the West Bromwich Albion programme before their game against Sunderland about his choice.
“People say that by not wearing a poppy, I’m being disrespectful but they don’t ask why it is that I choose not to wear it. If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I would wear it without a problem. I’d wear it every day of the year if that was the thing, but it doesn’t, it stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in.
“Because of the history of where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that. I have no issue with people that do wear the poppy. I absolutely respect their right to do that but I would hope that people respect my right to have a different opinion on it too.
“If I were to sing the British national anthem, that would be disrespectful to the place I come from, to Derry, to my family, because the anthem represents something in recent history that caused a lot of conflict and pain there. A lot of people are still hurting there so I can’t pretend that didn’t happen. Again, I will stand there in silence while the anthems are played. I will respectfully allow others to sing it. I won’t interfere, but I can’t take part in that.
“The people that love the anthem are British, that’s their culture. I totally respect that, that’s great. I wouldn’t ask them to sing the Irish anthem. My attitude is live and let live, and I don’t think we should have ideas forced on us just as I don’t want to force my ideas on anyone else…I have to stand by my principles.”
His comments are reproduced at length here because they jar with his own manager’s after the game. McClean, a former Sunderland player, having been on the receiving end of abuse that one might generously call ‘spicy’ from their fans – including hearty renditions of ‘No Surrender To The IRA’, and you’ll appreciate the irony given how closely that song is associated with the extreme right – celebrated his side’s 1-0 win with some gusto, aiming a special fist-pump in the direction of the away support. Danny Graham and Lee Cattermole, among others, were unimpressed, and a ‘scene’ ensued.
“He’s not the sharpest tool in the box, and that’s not being disrespectful to him,” said Tony Pulis afterwards, and while he did add that his player was a “smashing lad, a really really nice lad”, you do wonder what Pulis might say if he had intended to be disrespectful.
There was a rather depressing irony in Pulis calling McClean thick, given that the player had spoken intelligently and carefully about his stance. This was the root cause for this continued opprobrium (not just from Sunderland fans) from the stands, something that Pulis either isn’t aware of or chose to ignore. This is something McClean has done on a number of occasions before too, notably in an interview with the Irish Independent in which he outlined the sort of abuse he routinely received, and in a letter he wrote while a Wigan player last season.
On Monday, McClean was warned by the FA for ‘sparking’ the ‘melee’ and the ‘unfortunate scenes’ tutted at by a few people on TV, which amounted to a few Sunderland players jostling him at the final whistle and some in the crowd being irked that their abuse had been returned.
It’s worth dwelling on what an absolute absurdity it is to punish a man for a brief moment of letting go after the months and years of abuse he’s suffered – again, not just from Sunderland fans. In West Brom’s first game of the season, he was booed by his own supporters in reaction to his decision not to sing the British national anthem and to turn away from the Union Flag before a pre-season game. In the delightful manner of football fans, some workmanlike performances have seen this venom diminish, but there are still occasional calls of disapproval from the Hawthorns stands. You can certainly understand why McClean’s grip on his patience has been tested.
The abuse continues around the country, and for what? McClean’s stance is personal: he is not encouraging anyone to do anything they aren’t in favour of, nor is he discouraging anyone from doing anything they are. McClean is harming precisely nobody by simply holding a personal view and explaining it with intelligence and clarity. There may well be aspects of McClean’s personality or even his politics that aren’t palatable, but his choice not to wear the poppy is not one of them.
Is Nick right or has he grossly misjudged the mood of a nation? Should McClean be horsewhipped and ordered to sell poppies outside Birmingham New Street station? Write to us: [email protected]
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