Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

'Defector' James McClean is hiding behind religion, says Keith Gillespie

Keith Gillespie is one of the most-capped players in Northern Ireland's history

To Keith Gillespie, it’s a simple philosophy, made unnecessarily complicated by the small print of the St Andrews Agreement and issues such as national identity and dual nationality.

Gillespie, one of the most-capped players in Northern Ireland’s history, fully understands the vicissitudes of politics on this divided island — and can therefore recognise the right of someone to make a choice that mirrors their aspirations and allegiances.

What the 37-year-old cannot fathom, however, is how someone can attempt to justify that choice on the basis that the rejected option was a bastion of sectarianism and anti-Catholicism.

We’re talking about James McClean here. Or, rather, the 86-times capped Gillespie is, on a Los Angeles radio station, broadcasting to West Coast-based Northern Ireland exiles, Beyond The Pitch.

Ironically, Derry-born McClean would have been the natural successor to the man affectionately known to The Green and White Army as Gilly. A rapid, crowd-pleasing, wide midfield player or winger, unafraid to take on defences and unfazed by the enormity of the occasion or the reputation of the opponent.

That was Gilly. Now it’s McClean. Both born in Northern Ireland, both honed by the Northern Irish FA, both natural talents and Premier League-standard professionals.

But while other products of Our Wee Country watch the forthcoming Euro 2012 championships on TV, McClean will be playing in them — with a Republic of Ireland shirt on his back. The Sunderland player isn’t the first to ‘defect’ down that seemingly one-way street and he won’t be the last. He is, however, the most controversial of the asylum-seekers, that controversy fuelled by recent remarks about the Northern Ireland set-up.

According to the 23-year-old ex-Derry City prodigy, it was a cold house for Catholics and he never felt comfortable playing for Northern Ireland at junior level.

Also: “I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those Union Jacks and hearing the songs and the chants. I didn’t feel part of it...”

Keith Gillespie is now the latest high profile ex-Northern Ireland international to react to those remarks — and in doing so he echoes the feelings of the vast majority of fans offended by what they’ve heard and read.

“I’m of the firm belief that if you’re born in Northern Ireland you should not have the option of playing for the Republic,” he said. “James McClean is a prime example. He had no intention of ever playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he’s made that clear — but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic.

“He made some excuses in relation to being a Catholic, but that’s not an issue with the Northern Ireland squad.

“You look at some of our greatest and most capped players who are Catholic — people like Pat Jennings, Mal Donaghy, Martin O’Neill and Gerry Armstrong. They are all hugely popular people in Northern Ireland.”

The former Newcastle United star added: “I think McClean was clutching at straws with those remarks and trying to come up with some sort of excuse.”

Gillespie, who is still playing part-time football with Longford Town across the border, admitted however that sectarianism hasn’t been completely eradicated from Northern Ireland football.

“There’s always going to be a few idiots here and there, but the work that’s been done (by the Irish FA and the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs) to cut it out has been tremendous,” he said.

“There have always been Protestants and Catholics in the squad, and the Catholic players have as much heart in playing for Northern Ireland and the jersey. It’s disappointing that players (like McClean) feel that there’s sectarianism in the game in Northern Ireland.”

Gilly acknowledged the great strides made since the dark days of a decade ago when Neil Lennon, then a Celtic player, quit international football after firstly being jeered by his own ‘fans’ and then receiving a death threat prior to a Northern Ireland game at Windsor Park.

“That was a sad affair but, post-Neil Lennon, I haven’t seen anything,” said Gillespie.

“It’s disappointing when people don’t want to play for Northern Ireland because although we’re a small nation, we’re a very proud nation. We do come up against some of the top countries, yet pull great results out of the fire. We have fantastic support that will back us through thick and thin. I’m obviously biased, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to pull on that shirt.”