Belfast Telegraph

I was vilified for not wearing poppy but I have no regrets, says football star James McClean

By Colin Francis

Controversial footballer James McClean says he believes he was "hung out to dry" over his refusal to wear a poppy on Remembrance Sunday during his time with Premiership club Sunderland.

The Londonderry man also got into trouble over various tweets, including one where he expressed his fondness for a republican song. He later left Sunderland after fans turned against him.

McClean says he regrets not speaking out over the poppy row at the time and explaining his stance on the issue, but the club told him not to.

Last November, McClean put his name to an open letter to his current club Wigan's chairman Dave Whelan, outlining his reasons for not wearing a poppy to mark Remembrance Sunday, as he came from the city that saw the Bloody Sunday killings.

Some friends of his told him after that even they had not, until then, fully understood his stance, but they were the same reasons that he had yearned to put in front of Sunderland's supporters two years earlier only to be told, essentially, that silence might be a better strategy than truth.

To this day, he resents the circus that was allowed usurp his story.

"Speaking honestly, I think I was hung out to dry by the Press people at Sunderland. That day we were playing Everton, the manager [Martin O'Neill] was brilliant about it. He understood.

"He said 'If that's your decision, I fully support you.' None of the players had an issue with it.

"But pre-game, the Press officer went out and issued a statement saying that I wouldn't be wearing a poppy, that it was my own decision and that, as a club, they fully supported the poppy appeal.

"That just drew attention onto it straight away.

"I don't think it would have been anywhere near as bad as it got if that hadn't happened.

"Then when I asked to be allowed speak about it, I was told that that was a bad idea, not to say anything and let it blow over. So it was kind of brushed under the table and I felt that that was more for the club's benefit than mine.

"I think it could have saved so much hassle... when you think two years later I finally get to speak about it... for me, that's two years too late. It could have been nipped in the bud from day one.

"Was there any need to make that statement prior to the game? No, there wasn't.

"To this day I still have a kind of annoyance that that was the case. It irritates me. Because with people not knowing my reasons, even my own fans turned on me. They didn't understand.

"To them, I was disrespecting their country, disrespecting their fallen heroes, disrespecting their culture, this and that. Because I was pushed into a corner and not allowed say anything, people didn't know.

"And they turned on me. It affected me because I could do no wrong before that, then all of a sudden I was getting booed every touch. People saying I shouldn't be in the team and 'f**k off back to Ireland'. Stuff like that.

"I don't know if it's fair to say that I was a scapegoat but, in a way, I think I was. The Sunderland fans are very passionate as it is. When it's good it's good. But very quickly, when it turns bad, it's very bad. They get on to the players really badly. And I think it was very easy because of the poppy thing. I became an easy target."

There will be a school of opinion that McClean has not always helped himself. It is a point he isn't inclined to argue. His use of social media certainly wasn't always wise and perhaps fuelled the impression of a careless attention-seeker.

Sunderland banned him from using Twitter after he tweeted his love for the republican folk song, The Broad Black Brimmer.

Having played seven times for Northern Ireland at U-21 level, his decision to commit to the Republic at senior level triggered another blaze of hostility that he was not always inclined to meet with a temperate mind.

He said: "And I think I'm always going to get some abuse being from Derry and playing for Ireland when I had the choice I had.

"I think some people are always going to hold that against me, regardless.

"That then led onto the poppy stuff, they were adding things up and it even got to the stage where me listening to Irish music became headline news.

"All of a sudden, my every move was in the papers. The stuff I had been doing my whole life. Probably naively, I didn't know any different. I was just being me. I was just writing [Twitter] and singing and doing all the things I had done before, but all of a sudden it was all in the papers. I think I learned the hard way that I couldn't be doing that anymore."

A warm smile creases his face when McClean begins to talk about family.

His daughter Allie Mae started play-school last week. At 15 months old, she's a "daddy's girl" and the centre of his universe.

Erin, his fiancee, is expecting again in the autumn. Fatherhood, he says, has changed him, changed him immeasurably.

He isn't on Twitter anymore and doesn't baulk at a suggestion that his formative days in professional football might have been less fraught had social media never been invented.

As for the poppy story, he suspects that the open letter to Whelan will have reconciled some critics to his position, but not all.

"I think it will always be an issue," he says quietly.

"Because there's a minority of the public who have their views, their strong stances and, regardless of whether I give reasons or not, they'll just see it as disrespectful.

"That's their view and I respect that, but in return I ask them to respect mine."

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