In defence of West Brom’s controversial winger
The life of the Premier League footballer is dominated by media attention, but for some the gaze burns stronger than others. West Brom’s James McClean is a man whose career has rarely been devoid of the controversial; unable to separate his politics from his profession, he remains one of the games more divisive figures.
McClean’s continued refusal to adorn the Royal British Legion’s poppy remains the main bone of contention, and one that will surely grab the headlines again this coming weekend. But for the Irishman this isn’t the first show of derision towards Britain. His annual show of contempt towards the Royal British Legion’s appeal follows on from a summer where he goaded many on these shores. His decision to snub the British national anthem during the Baggies’ recent tour of the USA led to anger across social media, with McClean suggesting that it would have been disrespectful to the ‘innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles’.
It was during this time that McClean received calls to walk away from English football altogether, with Northern Irish Democratic Ulster Unionist MP Gregory Campbell saying ‘he should reconsider who his paymasters are or move elsewhere so there isn’t a problem’. Tony Pulis took a slightly more pragmatic line in respecting his position, but not to necessarily agree with it.
Branded as petulant and disrespectful, it is easy to dismiss McClean. Yet as with so many things, context is crucial.
McClean grew up in Creggan in county Derry, a staunchly Republican part of the country and one with which the winger continues to proudly associate himself. This a part of our isles that continues to bear the scars of previous conflict, and one where the ‘troubles’ do not represent such a distant past. Two of the victims of the ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre were from Creggan itself.
For a Republican like McClean the poppy represents so much more than a continued respect for those that gave their lives in the ‘Great War’. The tireless work of the Royal British Legion has established the poppy as a symbol to represent all British servicemen and the sacrifices they have made in all subsequent conflicts; conflicts that of course include Ireland. For many this is seen as a positive, a nationwide appeal to support those that give their lives to defend our country. Yet for McClean, this subtlety is an issue, and one that he cannot refuse to ignore. His open letter last year summarises this distinction quite well, and sheds light on his particular choice.
McClean though isn’t alone; Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow is amongst a clutch of others who publicly flout the adorning of the poppy. For Snow it as much about remaining apolitical as anything, but it is an issue that has continued to draw the ire of the so-called poppy fascists.
There is a strong irony in the seemingly dictatorial habit with which the public expect the poppy to be worn. Let us not forget that the millions that died defending these shores did so in the face of a fascist Germany, in so doing protecting our rights to personal freedoms that we often take for granted in today’s world.
Some might argue that there is no place for politics in football, and that the game is there to provide an escape from the rigours of everyday life. Yet football’s history surely prevents this, as rivalries are founded on both political and religious lines and are not always easily changed. Nor should they be: they make the game unique, and in many cases football continues to remain a power for good.
Many may not agree with this stance, but in a country where our freedom is continually eroded, the decision to wear a poppy is a personal choice that needs to be respected.
A player with values is something of a rarity, and while his choices remain unpopular his defence of his own beliefs remain something to be applauded.