You might think you know all there is to know about James McClean. You don’t.
You might have made your mind up about him. Prepare to think again.
Despite what you might have read and heard elsewhere, the problem with James McClean is definitely not James McClean. The problem is with a world that wants to rush to judgement before it has heard all – any – of the facts and a world that, while talking about the importance of free speech of thinking for yourself and for standing up for a principle, goes into meltdown if anybody actually dares exercise those values.
As we go into this interview, I would rather be talking about football. I can promise you that James would like that even more. But life isn’t that simple and there are misconceptions that we need to address, not least because James himself is keen that Albion supporters understand just where he is coming from.
Speaking to him at length, it is very clear that James is a man with deeply rooted principles, principles that have been tested to the limit. But they are only worth anything if you stand by them and James has done that despite the fact that his life might have been a whole lot easier if he had quietly let them slip.
“You can say that again! But if I didn’t stand by principles, if I didn’t have beliefs, I wouldn’t be the person I am and I probably wouldn’t be in the Premier League. Standing up for things is in my character. I was brought up to be honest and stay true to myself.
“Coming from where I do, we are proud people, we wear our hearts on our sleeves, that’s who I am, on and off the field. Sometimes it gets me into trouble but the frustrating thing about that is the way I’m portrayed rather than the truth of it, and so I want to take the chance to make it clear to Albion supporters what I’m about.
“We are coming up to Remembrance Day and I won’t wear a poppy on my shirt when those games come around. 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”.
Where James comes from is Creggan in Derry, an area that saw a number of people killed on the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1972, an episode going through a second public inquiry at present. While the Troubles have passed into history and reconciliation of a kind has taken place, forgetting is not an option for families that lived through that time. Again, while offering no disrespect to anyone on this side of the Irish Sea, James is quietly firm in his thoughts on that.
“If I were to sing the British national anthem, then 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 and so I can’t pretend that 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, honestly, and I don’t think we should have ideas forced on us just as I don’t want to force my ideas on anybody else. The Albion fans have been great to me and I just want to put it out in black and white why I do what I do and give my side of the story. I have the greatest respect for their culture and it’s been nice that they seem to have the same for mine. I hope that by saying this, people will realise that I mean no offence, no disrespect to anyone. But I have to stand by my principles”.
Throughout the years, self-belief has been central to James’ development as a footballer too, an attribute that has finally brought him to The Hawthorns.
“Creggan has always been a big footballing community, it’s the number one sport. I grew up with a ball at my feet, I started developing and started to get involved with clubs and just came to love the game more and more. The more love you have for it, the more effort you put in and the more you try to improve. Football is a major part of who I am. I love the game and I want to give the game as much of myself as I can.
“Growing up as an Irish lad, following Celtic is just a natural thing to do, so I was always watching out for them, but I was a big Manchester United fan too, and again they have a big following back home.
“Even though you are a bit isolated from it, you still have the rivalries with the clubs and you have a bit of back and forth – I get enough abuse about it day in day out nowadays on Twitter, so occasionally I give a bit back with the thing about not being able to find Rangers to play an Old Firm game on FIFA15! It’s just a bit of banter but unfortunately, we live in a world where people are desperate to be offended about something all the time so you can’t win. It’s an over-sensitive world isn’t it?
“People don’t like characters, they want you to be a robot, here’s your script, read off it, don’t say anything interesting or dare to be different. I think that’s a pretty boring way to live your life, not just for you, but for everybody around you. I am who I am, I can live with that and I’m not going to change it. I think I’ve got a bit of an old school mentality there!”
James came through the local game but scouts from a multitude of English clubs soon picked up on his ability as he shone for Derry City.
“The standard back home was decent. When I first joined Derry, they were coming off the back of the European run where they’d just lost to Paris St Germain after beating Gothenburg and Gretna, who were in the SPL at the time, in the UEFA Cup.
“Overall, I’d say the league was similar to League Two, it’s not as bad as some people try to make out, but over the last few years, it’s definitely got worse, it’s not producing the players it did. The standards and facilities have gone down and so have the crowds.
“I think it’s partly because kids are coming over here younger and younger and a lot of the players who have come over here and become established Premier League players, they were bought for buttons because the league doesn’t get the respect it should. It’s become a vicious circle.
“In the summer of 2011, it seemed like I was linked with everybody. There were a couple of things that came close, Wigan had a couple of bids turned down, I spoke to Peterborough but it didn’t quite feel right and that fell through, so I went back home. Then there was a game where the League of Ireland Select played Manchester City. I played well and from there, Derry City accepted a bid from Sunderland from out of nowhere. There was no hesitation, I jumped at the chance to join a Premier League club.
“I’d always kept myself fit but going to Sunderland, the level of fitness, the players’ strength, the speed, it was a different level and that was something that I had to improve on pretty quickly, which I did I had to put on a bit of muscle and get stronger to be able to compete. That was the first real eye opener.
“I worked really hard and I made an opportunity for myself pretty quickly, I got on the bench a few times and made my debut that December. My attitude was that I was there for a reason, they must have felt I had something to offer, so I just got my head down, worked as hard as I could and then took my chance when it came.
“Self belief is massive in every area of your life but especially if you are going to play football for a living. When I started playing, I didn’t fear anything, I wasn’t nervous, I tried things, I played off the cuff and with freedom. As you get older, you start over analysing things maybe and you actually get more nervous, you know what can go wrong and you start to think about that more and you have to control that, where as a youngster, you’re maybe more naïve and you just play.
“Steve Bruce had been the manager who brought me over, but then he left and Martin O’Neill took charge and he was great for me. He really believed in me and things just took off. After I got my first start on New Year’s Day, I played every single minute after that through to around October I think.
“It was a lot of experience and games, and then it stalled for me. I’d been seen as the golden boy I suppose, everything went right for me for a long spell and then came Remembrance Day in 2012 and the situation with me not wearing the poppy on my shirt.
“From there, I suddenly went from being the golden boy to having Sunderland supporters booing me and as a young player, I found it really hard to deal with and I probably didn’t explain the situation the way I’m trying to here. It was the first time I’d experienced anything like that and I just didn’t know how to cope with it. I lost confidence and belief and that second season, I was nowhere near the level of the first.
“Confidence is the biggest factor in the game, when you haven’t got it, nothing seems to happen for you, you start to feel more down on yourself. Martin left a few months later and that was another major factor in me wanting to leave the club because I’d lost the trust of the fans and then the manager that had stood by me through everything left as well. I just needed a new start.
“I was lucky that Wigan came in for me. They’d just got relegated but were really pushing to try and get back and it felt to me as if it was the best route back into the Premier League for me. We went close in that first season but lost in the play-offs and then it really fell away last year and we ended up getting relegated which was a disaster.
“Personally, it was another experience to learn from and I was pleased that my own form was good, I won the Player of the Year. Again, I was lucky that I had a manager that believed in me. Malky Mackay told me I was his main man and when you hear that, you are just full of confidence. When you play a run of games, your confidence builds and from there, I had a good season but it didn’t mean anything because for the team, it was a bit of a shambles.
“Ever since I left Sunderland, my aim was always to come back to the Premier League. I always aim to compete at the highest level and against the best players so that I can push myself. I thought Wigan might have given me that route but it didn’t work out with them, but then all of a sudden, I was back in it with Albion.
“As soon as I was given the opportunity to come here and work under another great manager who has achieved so much, it was easy to decide. The manager’s record speaks for itself, it’s a stable club, so I’m just thankful for the chance to come here. I’m looking forward to giving it my all and making it a success and hopefully the Albion will be a club that I can stay at for a good number of years.
“I’ve settled in really quickly which is great. I think that comes with age and experience, you know how to handle change better. I was a bit shy when I was younger but that leaves you as you get older. It becomes easier to just get on with things and the lads here have been brilliant from day one, all of the staff as well, the fans too, they’ve made me feel right at home.
“As each game goes by, I find my feet a bit more and start to play better so hopefully that continues and I can start chipping in with a few goals and assists. I’m getting closer, so hopefully one will hit the back of the net soon!”
As we know, James has found himself splashed across the press since he came to the Albion, particularly through the summer, yet a recent gesture barely got a column inch. Spotting an appeal on Facebook to raise £1,500 to buy a special bike for a young girl suffering from Spina bifida, James had his hand in his pocket straight away to cover the cost. When some are attacking him for merely standing up for his beliefs, they should remember that those principles are also the driving force behind such acts of charity.
“I’ve always got great satisfaction out of being able to help people that need it more than I do. I came from nothing, I’ve just been lucky to have a career in a fantastic job, so I try to stay as humble as I can. The way I see it, if I was in need, I would greatly appreciate somebody helping me out if they could and so I try to do as many things as I can. I do a lot of charity work that doesn’t get any attention and I don’t go around talking about it because that’s not the point, it’s not about getting attention, it a bit helping people in need”.
Of course, people in James’ position can’t win on that score. If they don’t tell the world, they’re seen as misers and if they do, they’re supposedly only doing it for the publicity. It’s an odd world we’ve created isn’t it? He takes it pretty philosophically though.
“It’s funny, every time I do something that someone doesn’t agree with, even something as minor as saying something on twitter, it gets blown up, there’s a big spread in the papers. If I do something right, there’s not a word about it!”
There are more important things to think about in James’ life than a few words in the press though, not least since he became a father for the second time last month.
“We had the baby boy in September and I feel a wee bit guilty because he was born back in Derry and my missus has had to stay back home with him for the first six weeks, so I’ve avoided having the early sleepless nights – there’ll be plenty to come to make up for it I’m sure!
“Our wee girl will be two at Christmas and having the children, I think that’s helped me mature as a person, become more grounded. Like I said, as a player, the more games you get, you tend to go home and over analyse things and there were times I’d go home and beat myself up over all kinds of things that happened on the pitch.
“But now, I go home and my daughter is there, my son as well soon, and football is forgotten about, you’re busy with them. So you forget about football and I think that’s healthier, you look forward rather than worrying over things that you can’t change. Having the children is the best thing that could have happened to me”.
If those children grow up to be just like their dad, they’ll be fine.
You might not always agree with him, but James McClean is a good man. That’s all we need to know about him.