James McClean’s shot is blocked by DeAndre Yedlin during the Republic of Ireland’s 2-1 win against USA in the friendly game at the Aviva Stadium on June 2. INPHO/LASZLO GECZO
By Dave Hannigan
The James McClean headline-generator kicked into action earlier than usual this season. It’s normally around late October and the cusp of the poppy-wearing time in England when the Derryman starts to get an inordinate amount of coverage in the media. Column inches are wasted by little Englanders failing to understand why somebody from the Creggan might have problems commemorating the British army. We bristle at the ignorance of jeering fans and tut-tutting journalists who know little of the history of that part of the world and fail to understand how it might shape somebody.
If we stand beside McClean during that annual brouhaha, it’s more difficult to take his side in the latest story involving him getting into a post-match fight with Jack Butland and Ryan Shawcross, two of his team-mates at his new club, Stoke City. The squabble took place at half-time during a game they subsequently lost 3-0, a result that meant the recently-relegated outfit finished the first four games of the Championship season with two points and, obviously, tensions were running high. The problem for McClean is he’s the new boy on the scene, the other two are long-standing Stoke stalwarts so they have more credibility with the fans.
“When you’re having these arguments, whether they’re verbal or physical in the tunnel, you’ve got to stand up on the basis of ‘Well, I’ve done what I had to do today’,” said Niall Quinn, discussing the incident last week. “Otherwise, the guys are right to dig him out if he hasn’t done what he’s supposed to do. It’s either spirit-building or detrimental. It’s one or the other. If you’ve a sulker, you dip. If you’ve got someone who rolls their sleeves up, then you win respect.
“It will be very interesting to see where it goes. I won’t be expecting James to be a shrinking violet here. Two or three good matches and everyone forgets about the tunnel bust-up. But not doing that, and having these bust-ups and it will fizzle out for him.”
Quinn is right to point out the significance of this event because, now 29, McClean has reached a serious juncture into his career. When he burst onto the scene at Sunderland (a Martin O’Neill gambit), he often looked like he had the potential to develop into something really special. He never became that but he developed into a very solid midfielder/wide player in the Premier League. That he appeared in over 30 of West Bromwich Albion’s Premier League games over each of the past three seasons speaks to his ability to play at the highest level.
Even if there is still something of a frisson of excitement when he gets the ball out wide in a one-on-one, the fact he’s moved to Stoke, and not a Premier League club, suggests he may not be regarded as highly in England as he is in Ireland. This is a common occurrence. When players do well in the green shirt, we start to over-rate them a little and he’s definitely always chipped in at international level. At times, his feistiness as a competitor and his spirit have even been reminiscent of Roy Keane, another man not known for suffering fools in his own team.
The way in which he came late via Derry City with a legendary work ethic that drove him to succeed has made him one of the easier modern footballers to admire. Not to mention either his fearlessness about the poppy issue and his constant philanthropy. Yet, it’s troubling that Stoke is McClean’s fourth club in five years. You can interpret that as several different managers believing in him or you can see it as him never quite fitting in. Does he now have a reputation that precedes him for being more trouble than he’s worth?
Well, that might be the easiest way to explain why a solid Premier League performer is now plying his trade with an outfit that are struggling in the second tier of the English game. It is also why he’s already on the clock at Stoke where some of the fans, no doubt poppy-wearers, were against his signing from the moment it was first mooted. As Quinn noted, McClean is going to have to start putting in serious performances on the field or this could get very ugly very quickly.
There were reports in the media that Butland and McClean held peace talks, a kind of ludicrous phrase to use about two professional footballers resolving an argument. Let’s hope things settle down because, in another few weeks, the poppies will be getting ironed onto the shirts at every club in England. If Stoke are still struggling then and McClean isn’t at least their best player every week, the fans will need no further prompting to turn against him and, unfairly, blame him for all their woes.