James McClean speaks to the media. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
James McClean

'When I read comments like that, it insults me. Maybe when I retire I will get more recognition'

James McClean speaks ahead of his 103rd and final Irish appearance tonight.

IT HAS BEEN customary across James McClean’s 102-cap Ireland career to praise his attitude and work ethic, but these are tributes defined by their gaps.

“It actually insults me in a way, and I see some of the comments, ‘He was never the most gifted’ and this and that”, said McClean yesterday.

“That insults me because you have to have ability, you don’t go on to play 12 years in England, I’ve got 150 Premier League games, 103 international caps after tomorrow night. You have to have ability. I see this ‘Aww yeah, great work ethic’ and this and that. ‘He’s a good runner.’ Yeah, well go grab Mo Farah off the street and stick him in. You have to have ability to go with it. When I read comments like that, it insults me. Maybe when I retire I will get more recognition for my football ability than I do now.” 

For that retirement is nigh. Tonight McClean will make his 103rd and final appearance for Ireland, which will evoke some energy from what would otherwise be a bleached, muted end-of-year friendly against New Zealand. He is retiring for personal reasons and not because he doesn’t feel up to it anymore.

“It’s not because of my body, or I feel my ability has diminished”, he said. “I still feel as fit as ever. I still believe I am the best person for the role. I have never doubted myself. I played 46 games out of 46 in the Championship last season, 45 of them from the start.

“Ability-wise, I was second for full-backs in goals and assists, and for most successful tackles in the whole league. There’s other factors. I have personal reasons and my own reasons for stepping away, I feel now is the right time to step aside. Let others come through, I’ve had my time, I have no regrets.” 

McClean delivered his valedictory address beside the man who gave him his professional debut at Derry City. 

“I remember seeing you in the Showgrounds, in the U18 team”, said Kenny, turning away from the press in front of him and towards McClean. “You came into that team at Derry, where we had a rule when we went to the First Division that time that everyone had to be from within six miles of the city. Pretty strong, that team, wasn’t it?” 

“It was one of the most special times in my career”, smiled McClean. “We were all young, we were all mates, it was basically playing football with your mates, we would go out on the Friday, put teams away for fun and then go out that night.” 

Nothing has ever seemed so carefree for either of them since. McClean’s loyalty to Kenny and Derry was such that he ripped up an agreement to join Chris Sutton’s Lincoln City when he heard Kenny would stick around for their season in the First Division after they were relegated for financial issues. 

Kenny said yesterday that the reason Derry didn’t win the Premier Division the following season was because they sold McClean to Sunderland in August. He had been close to signing for Peterborough United of the Championship, but a Sunderland side then in the Premier League took a chance on him. Steve Bruce was the manager at the time he was signed, but it was Martin O’Neill who gave him his debut. 

McClean has been such a fixture in the Irish team for the last decade that it’s easy to forget that Giovanni Trapattoni was the last to join the clamour to cap him. He was initially left out of the Irish squad for the February 2012 friendly against Czech Republic after his international clearance came through, but was subsequently drafted in having impressed for Sunderland against Arsenal and then made his debut as a second-half substitute. His competitive debut came at Euro 2012, brought on in the second half amid Ireland’s painful bloodletting against Spain. 

james-mcclean McClean makes his international debut in 2012. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

McClean was always free of artifice or affectation, and his directness occasionally got him into trouble. He tweeted a too-honest account of Ireland’s opening World qualifier later that year, the late 2-1 turnaround win away to Kazakhstan in which McClean was an unused substitute. 

“Delighted as a fan that we got the win. Personal level #fuming #fuckingjoke #embarrassing”, he tweeted shortly after the game. It was deleted within 15 minutes and he later apologised, saying he allowed his frustration get the better of him.

But McClean was never one to veil his barbs. This writer still vividly recalls McClean opening a 2019 press conference by picking out a journalist whose colleague had cut together an unflattering reel of McClean’s actions in a recent game against Georgia to tell him he wouldn’t be answering any of his questions, calling him a “fucking weasel.” 

He can cut together a substantial highlight reel of his own. The best moment was the winning goal in Cardiff to send Ireland to the 2018 World Cup play-off against Denmark, taking him to the cusp of a dream that was ended so brutally. “I would have loved to play in the World Cup”, said McClean yesterday, “and that Denmark game, that’s something that will always hurt.” 

There were other great moments too, chief among them his winning goal against Austria in September 2016, which gave Ireland their best qualifying win away from home since the win over Scotland that led them a stride closer to Euro ’88.  Euro 2016 was a means of atoning for the miseries of four years earlier, and the glorious victory in Lille against Italy would not have been such a close-run thing had McClean been given the first-half penalty he deserved when he was blatantly fouled by Frederico Bernadeschi. 

International football also provided McClean with an escape from club football. In years to come, McClean will be regarded as among the most wronged footballers in the modern English game.

The annual and ever-grotesque abuse to which he was subjected to for not wearing a poppy was never dealt with adequately by the English football authorities. He blithely endured it in his early years in England, but has recently spoken about its impact on his wife and children. There have been other episodes in which he didn’t cover himself in glory, and he has admitted regret at an ill-advised instagram post in which he joked of teaching history while wearing a balaclava.

His Irish career has also been defined by various gestures of benevolence and the support of charitable causes, most of which have never been made public.  One of the most recent causes to which he has lent his support has been the League of Ireland, joining with Gavin Bazunu, Seamus Coleman, and a group of other Irish international footballers to pledge funds to a pilot programme that will allow one male and one female LOI footballer to train full-time while completing their Leaving Cert. 

During yesterday’s press conference, McClean was asked as to identify why Ireland’s results have slumped so badly, he zoned in on Ireland’s horrible qualification group before looking at the broader picture. 

“If anyone thinks we’re better than France and Holland, the reality is we aren’t”, said McClean.

“Without getting too much into it, this is probably a domestic thing to be honest. You look at our domestic league compared to theirs, you look at the headstart they have from no age. We don’t have that in this country in a sense.

“We need more funding. I heard something the other day and, look, I’m not 100 percent on it and I don’t know too much about it but I heard the funding again towards the FAI is going to be cut by 50 percent [after EGM failed to introduce government-mandated 40% female representation on board]. You’re competing with your hands tied behind your back. We need a strong domestic league. That definitely hinders the national team, there is no getting away from that.” 

james-mcclean-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-opening-goal McClean celebrates his winning goal against Wales in a World Cup qualifier in 2017. Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

As for what’s next, McClean will continue playing at club level, and a return to the league with Derry City at some stage can’t be discounted. He says he is unlikely to go into management, but very definitely won’t be going into politics. “Absolutely not”, he said, “I will steer well clear of that.” 

He is adamant that this young group of Irish players have the potential to achieve what he did, and play at major tournaments. McClean will leave a serious experience vacuum when he steps away. He and Shane Long are the only survivors from Euro 2012 to have been capped by Stephen Kenny, and McClean aside, the only member of tonight’s matchday squad to have played at any tournament is Shane Duffy. 

The team is once again at a desperately low ebb, and has been falling in the nation’s esteem for years now, leaving it vulnerable to the worst reality of all: apathy.

And this is ultimately why James McClean’s international career is important. His deep and palpable passion for the Irish team shows it is always something worth caring about. 

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