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'If it was up to some lads I wouldn't kick a ball again, but they've no education in the game'

James McClean is at odds with his critics ahead of Ireland’s must-win Euro 2020 qualifier with Denmark.

DENMARK BRING FAMILIARITY and earlier this week, James McClean brought the contempt. 

Arriving to face a handful of journalists, he sat down in front of the microphone and cameras and took the first word. 

“Before we start”, he said, pointing to a journalist in front of him.

“You, don’t even think of asking me a question.” 

When the journalist in question expressed their surprise, McClean snapped back with the vigour of a tackle. “Yeah, you, you fucking weasel.” 

He then said any further discussion would be arranged for afterwards, but it became clear that McClean has a problem with the tone of the journalist’s coverage toward him. 

james-mcclean File photo of James McClean. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

And, eh, on with the show. 

McClean was engaged and thoughtful once the press conference began, as the looking glass was tilted between Danish games lost and looming. 

He played in the 5-1 World Cup play-off defeat two years ago, of course, a wretched night that left him looking vainly for words between coarse tears in his post-game interview with Tony O’Donoghue. 

Two years on, he is able to reflect on what went wrong after Shane Duffy headed Ireland into a 1-0 aggregate lead early in the first-half of the second leg. 

“To be honest, we were probably overconfident. We hadn’t really played Denmark before, we got the draw away from home, went 1-0 up and you’re thinking, ‘That’s it.’

“We have played them a lot since, if we had the Nations League games before that we would have had a better understanding of what they are about, which we have now.” 

Monday will be the side’s sixth meeting in just over two years, and Ireland haven’t won any of the previous five. There were a pair of goalless draws in the Nations League after the play-off, while Ireland stole a 1-1 draw in Copenhagen in June. 

The upcoming game is an effective play-off for a place at Euro 2020, games from which will be staged in both Dublin and Copenhagen. 

Ireland must win, while a draw will do the Danes. It’s not quite the last chance saloon for either, mind: the loser should be given a reprieve through the Nations League’s byzantine backdoor play-off system, in the form of two one-off games. 

McClean says he doesn’t see Monday as a neat narrative about revenge. 

“You can’t right the wrongs of that night because of what was at stake, but funnily enough because of the way football works, we have another chance to qualify for another tournament against Denmark.

“That’s motivation in itself, to qualify. So no, there’s no revenge. People like to build up this little story of revenge and this and that, but no, it’s motivation in itself to qualify.” 

That’s not to say he is ignorant to the rivalry that has developed between the two sides, and it’s an edge that gleams in view when he is asked to describe the many previous games. 

“Emm…boring. There have been a lot of draws. They seem to have been a lot more disrespectful towards us than we have to them, we don’t really talk about them. Even in the game in Denmark, they came out with a few quotes here and there leading up to the game.

“It doesn’t affect us, we have a job to do. It will be a tough ask as they are a good side, but yeah, boring. I hope it’s another boring night on Monday but we come out on the right side of the scoreline.

Obviously you hear about [what Denmark say about Ireland] and you have that sense of wanting to shut them up, that’s just natural. But I wouldn’t say I get fixated on spending the whole time thinking I want to prove these wrong. Hopefully they are more irritated after Monday, and are sick of the sight of us and never want to play us again.

“If that’s the case then we will have done our job.” 

These Danish comments have steadily accumulated over the last couple of years, and we can add Peter Schmeichel’s “Ireland are so bad” comment to Yann Sommer last month to a genre which already includes Christian Eriksen’s “Ireland are afraid to attack” and Thomas Delaney’s “breaking down Ireland is like opening a can of baked beans with your bare hands” contributions. 

McClean has been an ever-present for Ireland in this campaign, albeit in the context of diminished form. While he scored four times – earning Ireland three wins – in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, he has yet to score under McCarthy.

In fact, he hasn’t scored at all for Ireland since that goal in Cardiff that earned Ireland their first dalliance with Denmark. 

james-mcclean-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-opening-goal McClean celebrates his winning goal against Wales in 2018 World Cup qualifying. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

McClean defends himself on this with more than a sideways glance at his critics. 

“They haven’t arrived and that’s obviously something I can improve on and something I want to improve on.

“But I’ve played every game and we’re one game away from qualifying, so…Yes, I haven’t scored goals and obviously as an attacking player, you’re probably judged on goals and assists, but I’ve got one or two assists [against Gibraltar and Switzerland], which have turned out to be crucial. 

“Obviously the manager sees me doing something right if he’s picking me every week. I know some lads and if it was up to them, I wouldn’t kick a ball again, but lucky enough for me, they’ve no kind of education in the game and the manager picks the team.

“It’s not worrying me because I feel like I can help the team in other ways, maybe not pretty on the eye, but effective.

“But look, I’ve scored a lot of goals for Ireland in the past and I am due one, so hopefully that can be Monday.”

McClean is 30 now, and if he starts as expected on Monday, Glenn Whelan will likely be the only other starter with more experience. 

“It just kind of happens, you don’t even realise, the years go by and that just happens”, said McClean when asked about his status as a senior member of the squad.

“All of a sudden, you find yourself in the old team when it comes to the small-sided games and you’re thinking, ‘Where have the years gone?’.

“Ah look, I’m 30, I feel great, I feel fit, probably fitter than ever, so I’d like to think I’ve got a few more years left in me yet, and if I can help anybody coming through, if they want the advice or not to do what I did when I first came through, a few silly things here and there, hopefully I can pass on words of wisdom.” 

What are those words of wisdom? 

“Stay off social media!

“No, just apply yourself in the best possible way, be the best pro you can be. I was told by Martin O’Neill at Sunderland, he said, ‘Because of being a good pro and work-rate alone, you’ll make a good career for yourself’, and that’s something that I’ve always kept with me and taken on board.

“I pride myself on how I look after myself and how my fitness levels are, so I would just reiterate what Martin said to me and pass that on.” 

His decision not to wear a poppy on his shirt around Remembrance weekend has brought him a steady stream of abuse from English fans over the last few years, and earlier this year it came scrawled across a birthday card which had a death threat on its cover and a screed of sectarian and anti-Irish slurs within it. It called McClean a “two-faced hypocritical bastard”, it derided Bloody Sunday as a “bloody good laugh”, and the Irish were referred to as “a race of inbred, subhuman parasites.” 

McClean branded the English football authorities “cowards” for their failure to do anything about the abuse he has endured as a footballer in England. 

They appear to have got the message. The day before last Saturday’s game with Barnsley – which featured sectarian chanting that the FA are now investigating – McClean was contacted by the authorities. 

“I wasn’t expecting it, it was quite a shock, but in the same sense, credit where it’s due. He didn’t have to text me – he hasn’t for the last eight years – but credit where it’s due, he did to offer support, and they seem to be following up the chants from what happened on Saturday.

“Look, I’ve criticised them in the past, but I’m big enough as well to show and give credit where it’s due.”

The FA have yet to dam the tide of terrace bile however, so has McClean not become sick of playing football in England around Remembrance weekend? 

“No, not really. It doesn’t bother me. It probably affects my wife and my ma more, but that’s something I probably don’t take into consideration, how they feel.

“For me, I just get on with it. I think over the years, I’ve developed a kind of thick skin and it’s just water off a duck’s back for me when it happens.” 

– First published 23.00, 15 November 

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Gavin Cooney

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