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Dublin: 9°C Saturday 17 April 2021

James McClean a lone wolf in face of poppy pressure

The Ireland international has remained steadfast in his position, despite annual episodes of abuse.

McClean has remained steadfast in his position.
McClean has remained steadfast in his position.

REMEMBRANCE DAY COMMEMORATIONS are under way in Britain. That means that James McClean finds himself under the annual hostile glare of the British media’s spotlight again.

McClean, from Creggan in Derry, is a lone wolf within the upper echelons of English football in that he takes a principled stance against the expected wearing of the poppy on account of its overtly militaristic connotations.

The effects of the British army’s conduct in Northern Ireland endure within the many lives affected and the still-raw memories of the region’s people. These actions are at the root of many of the Troubles’ unresolved legacy issues. Thus, the wearing of a poppy, a divisive symbol in Ireland, would cause McClean considerable cultural discomfort.

“If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I would wear it without a problem,” McClean recently explained in Albion News.

“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.”

The FA, Premier League and Football League have all been major supporters of the poppy campaign for a number of years and do not merely permit players to wear poppies on their jerseys during competitions under their remit; they actively promote the poppy appeal and visual on-jersey displays related to it.

This contrasts starkly with the position of their European governing body Uefa and the world governing body Fifa who prohibit the display of what they deem to be “political, religious or personal statements” on the jerseys of clubs participating in competitions they administer. Indeed, the England national team were disallowed by Fifa, much to the FA’s consternation, from wearing poppies on their jerseys for a friendly game against Spain in November of 2011.

Of course, donning a popularised token is not the only possible or permissible form of respect or remembrance for those who died at war, yet there is significant social pressure upon those in the public eye in Britain to conform and partake in the poppy spectacle.

Jon Snow of Channel 4 once referred to the bullying nature of the phenomenon as “poppy fascism”. Name-and-shame style articles picking upon public persons such as Snow himself, Evan Davis, Sienna Miller and Charlene White have appeared in Britain’s reactionary media, whilst social media explodes with jingoistic moral outrage towards those seen to be “disrespecting” Britain’s war-dead by failing to wear the symbol.

Virtually every participant in a live programme on ITV or the BBC in the fortnight running up to Britain’s Remembrance Sunday will have had to endure the ritual of being asked if they would like to wear a poppy under the heavy yoke of socio-moral expectation.

McClean will also have been encouraged in this manner to wear a poppy, although it is not as if football clubs ever offer their players the choice of wearing other politically-loaded insignia throughout the season. Such might well be deemed inappropriate, but not in the case of the poppy, uniquely.

By dissenting and saying “no” to something to which everyone else is apparently assenting, the subject effectively singles themselves out as a target for victimisation. It is within this stifling environment that McClean is forced into having to make his contentious refusal, yet he has been accused, by former vice-president of Fifa Jim Boyce, of bringing his politics into sport.

It would be more accurate to say that the Premier League and their clubs are bringing overt politics into football and that McClean, by simply opting out, as he ought to be more than entitled to do as a worker in a liberal democracy, is attempting to remain neutral on the field of play.

A number of weekends ago, supporters of McClean’s former club, Sunderland, chanted “No surrender to the IRA” and sang ‘God Save the Queen’ at the player in imperious fashion for 90 minutes in an effort to insult him as he played against their club for his present club, West Bromwich Albion.

Various opposition supporters have been booing and jeering the player regularly all season over his stance on the poppy combined with his decision not to have participated in an observance of the British national anthem before a pre-season club friendly game in the United States last July.

It is not hard to detect the bigotry and xenophobia in which the unsavoury abuse, directed at an Irishman having the temerity to “step out of line” by standing up to majoritarian pressure, is rooted.

Soccer - Barclays Premier League - West Bromwich Albion v Leicester City - The Hawthorns Source: Nigel French

McClean is neither encouraging anyone else to do something they do not wish to do, nor is he discouraging or preventing anyone else from participating in any spectacle in which they wish to partake. In fact, he has composed respectful, eloquent and reasoned explanations for his poppy stance over the past two seasons and has had them published by his clubs.

The fact he felt compelled to do this on account of the social pressure just serves to demonstrate the preposterous oppressiveness of the general situation and yet he receives little in the way of protection from the FA or Premier League.

When McClean celebrated West Bromwich Albion’s 1-0 victory against Sunderland in front of the visiting opposition supporters with a triumphant fist-pump after the final whistle, a minor scene of jostling broke out as he was physically confronted by a group of Sunderland players.

To compound the farcical nature of the situation, McClean then had to endure the tediously inevitable victim-blaming. There were the ludicrous suggestions that he had brought it all upon himself and suggestions even that he actually enjoyed it or craved the negative attention of being on the receiving end of such invective.

McClean is undeniably tough, strong and resolute in character, but would or could anyone genuinely enjoy being victimised and vitriolically abused week in and week out whilst trying to do their job?

McClean’s manager, Tony Pulis, although otherwise generally supportive and complimentary of his player, said the Derry man was “not the sharpest tool in the box” – in spite of McClean’s thoughtful public explanations of his principles in the past and present – as the FA issued the player a “formal warning” for the celebration and for having “sparked” the scenes.

It is discomfiting that they saw fit to do this whilst remaining quiet on the bigotry to which McClean was subjected for the entirety of the match, as well as, indeed, on the conduct of those Sunderland players who actually instigated the physical scuffle that rendered the on-pitch episode in any way newsworthy.

The FA might have used their influential voice and power more effectively had they encouraged Sunderland to engage with the supporters responsible so as to educate them as to why their actions were inappropriate, offensive, unjustified and ultimately embarrassing for their club.

Considering the antipathy reserved for James McClean is relatively popular and widespread, it would be reassuring to know that those running football in Britain had the courage and initiative to stand up to all forms of bigotry within the game rather than wait for a social change in attitudes to lead the way first.

Read more from the author on Twitter @DanielCollins85 or on his blog here.

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