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James McClean’s Anthem Anarchy

I feel it appropriate to inform you that I write this article behind bolted doors, with crooked pieces of wood nailed over all my windows. I sit in grim anticipation of the inevitable barrage of vitriol coming my way. Please, feel free to air your disagreement, but be gentle.


Let me get something straight right off the bat. James McClean’s decision to snub the English flag and national anthem before West Bromwich Albion’s preseason friendly against Charleston Battery in the US was unacceptable. It was insulting to his teammates, club management and fans, not to mention being hypocritical and, frankly, bloody stupid.


Needless to say, plenty have been quick to comment on the incident, labelling the Derry-born winger ‘scum,’ with Northern Irish Democratic Ulster Unionist MP Gregory Campbell suggesting he should consider walking away from English football. Indeed, this isn’t the first time McClean has found himself in hot water, having refused to wear a poppy on his kit in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday while playing for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic; a sure fire way to alienate the British footballing faithful.

Personally, I didn’t see a problem with that particular show of defiance.

For the vast majority of Brits, the Poppy is a symbol commemorating those who have fought in armed conflicts for Britain, of which Northern Ireland is one. For James McClean, and many like him in Derry, it has come to mean something much different. McClean’s rather eloquent letter to Wigan chairman Dave Whelan in November of last year goes some way to explaining this.

‘I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one. However, the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me. 

For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the Poppy has come to mean something very different. For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII. It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.’

I, for one, respect McClean’s beliefs and the way in which he conducted himself in that particular situation. That said, the anthem debacle is a slightly different matter. I completely understand the key point made by the masses. That is, if he is happy to ply his trade in England and make a rather handsome living over here, then why can he not respect our national anthem? I understand, but that is not to say that I agree.

Admittedly, he would do well to behave with a little more tact in future to avoid yet another uproar from the general public, but the ‘I bet McClean doesn’t turn his back on his English pay-packet’ argument is becoming rather tedious. The British Empire has undoubtedly damaged a number of countries with oppression and belligerence over the years. Anyone still feeling those effects, whether you agree with them or not, should not be prevented from benefitting from the wealth in England. Fatuous arguments of ‘go home if you can’t respect the flag’ just won’t stand up.

Yes, his snub was unacceptable. Yes, it was insulting. Yes, it was hypocritical. Let’s leave it there. He probably should have exercised a little more care, but, ultimately, no harm done. The matter has been dealt with internally by West Bromwich Albion and manager Tony Pulis, so let’s move on.

He thought he was OK to close his eyes and put his head down in respect of both anthems. The trouble is he’s got to face the flag like everybody else has and he recognises that now. Obviously there has been a stigma around him and he doesn’t need to start that up again. Hopefully we’ve nipped it in the bud.’

In an ideal world, anyone playing for a British/English team, which is supported by British/English people, playing alongside British/English teammates, should acknowledge that national flag. This isn’t an ideal world. Rightly or wrongly, politics has a place in football in the modern day, creating a degree of awkwardness and confrontation. Let’s not forget, we aren’t dealing with the finest minds in Westminster here, we’re dealing with footballers. We should give credit to a young man who has been honest and sincere in his decisions to ‘opt out.’ McClean has explained his actions fairly and succinctly. He does not wear his heart on his sleeve (nor his poppy on his chest, dare I say?), merely reacting when the circumstances are unavoidable, so let’s get off the lad’s back for now.

James Mackay
James Mackay
Aspiring sports journalist from Birmingham. West Bromwich Albion fan (for my sins). Twitter: @Jamirackay
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