Rebel with a cause: Hot Press' first interview with James McClean

Following his Cardiff heroics, the West Brom man is without doubt the Irish footballer of the moment. Stuart Clark found out what makes him tick a few years ago...

REBEL WITH A CAUSE

He's the ex-League of Ireland star who's having a dream season with Wigan and Ireland. James McClean opens up to Hot Press about Twitter controversies, his formative experiences playing GAA for Derry and why he was glad to turn his back on Paolo Di Canio's Sunderland

"I’ve never actually been to a gig, but I asked The Coronas to play at my birthday and they were happy to oblige. That was good! My missus is a huge fan. They’re a great bunch of lads and we exchanged numbers.”

James McClean is apologising for not being as down with the hipster musical kids as his teammate Sean St. Ledger who told Hot Press last year that Antony And The Johnsons, The Cure and, er, Skrillex were top of his iTunes ‘Most Played’ list.

“We’ve a load of Scouse lads at Wigan who play that trance techno stuff in the dressing-room before kickoff,” McClean complains. “No words: just boom boom boom. You’re like, ‘Are we at a festival or what?’ It’s meant to get you pumped up. All it does is give me a headache.

“Did you see the suit Sean was wearing on Sky Sports News recently,” he says gleefully switching tack. “He’s either colourblind, got dressed in the dark or was trying to win a bet. Or maybe all three. Anyway, it was awful!”

McClean is more of a hooded jumper, jeans and trainers man, although he did don a dickiebow for the christening of his fourmonth old daughter, AllieMae.

“Aye, my wee princess,” he says suddenly emitting a Ready Brek glow. “Proudest day of my life was when she came into the world. We’re both from Derry and wanted her to be born there, so my missus, Erin, moved back for the last two months of the pregnancy. Fair play to them, they timed it really well! Erin had the baby the morning after we’d played Sheffield Wednesday on the Wednesday, so I flew home the following day, spent a few hours with them and then flew back because we had Reading on the Saturday. There’s no paternity leave for footballers!”

James scored what he thought was his first Wigan goal at Hillsborough, only to have it chalked off when the game was abandoned after 59 minutes due to a waterlogged pitch.

“The baby arriving made up for that a bit!” he laughs. “It was tough them being in Derry and me in England, but they’re over now so we’re leading as normal a family life as it’s possible for us to lead with me away so much.”

The 24-year-old’s goal drought ended a month later, when he scored the FA Cup Fifth Round winner against Crystal Palace that earned the Latics their quarterfinal crack at Man City. Those giants slayed – our man Craig Fitzsimons is still in a state of trauma – Wigan now have an April 12 appointment at Wembley with Arsenal in the semis. Add in a recent run of form that’s taken the club he moved to during the summer into the Championship playoff places, and McClean is having the time of his footballing life right now.

“Dropping down a level was a tough decision; I took my time over it,” he admits. “But I needed to get out of Sunderland when things went sour up there…”

Was Paolo Di Canio really the manager from hell he’s been made out to be?

“Er, let’s just say that after the call came from Eoin Coyle at Wigan, it took me five minutes to pack my bag! On and off the pitch, I needed a fresh start. It’s all about rebuilding and sorting out my image, which I know isn’t the best. I’ve never set out to offend anybody but you know…”

I do. McClean caused a shitstorm in 2012 by refusing to wear a poppy against Everton as part of the Premier League’s Remembrance Sunday commemoration.

“I got a lot of flak from everybody,” he admitted afterwards, “but I’ll say it again; it doesn’t bother me. Every year I’m not going to wear it.”

Despite receiving death threats from trolls who’d never heard of the Creggan Estate let alone realise that six of its residents were shot dead by the British Army on Bloody Sunday – a fair argument, I’d have thought, for him not donning a poppy – McClean has refused to quit Twitter.

Along with the slagging off of Sean St. Ledger’s dresssense, or lack thereof, this has resulted in such brutally frank tweets as the, “Delighted as a fan that we got the win. Personal level #fuming #fuckingjoke #embarrassing” one that was sent moments after late Robbie Keane and Kevin Doyle goals spared Ireland’s World Cup (non) qualifying blushes in Kazakhstan.

“Basically, I got into trouble for being honest,” James proffers. “You get people on Twitter who abuse you, sure, but the majority are genuine fans who, having paid their thirty or forty quid at the turnstiles are, in my opinion, entitled to interact with players. There’s too much media training these days. Yes, you have a responsibility to your club and country, but we’re not robots.”

Today’s interview is taking place in the lobby of the seaside Dublin hotel, which is home to the Ireland squad whenever they’ve a game at The Aviva. I have to admit it’s a little difficult to concentrate on the matter at hand with Roy Keane sat at the next table chatting to a member of the backroom staff.

“Growing up it was all Manchester United and Celtic fans in my house,” McClean resumes. “One of my earliest memories is of being on my dad’s shoulders in a pub when Eric Cantona scored late on against Liverpool in the ’96 Cup Final. I worshipped Roy Keane as a kid, so him being sat there is a huge big deal. We shared the same flight over yesterday and talked – strangely enough – about football. Even when I’m talking to him, it feels like I’m not talking to him because of what he’s done in the game. He’s one of the alltime greats.”

How well has Keano slotted into the international setup?

“There’s a really good, positive atmosphere around the place with him and Martin O’Neill. They complement each other perfectly, and are both approachable if you need to talk to them about something. When you’re away from your family for a week – longer if it’s a tournament – you need things to be harmonious.”

Is there a bit of a Good Cop/Bad Cop thing going on between them?

“Who’s supposed to be the Good Cop?” he laughs. “Roy’s the one with the tough guy reputation, but if you step over the line with the manager he’s definitely got a temper. If I keep myself in check though I’ll be alright!”

It was Martin O’Neill, of course, who brought McClean to Sunderland from Derry in 2011. Although the then 22yearold had been playing well for the Candystripes and attracting lower league interest in England, no one had predicted a move to the Premiership.

“He definitely took a gamble on me,” James acknowledges. “I’d been very close to signing on the dotted line for Peterborough United, but my gut feeling was it wasn’t the right move. I went home and played as part of the Airtricity League XI in this preseason tournament, the Dublin Super Cup, that also had Man City, Inter Milan and Celtic in it. A week later I was back with the Derry lads for an away game against Galway. An hourandahalf before kickoff I was called in and told, ‘You’re not playing. We’ve had a bid from Sunderland.’ It came totally out of the blue, but I wasn’t going to complain about it.”

Next stop was Sunderland’s Academy of Light training complex where the old nerves must have jangled a bit.

“To be quite honest, I was excited as it was something I’d been working for my entire life. I felt like I’d earned the chance, so I was running on pure adrenaline. Obviously I went from the dressingroom at Derry to one with players who’d won the Champions League. It was the first time I’d been overawed by anything in football, but I quickly adapted. That’s because Martin O’Neill is such a great man manager. He’s good with the players. As long as you put your shift in, he’s an easy person to get on with. When I heard he was going to be the Ireland boss, I was delighted. I’ve got a good relationship with him.”

Phil Neville said to me a few years ago when he was at Everton, “No disrespect to our Academy, which produced Wayne Rooney, but Seamus Coleman was better off playing against fullygrown men and dealing with the media at Sligo Rovers.”

Does James agree that the League of Ireland is a better trainingground than coming up through a big club’s youth system?

“Oh, 100%” he nods. “I remember being a skinny teenager at Derry and thinking, ‘Am I up to this?’ when these big guys came in all studs blazing. You soon learn how to deal with it though. Most of these lads go across the water when they’re 16 or 17 and end up coming back because they’re homesick, confidence battered and potential unfulfilled. With the League of Ireland, you’re not going across until you’re 21/22 when you’ve matured. You’re more grownup and better able to cope.”

Are English clubs and managers properly aware of the talent that’s to be found here?

“I don’t think they are,” he rues. “Most of the lads who’ve done well in England have gone across for very little money. Shane Long, for example, is worth £5 million now but Cork City got peanuts for him. It’s still regarded as a bargain basement where you might if you’re lucky pick up a decent player for a hundred grand. You’d have thought after Seamus Coleman going to Everton there’d be more scouts at games here, but not really.”

James has only good things to say about his old Derry City manager, Stephen Kenny, who’s now in charge at Dundalk.

“He’s an unbelievable man; a real father figure. The three-and-a-half years I spent with him at the Brandywell are the best I’ve had in football. Him, Martin O’Neill and my family are the reason I’m sat here talking to you today.”

Given his combative style, it’s no surprise to find that McClean is well-versed in the noble art of GAA.

“I was playing under-16 level football for Derry when the manager said, ‘Time to choose. If you’re heart’s not solely in Gaelic, then leave right now.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that’s my cue…’ I do miss it but the choice I made was the right one.”

Forget Pelé or Maradona, if Ronaldo wants to become a better player, it’s videos of All Ireland Finals he should be studying.

“I was watching the Madrid derby on Sunday, and the way the Real and Atlético players kept going down was embarrassing,” James grimaces. “Rolling around on the ground like that when you’ve barely been touched makes you look stupid and less of a man. I don’t believe in playacting like that. In Gaelic, you get used to taking hard hits and just getting on with it. You’d soon know about it from your manager and teammates if you didn’t! The one thing that really gets me woundup on the football pitch is people diving.”

Who’s the toughest player he’s found himself up against?

“Zabaleta for Man City keeps you on your toes, but in honesty the best fullback I’ve played against is Seamus Coleman. He’s the nicest guy, but he’d have no problem kicking you. I’ve tried to give him one or two back, but he’s so fast you’re just swinging at thin air.”

Following his Man of the Match display against Latvia and solid showings in the Poland and Serbia games, James will be hoping to line-up alongside Kicky Coleman – we’re going to stick with the nickname – on September 7 when Ireland kick off their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign in Georgia. How does he like the look of Group D?

“You obviously fancy Germany to top it, but I genuinely think we can take points off them if we’re bang in form on the night,” he proffers. “Arriving at Wigan during the summer, the lads were still buzzing from beating Man City in the Cup Final – no one gave them a hope, but they were at their best while City had an offday. That happens in international football too. It’s 11 vs 11, 90 minutes, stranger things have happened. We did well against Poland in last year’s friendly, and man for man the other countries aren't any better than us. You always show opposition respect, but you don’t fear them. Second place is absolutely achievable.”

A game that stands out for McClean as he scans through the Euro fixtures is October 14’s trip to Germany.

“You want to put yourself up against the best and there’s absolutely no better fullback in the world at the moment than Phillip Lahm. If I get the nod against Germany, it’ll be great to see where I stand against a top, top player.”

Ireland fans will be delighted to hear that James' top two footballing moments both happened whilst on international duty.

“I’ll never forget making my Ireland debut in the 70th minute against the Czech Republic and the whole stadium erupting before I’d even stepped on to the pitch,” he reminisces fondly. “I thought, like half of Derry had travelled down so it was an incredibly proud moment.

“As was coming on against Spain in the Euros having only broken into the squad six months earlier. We were 3-0 down at the time, but the buzz was still unbelievable.”

Can he remember his first touch or is it all a blur?

“No, I’ll never forget it,” he concludes. “Stephen Ward played it into me even though Álvaro Arbeloa was up my backside – perhaps you can phrase that differently when you write the interview up?”

Unfortunately for Mr. McClean, it’s a tossup – fnarr fnarr – between yours truly and Viz’s Finbarr Saunders as to who’s the world's biggest connoisseur of childish double entendres.

“Cesc Fabregas was closing me down on the byline too so it was, ‘Cheers, Stephen!’ but I managed to knock the ball off Cesc for a throw-in,” he resumes. “I was standing next to Arbeloa at the end of the game, so it’s his shirt I got as a souvenir. I’d rather be beating those guys though than hero-worshipping them. That’s got to be the aim over the next few years; claim some big scalps and get to another tournament.”

 

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