High Time Media Moved on from Indulging Pseudo-Controversy Surrounding James McClean and “Poppy Issue”

James McClean (Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 3.0/at)

James McClean (Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 3.0/at).

The media don’t half like flogging dead horses. Right on cue, James McClean‘s move to West Bromwich Albion earlier this week prompted talk in the Belfast Telegraph (not for the first time) of his repeated eschewing of the wearing of a political poppy on his various past clubs’ football jerseys around Britain’s celebration of its Remembrance Sunday each year. This was despite the fact we are half a year on (or away from) November, when the reporting of such a trivial item might have been (or be) remotely relevant, whatever about its questionable justification and newsworthiness.

The Belfast Telegraph article’s headline made the claim that West Brom supporters are “split over [their club’s] signing [of] James McClean after [his] poppy stance” and told us, matter-of-factly, that the Derry man, who was popularly voted Wigan Athletic’s “player of the year” last season, is a “controversial” figure. Is this really so? Is James McClean genuinely, as the Belfast Telegraph might like to have us believe, a person who is splitting reasonable and civil public opinion worthy of serious consideration?

Upon reading the article in question, one will find there is no evidence whatsoever in the body of the text to support the exaggerated assertion made in the headline. (I would like to give the vast majority of West Brom fans a bit more credit than to assume half of them so intolerant that they took issue with their club’s signing of James McClean over his poppy stance.) Of course, it is important to note at this juncture that this is also the same publication that once referred to McClean, an Irish national by blood and birth, as a “turncoat” after he made what he described as a dream decision to represent the de facto all-island Republic of Ireland team at senior international level over the Northern Ireland team. The Belfast paper has form in entertaining and overplaying silly opinions with regard to the Irish international.

McClean, an undaunted Irish republican with a refreshing, admirable and endearing sense of personal conviction atypical of the modern-day footballer, has long been a figure from whom lazy, exploitative and hostile elements within the northern and British media have sought to squeeze attention-grabbing material for non-stories to fill their columns. Indeed, ceaselessly-pontificating unionist politicians (such as the DUP’s Gregory Campbell) have similarly tried to extract controversy from McClean’s cultural identity and preferences for cheap publicity and political mileage. James McClean has nothing of which to be ashamed; he’s a spirited and disciplined athlete who – perhaps somewhat naïvely – has worn his heart on his sleeve. More importantly, however, he does his job.

During a welcome late-March interview with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent, the player volunteered his opinion on issues that have unfortunately troubled his career since he moved to England in 2011 from his home-town club, Derry City. In relation to his non-wearing of a poppy on his jersey during a November 2012 English Premier League game for Sunderland against Everton, he said he had felt he was “hung out the dry” by the press office of his former club. Sunderland’s very brief statement to the media on the matter at the time read:

As a club, SAFC wholeheartedly supports the Remembrance commemorations. It was James’ personal choice not to wear a shirt [with a poppy] on this occasion.

Ideally, McClean would liked to have provided a more detailed and thorough explanation of his position (perhaps something more resembling the eloquently-worded letter he was eventually allowed to make public in 2014 by Dave Whelan, the chairman of Wigan Athletic, McClean’s club after leaving Sunderland), not because he was in the wrong, but to eliminate the wildly over-the-top reaction of disapproval (including death-threats, ludicrously) that he unintentionally provoked not just amongst his own club’s booing supporters but also within the British media’s reactionary quarter and on social media. It is also worth highlighting here that his Sunderland manager at the time, Martin O’Neill (like McClean, from County Derry and of a culturally-Catholic nationalist background), did not sport a poppy that day either, but the antipathy from the stands and social media was reserved only for the “young upstart”.

McClean described to Hogan the exacerbation of the situation due to Sunderland’s refusal to allow him to speak further on it as follows:

[P]re-game, the press officer went out and issued a statement saying that I wouldn’t be wearing a poppy, that it was my own decision and that, as a club, they fully supported the poppy appeal.

That just drew attention onto it straight away. I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as bad as it got if that hadn’t happened.

Then when I asked to be allowed speak about it, I was told that that was a bad idea, not to say anything and let it blow over. So it was kind of brushed under the table and I felt that that was more for the club’s benefit than mine.

I think it could have saved so much hassle… when you think two years later I finally get to speak about it… for me, that’s two years too late! It could have been nipped in the bud from day one. Was there any need to make that statement prior to the game? No, there wasn’t.

To this day I still have a kind of annoyance that that was the case. It irritates me. Because with people not knowing my reasons, even my own fans turned on me. They didn’t understand. To them, I was disrespecting their country, disrespecting their fallen heroes, disrespecting their culture, this and that.

Because I was pushed into a corner and not allowed say anything, people didn’t know.

And they turned on me. It affected me because I could do no wrong before that, then all of a sudden I was getting booed every touch. People saying I shouldn’t be in the team and “fuck off back to Ireland!” Stuff like that.

McClean went on to state that he felt “it will always be an issue… [b]ecause there’s a minority of the public who have their views, their strong stances and, regardless of whether I give reasons or not, they’ll just see it as disrespectful”. Unfortunately, his fears appear to be valid; during Wigan’s 2-0 loss to Millwall at the Den after the Hogan interview and towards the end of the last Championship season, he was singled out for poppy-related abuse by the opposing home fans. Indeed, Millwall’s supporters are well-known for their rather unpleasant right-wing brand of terrace politics; “No one likes us; we don’t care!“, they proudly declare.

Local reports in Sunderland also suggested that his former club were enraged by his comments to Hogan about the 2012 affair and it would appear that some Sunderland fans still harbour a significant amount of resentment for their former player despite his later public clarification on the poppy matter last year whilst at Wigan. He is still accused of having disrespected Britain’s war dead and of holding a “pro-IRA stance”; condemned as a “provo” and for having expressed support for republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands, for having displayed images of Free Derry Corner on social media and for having had the supposed temerity to enjoy popular Irish republican folk songs such as ‘The Broad Black Brimmer‘. (Note even this Sunderland Echo article on the rebel song “controversy” oddly and inexplicably filed in the crime section of the publication’s website.) His list of alleged social infractions is long, but also utterly tiresome.

Free Derry Corner in 1984 (Louise Price, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Free Derry Corner in the Bogside, 1984 (Louise Price, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Appreciating some alternative perspective might be advisable for those susceptible to falling to the conclusion that what James McClean says or does is automatically transgressive, scandalous or worthy of genuine public controversy simply because it stirs an all-too-predictable reaction amongst the intolerant, self-righteous and serially-outraged. Neither should it be assumed that the aforementioned “list of shame” presents, even in combination, some valid or damning case against him that would warrant the condemnation directed his way.

Whilst the “provos”, or Sinn Féin (if they indeed are the party to whom McClean offers his republican allegiances) are the largest political party in Ireland and are committed to the constitutional, democratic method after the British government and unionist politicians conceded during the peace process leading up to the cross-communal signing of the Good Friday Agreement that nationalist and republican grievances and interests had merit, Bobby Sands was an elected MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone at the time of his death and remains a widely-respected icon of revolt and disobedience not merely across Ireland but also around the world. Listening to Irish rebel songs and exhibiting a sense of pride in Free Derry Corner is nothing out of the ordinary for a lad from Derry, never mind for one from the hardened republican strongholds of Creggan or the Bogside.

Other Irish players, such as David Meyler from Cork, also happened to voice their liking for ‘The Broad Black Brimmer’ on Twitter at the same time McClean did, but they were not subjected to the same abuse that the oft-reviled Derry man was. Meanwhile, Free Derry Corner is a local historical landmark and was the embodiment (in literally concrete form) of a community in solidarity, action and bold defiance. It remains a cherished symbol of such for the proud local people. The Derry City Council maintained it before handing its maintenance over to the Department of the Environment’s Heritage Service a few years ago with the full support of Sinn Féin and the SDLP on the city council. Popular sight-seeing tour-groups feature a visit to the gable wall in their city tours and it is commonly seen on post cards available for purchase from shops in and around the city. It is an integral part of the fabric of modern Derry’s history.

Other detractors of McClean have accused him of being a hypocrite happy to take the pound of the queen of England and enjoy the benefits of living in England whilst simultaneously exhibiting disrespect towards the hand that supposedly feeds him, as if living and working in England nullifies any right an individual might have to think or act contrary to some imagined orthodoxy. There is nothing contradictory or self-compromising about a republican, be he or she Irish or British, utilising or accepting as payment for his or her labour what is nothing more than a commonly-agreed medium of exchange. Even if that medium does happen to feature the head of our social, moral and intellectual superior…

The money McClean is paid is money he himself has earned and to which he is fully and legally entitled, whatever his political convictions. He got where he has through his own hard work and determination and certainly does not owe even the slightest ounce of gratitude to the English monarchy for his livelihood and success. Through his work, he also happens to contribute a significant amount in returned tax to the state in which he is resident – likewise, he owes absolutely nothing further to those on their moral high horses who seemingly expect every person resident in the UK to obediently conform to their myopic and authoritarian societal preference by simple virtue of sharing the same space of territory – so he has every moral right to enjoy the benefits of the democratic society of which he is legally resident and to have his also-perfectly-legal political beliefs respected by that society.

McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy was indicative of a very much valid and legitimate position. The poppy is a divisive and contentious symbol in the north of Ireland, for obvious reason, and, whilst those who wish to wear one are entirely free and welcome to do so if they so wish, there is no moral obligation upon anyone anywhere to follow suit and do likewise. Was the choice McClean made as a working resident of Britain not a mere manifestation or exercising of the supposed liberty and freedom we are so often told Allied forces fought to protect during the Second World War? Indeed, what McClean “did” was arguably as much a neutral inaction or non-expression as anything considering it was not he who was deviating from the regular week-to-week routine of wearing a poppy-less jersey.

I do also find it amusing – perhaps I would find it insulting if I was that way inclined – when staggeringly-ignorant Britons pompously instruct anglophone Gaels like McClean that they should be thankful for the supposed fact they would otherwise be speaking in the foreign tongue of German were it not for the sacrifice of Britain’s war-dead in protecting their cultural heritage and well-being; do they not realise that English is not the Gael’s native tongue either? Without wishing to sound clichéd (forgive me; sadly, gentle reminding is required from time to time), eight centuries of English political and military interference, to put it mildly, and a British crown policy of social and economic Anglicisation in Ireland helped make sure of that. (Not that a sustained and effective attempt to authentically revive Gaelic as the primary national language has ever been honestly employed by successive Irish governments either since southern independence, but that’s another matter…)

The fundamental problem within Britain’s annual poppy debate has nothing to do with James McClean and dissenters like him; rather, it is that there exists in certain quarters a social expectation that public figures, no matter what their background, ought to conform and wear the symbol with all its baggage. This is what Jon Snow famously referred to as “poppy fascism”, of course. McClean’s opting out did not have to be perceived as a positive act of disrespect at all. He was simply doing nothing – passively carrying on as usual – like so many millions of others around the UK who were not wearing a poppy at the same time. Were those Sunderland fans who later turned against him all wearing poppies at the time? What about those unreasonables frothing with outrage on social media? Highly unlikely!

It was Sunderland, or whoever it is within football that annually tries to force what has become an unedifying spectacle of militarised fanfare, who imposed an uneasy situation upon McClean. For McClean, wearing the politically-loaded poppy would have been disrespecting his community and spitting on the graves of those killed by the British Army in Derry and Ireland. The British Army’s record of shame during the “Troubles” in the north of Ireland includes the killing of innocent civilians, killings by their covert legalised death squads (the Military Reaction Force and Force Research Unit), a shoot-to-kill policy, the internment of civilians without trial, collusion with illegal loyalist paramilitaries, military torture and a systematic intimidation of the nationalist population.

The British Army might well be fancifully thought of as unsullied and faultless heroes by a large section of football fans in England, but those fans must surely be also able to recognise that their perspective simply will not and cannot be a universally-held one. It was admirable that McClean had the guts to do what so many in the public spotlight do not round that time of the year by opting out of the circus. Furthermore, he acknowledged the opposing views and respected the right of others to hold them. Indeed, some sort of harmony might be reached if those condemning him could only reciprocate by appreciating where he comes from in return. Whilst, sadly, there is little chance of that, media outlets like the Belfast Telegraph should, in the meantime, stop leading their readers to believe that unreasonable opinions might have popular merit by indulging in their exposure and repetition under the pretence that they constitute a part of civil debate and public discourse worthy of serious consideration. James McClean should not have to keep explaining himself for the incurably ignorant.

The above piece also featured on Back Page Football and Slugger O’Toole along with further discussion.

Post-script added on the 17th of July, 2015: To my dismay, on account of the above article I have been variously accused of:

i) being a Sinn Féin propagandist (here and here),
ii) being uncivil, illiberal or intolerant myself in having referred to critics of James McClean’s opting out of wearing the poppy as “incurably ignorant”,
iii) contradictorily adding further fuel to a fire I am supposedly intent on quelling (hereherehere and here).

I have responded to to first charge of being a biased Sinn Féin propagandist here and here. I responded to the second charge of being illiberal here. On the third charge of giving further coverage and exposure to a debate I supposedly wish to suppress, I responded to that herehere and here.



  1. Very good article.

    I was tempted to take the (borrowed from Stewart Lee) sarcasm route “I’m not interested in facts, I tend to find they cloud my judgement” …but I didn’t…

    Thoughts on the white poppy movement?

    As an English bloke and a Villa fan, I would just like to say that I admire young James for the stance he has taken. Fair play to him.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers, Mark!

      Ha, funnily, when I wrote that piece on Jack Grealish in response to Martin Samuel, I should have paid homage to Stewart Lee for inspiration!

      I can’t say I’m as educated on the history and significance of the white poppy. Sadly, the pacifist ideal is one that so many people around the world do not have the luxury of being able to enjoy by virtue of the oppressed, troubled and downtrodden circumstances in which they find themselves. That’s not necessarily a justification for anything; merely a suggestion that it is much easier to celebrate peace and lecture about it from the privileged vantage point. Nor is it to suggest that violence is a resort of solely the downtrodden. Oppressive violence naturally begets violence in reaction.

      Nevertheless, from the little I know of the white poppy movement, it seems a much more noble, respectful and considerate version for remembrance of all war’s unfortunate victims. And less exclusive and jingoistic. Plus, anything towards which Lady Thatcher felt “deep distaste” must be a good thing, right?

      I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone ever wear one though, even here in England. How popular are they?

      I think it’s refreshing and heartening to see so many in England appreciate where James is coming from. If one allowed themselves to be influenced by the undue level of coverage much of the mainstream media devotes to the intolerant nonsense on one side of that “debate”, you’d nearly think half the country had it in for him! So, fair play also to most people in England who are decent, empathetic, understanding and able to see past the bullshit. I’d be reluctant to come across as being wholly critical of a place that I’ve found welcoming for the most part just because I have a go at the some in the media and a minority of bigots from time to time.


  2. Reblogged this on Jude Collins – writer and broadcaster and commented:
    A detailed look at the curious case of James and the Giant Poppy by Daniel Collins (and yes, I am happy to say he’s a relative)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous · · Reply

    Utter shite


    1. Thanks for your input there, anonymous poster.

      What about it in particular is utterly shite?


  4. An excellent piece on James McClean’s latest “transgression” in opting out of observing the Union flag and ‘God Save the Queen’ prior to a pre-season friendly in the US for West Bromwich Albion: http://surrealfootball.com/post/124501199807/james-mcclean-should-be-respected-for-his

    Plenty of nationalist-background players do the exact same when playing for Northern Ireland and “their” anthem is played (http://i437.photobucket.com/albums/qq94/bhamilton82/gstq.jpg), yet their right to do so is respected and nobody calls for them to quit the squad (unlike Gregory Campbell who has insisted in typical knee-jerk, mock-outraged fashion that James McClean should quit English football: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/uk/james-mcclean-turns-his-back-for-national-anthem-igniting-calls-for-him-to-quit-english-football-31388031.html).

    Sammy Morrow, a Protestant from Limavady played for Derry City in the 2008 FAI Cup final against Bohemians. I remember this vividly because he stood out so much in doing what he did; ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ was set to commence, and as is convention/protocol in football settings when the Irish national anthem is played, both teams turned sideways to face the tricolour behind a goal down one end of the RDS, Dublin. The only player not to turn – he stuck out like a sore thumb – was Sammy Morrow. Instead, he remained standing quietly facing towards the main stand. He was at odds with the 21 other players in line with him, but I and pretty much everyone else in the stadium completely respected his right to abstain from facing the Irish flag. No offence was taken and no outrage was warranted. He was respectfully disengaging and opting out of observing something with which he might not have felt entirely culturally comfortably. You can bet your bottom dollar that Gregory Campbell would never have expected the same of Sammy Morrow as he’s insisting for James McClean today.


  5. It may have escaped the writer’s attention but the Belfast Telegraph has enthusiastically taken over the mantle of Ian Paisley’s long-defunct Protestant Telegraph.
    And it has taken some gutter press work to achieve this as they have had to out-bigot the DUP’s Newsletter!


  6. […] have comprehensively outlined McClean’s cultural background already in a piece relating to the boring poppy-related pseudo-controversy that envelopes him every November. Somehow, […]


  7. […] comprehensively outlined McClean’s cultural background already in a piece relating to the poppy-related pseudo-controversy that […]


  8. […] the game along with its shepherds here in Britain who subject those involved to the overtly-political, militarised and increasingly-fetishised Remembrance poppy fanfare around November-time each […]


  9. In response to a piece on the poppy matter encouraging James McClean to educate himself on the symbol in the hope that he would eventually come round to actually wearing one this November, I felt compelled to compose the following comment in response: http://lionofviennasuite.sbnation.com/2015/10/23/9600468/james-mcclean-poppy-fascism-and-misguided-politics#335531431

    From the perspective of an Irishman from James’ neck of the woods, but now living in Manchester, the annual poppy fanfare has become increasingly hysterical, militarised and fetishised to the point where it is all rather unsettling and disconcerting. Symbols mean different things to different people, irrespective of how one group might wish for a particular item to be perceived. Meanings and interpretations can indeed change over time. “Poppy fascism” isn’t something that has been concocted via a novel or malicious re-interpretation by “revisionists” though; it is a very real force of social expectation/moral coercion and it is fast destroying any true meaning or sentiment for peace and the idea of the futility of war that the symbol might originally have possessed. Those you call “revisionists” are merely observing and critiquing this unedifying phenomenon.

    The Remembrance poppy is a British cultural tradition – it’s not an Irish nationalist custom – and, although I appreciate the sincerity of your intentions in writing this piece, it would be naive to suggest the symbol isn’t used as a political propaganda tool in aid of asserting legitimacy and evoking positive sentiment for the British armed forces and their various neo-imperial adventures via the whipping up of a type of forced collective national sympathy. The poppy, and what it purportedly represents, is now an excuse for blind jingoism and is abused as a tool to aid the shutting down of debate in respect of the more questionable aspects of Britain’s foreign policy: “But you can’t be critical of our armed forces; you must respect them and what they have done as they died for your freedom.”

    As if the futile loss of their life for a lie wasn’t insulting enough, Britain’s war-dead are further debased through being institutionally exploited, via a garish token gesture, as little more than rhetorical shields for the purpose of evoking sympathy and insulating from real critique the policy and decision-makers actually pursuing these senseless wars.

    David Cameron, in his defence of the Tower of London memorial, said the spectacle served as a reminder of “how many people gave their lives not just in [World War I], although obviously the slaughter was horrendous, but also in so many conflicts since then where our Armed Services personnel have been defending our freedoms and our way of life”. Thus, to fail to respect the poppy is equated to or conflated with opposing the very notion of “freedom”, which is the ultimate propaganda term in itself, for who would be so awful so as to oppose the great British value of freedom? There’s this obnoxious idea that support for war is the only way to avoid accusations of hating Britain. Indeed, James McClean is accused of exactly that for his failure to participate and subscribe to the British nationalist ethos.

    The poppy has militaristic connotations and thus has always been a contentious symbol in Ireland, especially in the north. There’s absolutely nothing irrational about James’ response; as an historian, you’ll be well aware of the British army’s record in the north of Ireland. There was the killing of innocent civilians, the internment of civilians without trial, the collusion with illegal loyalist paramilitaries, the military torture and the systematic intimidation of the nationalist population. I think James can be forgiven for giving the whole spectacle another pass this year. He knows his history just fine.

    This was something I wrote myself on the matter a few months back, but it’s still largely relevant now that we approach episode three: https://danieldcollins.wordpress.com/2015/06/28/high-time-media-moved-on-from-indulging-pseudo-controversy-surrounding-james-mcclean-and-poppy-issue/

    And some other things I’ve written on McClean and how some of the British public have reacted to him, also relating to the anthem matter: https://danieldcollins.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/god-save-our-james-mcclean-a-look-into-the-curious-context-of-national-anthem-disengagement/ and https://danieldcollins.wordpress.com/2015/08/12/keeping-politics-out-of-sport/

    For what it’s worth, James has no issue respecting the sacrifice of those who died during the World Wars. He simply doesn’t need to use a contentious, politically-loaded symbol to do so. Donning a poppy is not the only permissible form of remembrance for those who died at war. If others wish to decorate their lapels with the flower, that’s entirely their prerogative and entitlement. Good for them. James is also fully aware that many Irish died. He wrote a letter to his chairman whilst at Wigan Athletic and it was slightly more detailed than his latest one for the West Brom programme: http://www.wiganlatics.co.uk/news/article/14-11-07-statement-regarding-james-mcclean-2070059.aspx

    In that letter, he stated:

    I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars – many I know were Irish-born. I have been told that your own Grandfather Paddy Whelan, from Tipperary, was one of those.

    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.


  10. […] depressingly-inevitable annual period of more-widespread and focused moral outrage reserved for poppy-refusenik James McClean, it is refreshing to encounter a more considered contribution to the debate from a proponent of […]


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