James McLean, Very Much His Own Man

By in Niall Quinn's Route One

James McClean is one of those guys who always seems to be just arriv­ing some­where. He came to the Premier League rel­at­ively late. I think he was twenty two when we signed him at Sun­der­land from Derry City. We bought a long shot. He gave us fire­works.

Bang! Sud­denly he had arrived into the reserve team. Bang! Now he was in the first team. Bang! He was all over Twit­ter like a Khardasian. Bang! He was play­ing for Ire­land.

In Mol­dova of all places he might finally have put his bag­gage down and announced that he is here to stay. His two goals put Ire­land in a very strong pos­i­tion to qual­ify and if the team gets to Rus­sia in 2018 I believe James will be a leader and a key player.

See­ing him score a couple of goals told us a lot about not just his tal­ent, but that poten­tial for lead­er­ship. It also gave me a lot of pleas­ure. Not just because of the kind of per­son James is but because a lot of people put a lot of faith in him along the way and more often than not he has repaid them well.

The leaps of faith start with Bryan Pop Rob­son, a goal scor­ing hero of the North East hit­ting his mid six­ties a few years ago. Pop left his scout­ing job at Chelsea, want­ing to get back up to his fam­ily and his roots in Hex­ham.
Steve Bruce and I gave him the job as chief scout.

Pop came in on the first day and said, “listen, there is a bar­gain out there that we were recom­men­ded to come and watch when I was at Chelsea. A lad called James McClean at Derry City.” Given the struc­ture at Chelsea and James’s age Chelsea had decided not to pur­sue the trans­fer.

There were a few other clubs look­ing at James that sum­mer includ­ing Ever­ton. Steve Bruce and I had never heard of James McClean, let alone seen James play but it was Pop Robson’s first day on the job, he was enthu­si­astic and it didn’t seem like the time to knock Pop back. I agreed to approach Sunderland’s owner, Ellis Short, to get per­mis­sion to make the sign­ing.

Ellis asked a num­ber of per­tin­ent ques­tions, start­ing with, “how many times have you seen him play, Niall.” I answered truth­fully. Zero times. What else did I know? Well from what I knew of the League of Ire­land and the list of play­ers on our radar at the time, James McClean wasn’t near to being on the list but…

Between the jigs and the reels Ellis agreed and we spoke to Derry. By the way, Pop also told us to sign a cer­tain guy named Michu on that first day. Swansea fans will not be alone in remem­ber­ing the 20 goal debut sea­son that fol­lowed but Steve and I chose James.

He was play­ing under the man­age­ment of Stephen Kenny at Derry and as so many play­ers do under Stephen’s guid­ance, he had made quick pro­gress. We held nego­ti­ations in Myo’s pub in Castleknock, Dub­lin when I was back home to see the All Ire­land gaelic foot­ball semi-final in 2011. James’s agent, Eamonn McLough­lin, was always a very like­able guy as agents go, easy to deal with. All through the deal there was one burn­ing issue that Eamonn pushed for. He wanted me to call the FAI and tell them that James wanted to switch from North­ern Ire­land to the Repub­lic. We agreed a fee with fur­ther pay­ments if James made the first team and another pay­ment if James played for Ire­land.

I spoke to John Delaney at the FAI. I explained how we at Sun­der­land felt this lad had a decent chance and asked JD to con­sider secur­ing him for Trap­p­atoni? John showed great faith too by start­ing the paper­work and he also invited James’s par­ents to the next Irish game in Dub­lin. Mean­while James McClean had arrived in Sun­der­land.

James was dif­fer­ent. Everything was new to him but he wasn’t fazed or over­awed. He had a great desire to work on his game and to make it as a player. When he came we assumed it would take him a year or two to make the first team but he made his mark almost straight away, scor­ing in a 4–3 win for the devel­op­ment team against New­castle United. Steve Bruce took note but Steve moved on not long after that and Mar­tin O’Neill, another Derry man, arrived.

Mar­tin first saw James play for the reserve team in the glam­or­ous yet wind swept sur­round­ings of Eppleton Col­li­ery Wel­fare FC in Durham. Our reserves beat Manchester United’s reserves. 6–3. That was mid-week. That very week­end James made his first team debut, com­ing off the bench against Black­burn in Martin’s first game in charge. James turned the game around. We came from behind for a win as many leaps of faith were well rewar­ded.

It was as simple as just adding water. Instant folk hero.

It’s a funny thing but for all the con­tro­ver­sies that have fol­lowed James McClean since then he sel­dom gets the credit for remain­ing true to who he is. The worry with a player who makes such rapid pro­gress in the Premier League is that his head will be turned. The quiet lad you signed will be appear­ing in tabloids smoking a shisha pipe in some night club in Mar­bella at four am with a pile of ne’er do well hangers-on who he didn’t know two weeks pre­vi­ously. Not James McClean.

When I look at James play­ing I still view him in those terms. Will he keep it on the rails?

For instance most young play­ers who make the first team gradu­ally work their way up to hav­ing a more respect­able car in the play­ers car park. James hadn’t been long in the first team when I was gaz­ing our the win­dow of my office one day to see a massive, gleam­ing Range Rover type thing pulling in and young James McClean hop­ping out on the driver’s side. Uh –oh?

Mar­tin O’ Neill spot­ted the vehicle too. You could prob­ably have seen it from the moon. Mar­tin had a quiet word. The car was back in the deal­ers show­room, within a day or so.

Even in Mol­dova yes­ter­day when James hit an awful free kick I found myself look­ing at him and think­ing, ah James, if you’d spent less time get­ting your­self dec­or­ated with ink in tat­too par­lours and more time prac­tising free kicks that might have gone bet­ter for you. But that’s just the old man in me tut-tut­ting for the sake of it.

James is one of those char­ac­ters who wobbles but always rights him­self in the end. When Mar­tin left Sun­der­land James was gone not too long after­wards. He wasn’t Paolo di Canio’s cup of tea and maybe, vice versa, Paolo wasn’t too inspir­ing for James. Wigan came look­ing for James and he had no prob­lem going there to con­tinue work­ing on his career and to get him­self back into the Premier League. It was a sens­ible move and it worked out fine for him.

In Eng­land he has become a light­ning rod for the annual argu­ment over the wear­ing of the poppy. First of all many of us Irish work­ing in Eng­land take the path of least res­ist­ance when it comes to the poppy. I don’t have strong feel­ings one way or another and when some­body hands me a poppy to wear on tele­vi­sion I put it on rather than draw inter­na­tional heat onto myself that James has. That is who I am. If I went into a mosque I would take my shoes off for instance. I know there are people and key­board war­ri­ors out there who are dis­ap­poin­ted or angered by that. I don’t know that many of them would have the strength of char­ac­ter to take the pub­lic stand that James has taken how­ever.

I don’t come from the Creg­gan estate in Derry and neither do many of the people who are loudest on the issue. I didn’t grow up with the his­tory and polit­ics of Derry. Whether people agree wth James McClean or not it is impossible not to admire him for being true to him­self.

He first took his stance at Sun­der­land. It is said the North East has the highest dens­ity of ser­vice people per pop­u­la­tion of any­where in the UK so it was always going to be a very tough audi­ence. The stance went down badly and the abuse which fol­lowed must have been very hard to take. When James was at Wigan he penned a let­ter to David Whelan his chair­man explain­ing his pos­i­tion. It was elo­quent and well reasoned and more valu­able than a thou­sand hasty tweets. Dave accep­ted the let­ter and James’ pos­i­tion and both agreed that the let­ter should be pub­lished in full.

At West Brom James wrote the same sen­ti­ments in a match day pro­gramme before the issue arose again. I think a lot of people saw where James was com­ing from, both in the lit­eral sense and in under­stand­ing that per­haps a lot of what the poppy stands for should be the fight for the right to be dif­fer­ent and true to who you are.

James is twenty seven now. His beliefs aren’t going to change but if you look at him object­ively in a world where so many people are fak­ing it, he is a young man who’d rather wear his heart on his sleeve. He makes mis­takes. After the game in Mol­dova for instance he had a crack off the Irish media. I would advise him just to respond to people either through what he does on the field or by talk­ing to them one on one but I under­stand his frus­tra­tions and I think he’ll learn.

That has been his story so far, always learn­ing, always arriv­ing some­where new. In the foot­ball world though he is some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing very genu­ine. He is engaged in the world around him, he stands for things rather than going with the flow. He was worth every leap of faith shown in him.

In a few weeks time the poppy issue will come around again. You don’t have to agree with him to take a leap of faith in his sin­cer­ity but, like me, just enjoy him for what he brings to the game.