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Irish sporting hero James McClean and football's culture war

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James McClean
As last Sunday showed as clearly as is ever going to be shown, being a football (not soccer, not ever soccer) fan can be extremely dramatic. In the final week of the Premier League, Man City won the title in the dying seconds of their game against QPR, the kind of ending that would prompt you to roll your eyes if it came from a Disney film about a plucky team of loser kids who only needed an inspirational coach/mascot goat to believe in themselves.

The football frenzy is only likely to get more, eh, frenzied in coming weeks because of the upcoming European Championships. Ireland will of course be in there, and on the team will be Derry man James McClean. But in the last while he’s been making headlines for reasons other than his meteoric rise to stardom on the field.

After announcing on Twitter that he had been selected to play for the Republic at the Euros, James was subjected to all manner of abuse and threats, as being from Derry and having progressed through Northern Ireland’s IFA ranks, he essentially defected. McClean took the jibes (and worse) in good humour, even slagging the offending tweeters about the fact Northern Ireland will be nowhere to be seen at the tournament in Poland and Ukraine. He then unwisely suggested that Catholics don’t feel comfortable playing for the NI squad, in no small part due to omnipresent Union flags at Windsor Park. This caused his manager Martin O’Neill to suggest maybe sitting a few news cycles out for a while, but he has a point.

After all, Neil Lennon had to stop playing for Northern Ireland because of the abuse he got from his own fans, yet they react to the likes of McClean or Darron Gibson choosing to play for the Republic as if they’re Brutus getting ready to stick the knife in, as opposed to an often perfectly logical decision based on inherent cultural factors.

It would be lovely to think that in this post Good Friday Agreement era of shiny happy people that we could be a bit harmonious about things like this, but football, politics and culture are a troublesome mix. Especially so when you consider the fact that unifying Celtic and Rangers fans under one banner is about the most difficult thing you can do.

It’s frustrating that the Republic and Northern Ireland football teams still have this point of friction, especially when sports like rugby unify the whole island so well. But, the people who traditionally play rugby are not the same as those who traditionally play football, and therein lies the problem.

Working class people always tend to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop, and in Northern Ireland neither the most deprived Republican or Unionist communities have seen the full extent of the benefits of peace, love and understanding despite seeing the brunt of The Troubles. It is in these neighbourhoods that a lot of the old resentments still run deep, and in these neighbourhoods where the most diehard of fans inevitably reside. It’s only when we take the sting out of these tribal hostilities and we come to the point where a player can play for who he likes without opprobrium that we'll know we've truly moved on. 

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