Controversial Winger James McClean came to Sunderland on this day in 2011, arriving from Derry City FC.
He has been met with the ire of a subsection of our fans throughout the years but, thankfully, he has never scored against us in any of his returns to face his former employers. Last time out at Wigan, our back four contained him very well and Lynden Gooch in particular put in a great shift to limit the Irishman’s influence, going a long way to prevent him from scoring a goal he would’ve relished.
When McCLean was with us, he wasn’t actually a bad player at all. With him starting in the side, we had a 51% win rate and he managed to score 11 goals in 70 appearances. He moved to us for a fee of £350,000, travelling on that reasonably well trodden road from the League of Ireland and deepening our Irish ties (third most Irish players fielded in the Premier League). Of course, players like Daryl Murphy or Roy O’Donovan who had made the same move over from Ireland were not politically outspoken and would not cause the same deep division within our fan base.
It wasn’t just in England that McClean would cause controversy. In his native country, before he had even really kicked a ball for us, McClean was demonstrating his political sensibilities in his homeland.
After a call up to the Northern Ireland squad, McClean switched allegiances to the Republic, causing a bit of outrage – it’s a contentious decision in the six counties to shift allegiances like this. Interestingly, two players who were nowhere near as good as McClean was for us, Darron Gibson and Marc Wilson, were high profile players who had also recently made the same decision. McClean of course, gave his two cents on his decision, lambasting the Northern Ireland FA.
All this before kicking a ball for us at senior level. We had unearthed a worky ticket. After making a handful of substitute appearances, he made his full debut in that iconic 1-0 Ji Dong Won inspired victory over Manchester City. His first goal would come in the same week against his future side Wigan in a 4-1 demolition. McClean became a key player for us, featuring until the end of the season.
A goal against Arsenal went some way to bolstering his case for a Republic call up from the notoriously stubborn Giovanni Trapattoni, who was initially reluctant to call him up. McClean’s form meant that he was simply too good to leave out and just days after scoring against the Gunners, he was on the plane to make his Ireland debut.
McClean won our Young Player of the Year Award at the end of the 2011–12 season, but his decision, though he explained his motives clearly, to not wear a poppy on Remembrance Day was always going to infuriate and divide supporters. McClean was an unpopular man on Wearside and was moved on in 2013.
He went to Wigan where he subsequently suffered relegation to the third tier and, declining a move to the US, opted to stay in England with West Brom. That being said, when he ended up in the States for a preseason friendly, he did turn his back as the national anthem was played. McClean is certainly well attuned to the views of English football fans, turning his back on a flag and anthem for the country of his employers.
Subsequently, on his debut, the home fans booed him each time he touched the ball. At West Brom, his disciplinary record left a lot to be desired and when he came back to the Stadium of Light, he goaded our fans, posting a classless Instagram post on his return and on the pitch, spurring conflict between the players, later receiving an FA warning about his conduct.
He joined Stoke for £5 million before returning to Wigan, who seem to be the only set of English fans to really take a liking to him, Wigan fans ,of course, delight in their ability to rile people up. That being said, Wigan went up from League One as Champions with McClean playing a key part alongside Max Power. In that season, against rivals Bolton, McClean got a double in a 4-0 win and naturally, goaded and riled up the Bolton fans leading to chaotic scenes.
There are nuanced ways to deal with political decisions in football, for both fans and players alike. However, James McClean lacks any kind of nuance. His viewpoint is understandable, rooted in personal experience and in a democracy; people are entitled to free expression. But, his conduct on and off the pitch lacks any class and he has taken every opportunity to go at loggerheads with fans and players alike. This is why the Wigan fans idolise him. He is the arch-pantomime villain of English football and relishes the role.