WHEN the Ireland squad for Euro 2012 was officially announced and his name was read out by Giovanni Trapattoni, James McClean voiced his pride through his Twitter account. He told his 50-odd-thousand “followers” that he was honoured to be chosen to represent his country at a major international tournament. He was not alone: Leicester defender Sean St. Ledger, Simon Cox and Shay Given also expressed how happy and proud they were to be among the 23 boarding the plane to Poland for the tournament.
However, only McClean received death threats.
That's interesting. Or is it? Let us not forget that McClean is not the first football player from Northern Ireland to have threats issued against his life. There is an odd tendency towards sweeping it under the carpet, but it is undeniable that Neil Lennon, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt each have been the recipient of grisly death-threats.
In the past, perhaps unfairly, these incidents have brought the collective reputation of Northern Ireland football fans into disrepute – but the reputation of Northern Ireland fans was shrouded in controversy by extremists long before Neil Lennon, Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt and it's those honest, reasonable fans in the middle that suffer for it. Nevertheless the gruesome underbelly simply needs to be exposed and rebuked as robustly as possible.
It is immaterial whether the messages spewing forth hatred came from a 16 year old or a 60 year old, the sentiment remains the same and it must be treated seriously, otherwise more will follow suit. Likewise, the quantity of threats is irrelevant. I was shocked to hear some recklessly claiming that the public reaction exaggerates the threats, by pointing out that there were “only” a small number directed at the Derry footballer. Only a few, that's right – no; one threat is one too many.
The other outrageous suggestion that was proffered was that the 23-year old athlete brought such threats upon himself by taunting Northern Ireland fans. Comparatively however, McClean's tweets, if ill-advised, are quite tame. Yesterday his message of pride was no different to that of other Ireland squad members, yet McClean was faced with a mountain of negative reactions. It's because he is a Derry man playing for the Republic of Ireland instead of Northern Ireland.
A potent cocktail of ignorant, sectarian cretins with a football-gang ethos believing that it is absolutely fine and acceptable to insult, abuse and intimidate individuals whose otherwise innocuous actions (or even state of being) grate with them, is what is at play here.
McClean was instantly metamorphosed into a hate-figure among extremists in the Northern Ireland support when he opted to declare for the Football Association of Ireland. Branding him a “Judas”, they howled and growled at almost anything McClean said or tweeted. Outrage ensued when McClean corrected BBC sports presenter Colin Murray for describing him as “Northern Irish”, rather than “Irish”.
Yet more followed when he expressed his joy at receiving his first cap for Ireland in February 2012. Aggressively telling McClean what nationality he was and what country was in fact “his”, they scoffed at the notion of the player being proud of his identity – a legitimate identity which simply diverged from their own.
Will this madness continue? More importantly, will it be allowed to?