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'He Is An Absolute Diamond' - The Rise Of James McClean From Those Who Know Him Best

'He Is An Absolute Diamond' - The Rise Of James McClean From Those Who Know Him Best
By Gavin Cooney Updated

With football increasingly privileging perception over reality, it is becoming a novelty to find a man who marries them both.

One of the few remaining men doing exactly that is James McClean.

The Derryman is among the most popular Irish players right now. This is, of course, partly down to his developing habit of scoring important goals for Ireland. He is Ireland's top scorer under Martin O'Neill, and has converted two points into six across Ireland's last two away games.

But the Irish affection for McClean transcends these figures. It is more to do with the fact that, with McClean, fans get exactly what they see. With Ireland, there is passion evident in everything that he does. It propels him up and down the wing during games, and it is infused in the words that fall from his mouth afterwards.

And when you speak to those who work with McClean behind the scenes, it quickly emerges that he is no different away from the limelight.

Among those who know him best is West Brom's kit manager, an affable Irishman known universally as Jacko.

People say 'Awh, a nicer guy you wouldn't meet', but he really, really is. He's a very friendly fella, he is a very funny fella, and many people probably don't that side of him, but whenever James comes in, and you'll always have a bit of craic with him.

And what with me being a former Finn Harps player, and him being an ex-Derry City player, there's always a bit of banter on the Monday after a League of Ireland weekend.

James would do anything for you. He really, really is one of the good guys.

McClean's passion for Derry remains undimmed.

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International teammate Stephen Ward told us that McClean at least streams every Derry game whenever he can, and it was at the Brandywell that he developed the absurd work ethic that has him where he is now. Eamon Zayed - who played with McClean at Derry says that he would run to and from training to keep his level of fitness ahead of everybody else, and this is a level of effort he doesn't shirk at the highest level.

When training is finished he'd have the reserve team 'keeper out and he'd be practising crosses and shots. I'd be standing there waiting to put the balls in the bag in the rain, saying 'James, will you C'mon man!' But that's him. Then, as players would be going home, he'd head to the gym for half an hour or forty minutes.

He's a really fit fella, and that's where it all comes from. He's up and down that wing, tracking back, doing everything the gaffer asks him. But it's his work rate that has him where he is; it's his will to win that has him where he is.

The fact that McClean's public character is devoid of needless affectation should not be taken as evidence he is lacking in depth. His reasoning behind not wearing a poppy at Wigan in 2014 was extremely eloquent, publicly espoused via an open letter to chairman Dave Whelan.

McClean was denied this clarity at Sunderland. The year previous, under Martin O'Neill, McClean's wish to not wear the poppy was granted by Sunderland, only for the club to release a statement stating that McClean was not wearing a poppy, denying him the opportunity to explain his decision. He was subsequently barracked by Sunderland fans.

 

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The whole saga is dredged up annually around this time of year by the British media, to the extent that the first sign of Christmas is an article in the Daily Mail stating that McClean wouldn't be wearing a poppy that weekend.

Not that the criticism bothers him.

When we asked Jacko for a moment that best summed up McClean's character, his exultant celebrations in front of Sunderland fans after a West Brom win stick out:

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Probably the celebration against Sunderland. Sunderland fans were giving him a lot of stick, but we won the game, and he turned to them and kissed the badge. But that's James. He doesn't hold back. That's his celebration. James doesn't see it as that. Sometimes, it's weird with him. I won't say he likes being unliked, or unpopular, but he thrives on it sometimes.

You can see it in some games. I do be laughing, he'd be going over to take a corner and the fans would be giving him abuse and you can see that he loves all that. It's gas, he is probably one of the most popular guys in the dressing room, he gets on with everybody. He comes across as being serious, but of course you can't have a bit of a laugh and a joke with him.

The headlines around the poppy does not affect McClean's standing in the dressing room, according to Jacko. It is, in fact, quite the opposite, as when he refused to face God Save The Queen during a game on a pre-season tour of America, he was commended by one of the senior figures in the dressing room: 'If that's what you believe in James, then fair play for standing up for what you believe in'.

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Jacko also tells a great story of how McClean keeps in touch with the grassroots, and is extremely generous with his time.

I remember my young lad was playing a team in Longford in a semi-final against Camlin United, and I asked James would he record a video wishing him and the team the best of luck. And he did it, without having to ask him a second time.

My young fella was thrilled, putting it on Facebook and Twitter. They all thought it was great that a Republic if Ireland senior player would take time out to wish him all the best, but that's a normal thing for James.

He is an absolute diamond, and everyone at West Brom is delighted to have him there, he's a smashing fella.

McClean may not be the most silky of wingers or the most ostentatious of talents, but in an industry as superficial and transient as football, being yourself is a radical act.

See Also: Only Seamus Coleman!? Here's Our Combined Ireland & Wales XI

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