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The Roker Ramble: James McClean, Keith Gillespie & Doing What's Right For Yourself

James McClean representing Ireland. The 'wrong' Ireland though in the eyes of Keith Gillespie and some other Northern Irish fans.
James McClean representing Ireland. The 'wrong' Ireland though in the eyes of Keith Gillespie and some other Northern Irish fans.

There's been a bit of rumbling between former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie and James McClean recently in the press, after the former Manchester United and Newcastle winger told US radio show and podcast, Beyond The Pitch.

There, Gillespie didn't mince his words about McClean, who despite being born in Northern Ireland, has chosen to represent the Republic as his national team, and will do this summer at Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

It raises a few talking points about whether or not players should and could be allowed to switch nations, and it's an even hotter topic of conversation across the Irish sea, where it's much more prominent, and occasionally switches are made purely for religious choices as opposed to any sort of rule...

Speaking out about McClean, Gillespie told the show;

I'm of the firm belief that if you're born in Northern Ireland you should not have the option of playing for the Republic, James McClean is a prime example. He had no intention of ever playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he's made that clear but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic.

I think here that McClean has a reasonable argument against. He played for Northern Ireland Under-21's on seven occasions between 2009-10. A full season before he would gain more national and international prominence with ourselves.

He's an exciting player, doing very well in the Premier League and making in-roads internationally. I'm sure there was an opportunity in 2010-11 for Northern Ireland to make their play for him then if they felt he was such a great prospect.

It's all been quite unfortunate that McClean has been a little bit of a late bloomer. It tends to be more of a younger thing that players switch nationalities, which was the case for fellow Derry native Darron Gibson, who switched to the Republic after representing Northern Ireland at Under-16 and Under-17 level, meaning that McClean, now in the spotlight had to face a tougher line of questioning from the media as opposed to a teenager.

McClean cited these reasons in a recent interview;

I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those Union Jacks and hearing the songs and the chants. I didn't feel part of it...

And this perhaps is where it all gets a little bit messier. There's still a strong sectarian element in Northern Irish football, and while Gillespie rattled off several Catholics to play for Northern Ireland over the years, including our own manager Martin O'Neill, it's still down to a personal preference. More recently than any of the names rattled off by Gillespie was Neil Lennon, who even captained the side before retiring from international football due to death threats received.

In a pre-Twitter world, the fact that someone could do something so shocking and get to a player personally signals a rather large degree of seriousness. I don't think Lennon could really be blamed for making his decision. In the more modern era though, McClean was a regular user of Twitter, and had recently been forced to shut down his account for his own safety and sanity after the level of abuse received by Northern Irish fans for choosing the Republic. It's not quite on the same level as a threat arriving through the post, but the words are there, and nobody should ever have to endure it.

Gillespie remained undeterred however, adding;

I think McClean was clutching at straws with those remarks and trying to come up with some sort of excuse.

I think if anything, McClean wasn't making excuses, rather being far too honest about it. He could have just said the fact that he is entitled under the Good Friday Agreement and article 5 of FIFA's Regulations Governing the Application of the Statutes to do so, but credit to McClean for speaking his mind. He'd have been doing himself a disservice if he just said in effect "rules are rules".

If anything, Gillespie's comments only spurred McClean on further to recommit his future to the Republic, going on to state that contrary to any accusation that he 'used' the Northern Irish system, he never had any desire to play for them.

I've always wanted to play for the Republic of Ireland and I couldn't be more proud that I am doing that. Just because I've grown up in Northern Ireland doesn't change that.

He also admitted that playing for the Under-21's in 2009-10 was "naive" and that he regrets that decision.

So you have to think that hopefully, finally, McClean can go about his business, and everyone can leave this sad situation alone. He's shown full commitment to the Republic, and acted in an apologetic way for anything which may have seen him deemed a user.

It appears that from the outside some Northern Irish supporters, such as Gillespie, are clutching at straws now that McClean has defected. Plus of course there's the very real possibility that had McClean been approached by the North, he'd have politely turned it down given his thoughts and feelings on the footballing and political situations there.

On a more wider scale, should a player have to play for the country in which he was born? It's an interesting proposal. What if Owen Hargreaves had been forced into playing for Canada? Marcel Desailly for Ghana, or Lukas Podolski for Poland? Obviously none of these hold the same political outrage as they do between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but they do hold similar principles in that the players chose the country which they felt was theirs, and they felt a part of.

Moves have been made to eradicate sectarianism from Northern Irish football, and they should be commended for that, however like any where there's still some idiots who are clearly ruining it for everyone. Those are the one's who need to be silenced. If Northern Ireland want to get more talented players such as McClean, creating a more inclusive environment would be the first port of call, not whinging about it after the fact.

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