Football, for those who originally watched it, was meant to be fun. People would pay to watch a game in order to be entertained, and to support their local side. They would enjoy the chants in the crowd and the action on the pitch. It wasn’t always entertaining. Often it was terrible rubbish that bored people to tears. It often still is.
Now football is no longer fun. It is alternately about learning or outrage. Each match, and sometimes an interview, is met with five things to be learned. The analytics community spread their blogs about the numbers behind the action. The tactics bods enjoy showing why various approaches can maximise the talent of one team, or nullify the strengths of another. That is not a problem for football, as each of these strands can entertain, inform, and on rare occasions, both. It does mean that fun has become obscured, though, and it seems like spectators and journalists have started to miss that aspect of things. It’s understandable that managers and players do, of course, because of the huge amounts of money and cultural capital placed on victory above all else.
The other end of the emotional scale from cold, sober analysis is the irrational, furious and hysterical outrage expressed every other week, due to something or another. It doesn’t really matter if it deserves the outrage, the public will find something that it wills into meaning. This is not the same as the times that football really is outrageous, when there are cases of racism, misogyny or something seriously unpleasant. People should be outraged when the sport contributes to the worst of society, of course. What they should not do is froth at the nose, ears, eyes and most other orifices at things which are barely worth a mention.
Which is what they do when James McClean appears on a football pitch. McClean has committed the crime of thinking outside the herd when it comes to the consensus of British society. In a similar way to Jeremy Corbyn, his largely reasonable beliefs are often at odds with modern British consensus. The Monarchy is an objectively undemocratic and illegitimate way to organise a society and head up a country’s governance, but the British public want it. The death penalty is repeatedly demonstrated as fallible, racist in countries it operates in, and ineffective as a deterrent. In public polling, the British populace is often found in favour of its return. Negotiating with extremist terrorists is ultimately how they are reassimilated into the wider world and violence, and possibly any fair concerns they also hold, are addressed. All these things make obvious sense, and yet Corbyn is on the wrong side of the public, if not the argument.
That’s often where McClean finds himself in football. The right side of the argument and the wrong side of the crowd. It began a few years ago when McClean decided that wearing the Poppy was not for him. The money raised by the Poppy fund often goes to a good cause, helping out a soldier who was injured or the family of a soldier who was killed. There is also a strong argument that the Poppy is also an indictment of a government that simply won’t do its duty and provide for soldiers it sends to suffer and die. But there is no denying that its conflation with the post-WW2 soldier, and the modern phenomenon of Help For Heroes, has left the Poppy an unworkable symbol for those who have suffered at its hands, or those who have family or friends who have. That goes for McClean and the community of Derry, where he is from.
McClean did not traduce the beliefs or memories of those who interpret the symbol in any other way, he simply opted out with a public and apparently sincere statement. We are told again and again that soldiers die for our freedom, but in reality the public seems to believe that the freedom is the freedom to do only what they want. That does not include foregoing the Poppy, and football crowds clearly take that to heart more vehemently than any other demographic.
Which is why Sunderland fans subjected McClean to taunts about the IRA during their match against West Brom. His former club against his current club made it for some especial needle, but just as fans will praise rapists and racists, it is damning of them that they choose the worst aspects of society to make a point. For McClean, it is anti-Irish bigotry, teamed with an almost fascist belief in the British army.
All of this is what should be outrageous. The tabloids and broadsheets should be protecting McClean and explaining to its readers why the actions of a bullying crowd are clearly wrong and unjustifiable. Of course, the free speech champions will defend them on all kinds of disingenuous grounds, but the point isn’t that the crowd should be criminally punished, just that they should be told exactly why their ideas are childish, wrong and often dangerous. Instead, the focus is on McClean’s boss, Tony Pulis, saying he should not have reacted, and was foolish for doing so.
And what was McClean’s reaction? It was to do a zesty double fist-pump towards the Sunderland fans when the match had finished. A sustained period of abuse, essentially recalling a crime by British soldiers that will have affected his friends of family, and all he indulged in was some mild goading. McClean was both funny and admirable, much as he has been throughout his career on these two subjects. And even then, he rarely speaks out, presumably because he can’t be bothered with the hassle from clowns in the crowd and elsewhere.
Football used to be about fun. Then came a period of explicit analysis. Now it is about something else quintessentially and small-mindedly English. It is the absolute certainty of the plain-speaking bigot that he is correct. McClean is the antidote for that, and he should be celebrated by us all for reminding us that England is not necessarily something to be proud of.