The James McClean poppy controversy has again flared up. Eamonn McCann gives his take on this issue, suggesting that opposition to the poppy is a righteous stance.
Sergio Agüero seemed unconcerned as he stood for a minutes silence while a poppy wreath was laid by a man in army garb at Wembley on Monday evening. But it must have occurred to him to wonder about the reaction back home in Argentina. There are scores of players who might resent their jerseys being used to promote British patriotism and sentimentalise war. But only James McClean from Creggan Heights in Derry stood up and said so.
Four years ago he said that for him “to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially. . . It would be seen as an act of disrespect to my people.” His position remains unchanged in 2018 and before the usual social media debate could explode around the issue, his team Stoke City F.C. issued a club statement in which they say they ‘respect his decision and his right to follow his own convictions’. The club though ‘is proud of its close connections with the Armed Forces and have also invited members of the Armed Forces to join our remembrance at the Middlesbrough fixture.’
The fashion for poppies on football shirts wasn’t always so. The idea appears first to have been mooted within the last ten years. Why? What new factor had come into play? What debate was there among fans, players, the Football Association?
Why is it that the real and relevant connection between football and the first World War goes entirely unmentioned even as the game is systematically misused in an effort to make war seem as natural an expression of identity as shouting for your team on Saturday afternoon?
Salespeople for the poppy suggest that support for Britain’s wars has nothing to do with it, that the red splodge they want to see on every lapel signifies only dignified remembrance of the war dead. Were there a syllable of truth in this we would hear a range of emotions and thoughts on the meaning of the war expressed at every poppy-strewn remembrance. But we do not.
Raise a shout of anger at so many lives lost or hoist a banner declaring “Never Again!” and you are liable to be arrested for – this has happened – breach of the peace.
The Royal British Legion puts it plainly that poppies are “worn to commemorate the sacrifices of our armed forces and to show support to those still serving today”.
Wearing the poppy is clearly not incompatible with organising a rerun of the slaughter.
Among the sights to be seen already in the lead up to Remembrance Week was Theresa May – the PM who refuses to halt arms deals with the Saudi Arabian government and who recently deployed British military advisers to assist the Saudis in their war criminality in Yemen – assisting Royal British Legion in launching this years’ appeal from the doorstep of 10 Downing Street.
And every year the poppy is donned by the likes of Tony Blair – the man who told the lies that lured the British people into backing a war that left more dead than had fallen at the Battle of Mons.
If the first World War is to be remembered at football matches in November, why not actor Maxine Peake in the centre circle reading the words of a man who had endured the horrors before falling himself in the last days of the conflict.
“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro partia mori.”
You wouldn’t have to call for a minute’s silence. A hush would descend naturally.
Or mark the moment at Christmas 1914 when thousands of German and British-and-Irish soldiers on the western front stepped, timidly, tentatively at first, then teeming with joy, out from their trenches into no-man’s land to laugh, hug, clap one another on the back, share cigarettes. Of course, one side couldn’t speak the other’s language. But they found a common language in which they could celebrate their common humanity and played a game of football.
Was this not football’s finest hour? Was it not the moment in football’s history most relevant to remembrance of war, and specifically of the first World War?
Would a parade in the English and German football strips of the period not touch more hearts and make more moral sense than detachments of soldiers in full military dress leading poppy-festooned players onto the pitch?
Nothing of the sort will happen, of course. The underlying purpose of Remembrance is to soften the memory of futile slaughter the better to make the next generation ready to do its share of dying in wars caused by greed and imperial rivalries.
McClean continues to speak up not just for himself and the right to choose whether to wear a poppy, but against the perversion of sport and for the integrity of football.