For years sectarianism has been prevalent in Irish and British football and shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.
Since the age of five I have attended Irish football games with my father, and from that age I have witnessed widespread sectarian abuse hurled at players and other supporters. 16 years on and that same abuse is still happening.
Unfortunately sectarianism has a history in Northern Ireland with decades of violence and political and social unrest between the catholic and protestant communities; more commonly known as The Troubles. While the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, this was seen as a huge landmark in Irish history as a sign of hope and prosperity that we could live in peace and that the dark days were behind us. Although, sectarianism is not just a problem in Ireland and and Northern Irish football. According to a survey carried out by Supporters Direct Scotland (in partnership with the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish Football Association), half of the 3,817 supporters who took part are said to have been victims of sectarianism. Perhaps more alarmingly, over 90% of those who took part admitted to witnessing sectarian abuse at games in comparison to 63% witnessing racism.
It seems clear that football’s governing bodies have failed to learn the lessons of the past and deal with the issue. Perhaps the most notable example of the sectarianism in the sport is the treatment of Stoke City and Republic of Ireland International, James McClean. On November 10th 2012, all Premier League clubs wore a poppy on all match shirts for remembrance weekend. The Derry-born winger refused to wear one due to the British Army’s actions on Bloody Sunday in Derry, 1972, which saw the killing of 14 innocent civilians by the Parachute Regiment. As a result, McClean was met with widespread abuse both online and while playing.
In an interview to the Irish Independent in 2015, McClean said he felt “hung out to dry” by his former club Sunderland, after the press office at the club made a statement before the game explaining “the decision not to wear a poppy was a personal choice and that the club fully support the poppy appeal”. McClean also claims then manager, fellow Derry-man Martin O’Neill “was brilliant about it and understood” but that he wasn’t given the chance by the club to explain his reasoning.
After Sunderland, McClean moved to Wigan Athletic in which he penned an open letter to Chairman Dave Whelan explaining his standpoint on the issue, something he was unable to do at Sunderland. In the letter, McClean spoke of his “respect for those who fought in both world wars” but insisted it would be “a gesture of disrespect to the victims of Bloody Sunday and to his people”.
Republic of Ireland international James McClean explains poppy stance via an open letter on the Wigan website. pic.twitter.com/XoSttkqyDl
— Extratime.ie (@ExtratimeNews) November 7, 2014
Despite this explanation, McClean has continued to receive disgusting abuse online, by post and while playing due to his sustained stance on the poppy. Some of the content is too graphic to repeat, however the Republic of Ireland winger’s family have been brought into it on numerous occasions.
In 2015, then-Rotherham defender Kirk Broadfoot was given 10-game ban and fined £7,500 (€8,500) under Rule E3 (1) for aiming sectarian abuse at Ireland international James McClean. The ban was a record for verbal abuse in English Football after Luis Suarez received an 8-game ban for racially abusing Patrice Evra in 2011.
This year action has finally been taken by football authorities with Championship club Barnsley charged by the EFL after McClean allegedly suffered sectarian abuse in the game between the two sides in November. Sectarian chants were also aimed at McClean on New Year’s Day in the game between Stoke City and Huddersfield Town.
QPR also launched an internal investigation last year after a video on social media showed some Rangers supporters abusing the Irishman and asking him “where’s your poppy?”, however no further action was taken.
McClean is not the only Irish-born player to have suffered this abuse. In April, Accrington Stanley midfielder Sam Findley was given an eight-game ban and a fine for abusing former Republic of Ireland International Paul McShane. The committee investigating the breach, found that the comment was a slur based on the Wicklow-born defender’s nationality and did not treat it as an ethnic slur.
In May 2016, then-Derry City manager Kenny Shiels claimed he was called “a sectarian name” after his side’s defeat to Cork City. The incident relates to a touchline argument and Shiels, who is from a protestant family, claims the sectarian comment was made by a member of the Cork backroom staff.
Another long-term victim of sectarian abuse is former Northern Ireland International and Current Celtic Manager, Neil Lennon.
While suffering long-term sectarian abuse, Lennon has been assaulted a number of times on the touchline both verbal and physically. In April 2011, Royal Mail had intercepted two parcel bombs addressed to the manager while one month later a package containing bullets was sent to the club’s ground addressed to Lennon. A few days prior, Lennon was attacked by a Hearts fan during a Scottish Premier League game. A supporter leaped over the barrier before appearing to swing a punch and miss. The man was detained by security staff and was subsequently charged with breach of the peace aggravated by religious prejudice and assault aggravated by religious prejudice. On a number occasions Lennon has also been hit my missiles from the crowd, including coins and bottles. In 2014 after leaving Celtic to join Bolton Wanderers, the Parkhead boss said “sectarian chaos and madness” influenced his Celtic departure.
In February, Former Derry City and current Crusaders goalkeeper Gerard Doherty was red carded in his side’s Irish Cup Defeat after lobbing bottles into the Glentoran support,bottles that were initially thrown at him. The Derry-native later said in an interview with the Derry Journal that “sectarian abuse pushed me over the edge” claiming that “it’s sad because i should have got used to that over the years”.
In my view, sectarianism is a huge issue for Irish players in football and is certainly one I think is being ignored on a large scale. If we are to be serious about kicking discrimination out of football, it cannot be good enough for this to stop only with black players. People from all backgrounds need to be protected within the sport whether that’s for the colour of their skin, their gender, their nationality or their religion. Some of the abuse I have spoken about in this piece would be enough to turn your stomach, and it is something no one should have to deal with. It’s time to kick discrimination and bigotry out of football.