Why James McClean needs Wrexham just as much as the club needs him

The partnership is a match made in heaven, writes Clare Morrison – and both parties stand to reap the benefits

Saturday 05 August 2023 16:57 BST
McClean’s priority has always been his community
McClean’s priority has always been his community (PA Archive)

I thought I had seen every Irish and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia crossover meme, especially after the “Gang Goes to Ireland” season of the record-breaking sitcom. Imagine my wonder, then, when Irish Twitter went back to the well with renewed gusto at the announcement that Derry’s own James McClean is going to Wrexham.

At first glance, the move is… curious. To put it lightly, McClean is something of a controversial character in English football. On the other hand, Wrexham is, well, Wrexham; Disney darlings and an all-round good news story in the middle of the trainwreck that is living in the UK at the minute. Good guys doing good, if you will. The collective “what?” circling round various internet communities can be answered very simply; Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds are geniuses.

Everyone knows the Wrexham story. In 2020, friends and famous people Rob McElhenney, of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame, and Deadpool himself, Ryan Reynolds, bought a Welsh football club. They invested in the local community, got the fans on board and Disney made a docu-series about it. Wrexham gained a global following, won their division and got promoted to EFL League Two. It wasn’t quite Leicester winning the Premiership, but it was a Cinderella story cut from the same cloth.

James McClean’s experience has not been so shiny. He is constantly on the receiving end of anti-Irish and sectarian abuse, largely owing to his decision to not wear a poppy during Remembrance weekend, something which he explains every year. Whatever your stance on this, the outcome has been years of abuse and even death threats.

However, that isn’t the focus in the case. McClean’s priority has always been his community in Derry and his heritage, values that are intrinsically part of the growth and development plan that McElhenney and Reynolds have for Wrexham.

Wrexham are facing a problem; how do they ensure that the team makes progress and moves up in their respective competitions, without undermining the fact that at its core, this is a community club? They can’t just ship in Premiership players, as that would undermine everything they’ve tried to put in place. Wrexham doesn’t need a new team; their current cohort are demonstrably capable of success. However, as they progress, they will need more experienced players and coaches on hand to ensure that they don’t just get promoted, but that they stay there, which in many ways is a more challenging prospect.

Considering this, McClean presents a unique solution. He isn’t a local, but clearly understands the strength of a supportive community and the value that sport has in helping that community coalesce around a common goal. As somebody from Derry myself, I can attest that we know the work that he does, without fanfare, often doing things that definitely will not make the national news.

As a starting point, between 2008 and 2011, McClean played for Derry City FC. Derry fans’ commitment to the Candystripes borders on the religious, such is their dedication. The parallels between Wrexham and Derry are clear if you’re familiar with both clubs. They’re community centred, support local talent, and give back to their towns.

As McClean’s career grew, with a move to Sunderland in 2011 and his joining the Republic of Ireland international team in 2012, so too did his means to give back to the community that rallied behind him. He has personally donated thousands of pounds to local charities, including a homeless shelter. He bought a young girl with Spina Bifida a hand pedal bike. He sponsored the kit for his old GAA team when their club house burnt down in an arson attack. He’s paid for the funerals of people in the community. He recently went public about his autism diagnosis in support of his daughter. It makes perfect sense that they painted a full mural of him in Creggan.

And that is why recruiting him to Wrexham was an inspired choice. McClean is one of a very short list of players who have achieved 100 caps playing for the Republic of Ireland. He has experience at a local level, in the Premiership, and in the leagues that Wrexham will now firmly have their sights set on. He offers a level of talent that the club will need as they progress to the next stage of their development.

However, above all this, McClean understands the assignment. Don’t call it a comeback, don’t call it a rehabilitation – this is a homecoming. Wrexham have their new star who, at his core, understands what they’re trying to do, and McClean has a club that, possibly for the first time since 2011, actually understands him.

It is a rare instance in sport where the head and the heart align, and I sincerely hope that both parties achieve the potential that this opportunity offers.

The only question now is whether or not Wrexham are ready for the influx of Derry fans. We’re very enthusiastic.

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