McClean responds in Gillespie row

James McClean. Picture by Frank Reid.

James McClean. Picture by Frank Reid.

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Sunderland winger James McClean has responded to criticism from former Newcastle and Northern Ireland player Keith Gillespie who branded him a “defector” earlier this week, writes Graeme Anderson.

The 23-year-old has rejected Gillespie’s claim that he used alleged anti-Catholicism in the Northern Ireland set-up as an excuse to switch to the Republic.

McClean, preparing with the Republic squad for Sunday’s Euro 2012 opener against Croatia, said: “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 was reacting to comments made by ex-Newcastle man Gillespie on an American radio station.

The Longford Town winger – no stranger to controversy in his own career – said: “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.

“He made some excuses in relation to being a Catholic, but that’s not an issue with the Northern Ireland squad.

“You look at some of our greatest and most capped players who are Catholic — people like Pat Jennings, Mal Donaghy, Martin O’Neill and Gerry Armstrong. They are all hugely popular people in Northern Ireland.

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

Gillespie’s interview follow a statement issued by the Irish FA which said McClean’s comments about Catholics not being welcome for Northern Ireland were ‘disappointing.’

Sunderland and the Republic are likely to be disappointed that McClean has been drawn into reacting to the 37-year-old.

Derry-born McClean angered many Northern Ireland supporters when he originally opted to play for the Republic and hardly endeared himself later when he suggested Catholics were not made to feel welcome when playing for Northern Ireland.

Privately, Sunderland will feel the sooner the young Black Cat can draw a veil over any religious issues at international level and simply get on with his playing career, the better for all concerned.