Ex-Sunderland footballer James McClean salutes Martin McGuinness as 'a great hero'

James McClean described Martin McGuinness as 'a great leader, a great hero and ... a great man'. Pic: PA.
James McClean described Martin McGuinness as 'a great leader, a great hero and ... a great man'. Pic: PA.
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Former Sunderland footballer James McClean has lauded ex-IRA commander Martin McGuinness as a 'great hero' who did 'so much for the Irish people'.

The 66-year-old former Northern Ireland deputy first minister, who was diagnosed with a rare heart condition at the end of last year, died in hospital overnight in his home city of Londonderry surrounded by family members.

Former Sinn Fein leader and IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who has died at the age of 66.

Former Sinn Fein leader and IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who has died at the age of 66.

Tributes from political leaders in the UK and Ireland have been mixed with strong words from some IRA victims not prepared to forgive the republican for his paramilitary past.

McClean, who was born in Mr McGuinness' native Derry, courted controversy over his refusal to wear a poppy on his shirt when he played for Sunderland, but revealed he always had the former deputy first minister's backing.

He posted on social media: "You will be sorely missed Martin, a great leader, a great hero and above all a great man."

He said he looked up to the former Sinn Fein leader.

"A man that has done so much for Irish people and Irish people's freedom right to the very end.

"He was also a good friend and someone I had the pleasure of having a good relationship with.

"A man I met so many times, had the privilege to share many a great conversation with, a man that always text me before games wishing me luck.

"A man that through the well-documented tough times off the field always let me know how brave I was standing by my beliefs, that I never was alone because I had his support and backing always."

McClean has claimed he was vilified by Sunderland's supporters after refusing to wear a poppy on his short in 2012.

And in 2015 McClean, by then a West Brom player, appeared to turn his back on the British national anthem during a West Brom pre-season friendly in the US.

Having played seven times for Northern Ireland at under-21 level, McClean, an Irish Catholic, also caused controversy in 2011 when he committed to the Republic.