FORMER Newcastle winger Keith Gillespie has launched a scathing attack on Sunderland winger James McClean's decision to turn out for the Republic of Ireland.
The Stadium of Light star caused controversy in his native Northern Ireland when he opted to represent the Republic during his breakthrough season with the Wearside outfit. McClean, who yesterday arrived in Poland with the Irish squad ahead of the European Championship finals, said at the time that, as a Catholic he felt uneasy about playing at Windsor Park in Belfast, despite having won seven Under-21 caps for the country of his birth.
But this reason cut no ice with ex-St James’ Park man Gillespie, capped 86 times for Northern Ireland, who did not hold back in his criticism.
Speaking on a Los Angeles radio station this week, Gillespie said: “I’m of the firm belief that if you are born in Northern Ireland then 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 such as Pat Jennings, 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.”
Former Derry City star McClean was forced to close down his Twitter account last month after receiving a torrent abuse from Northern Ireland fans, some of which he reacted to, the day he was selected to go to this summer’s tournament in Ukraine and Poland.
Asked to explain why he switched sides, the Sunderland player said: “I think any Catholic would be lying if they said they did feel at home, seeing all those Union Jacks and hearing the songs and the chants. I didn’t feel part of it.”
Martin O’Neill, his manager at Sunderland, captained Northern Ireland in their famous World Cup campaign in 1982 when they got through to the second group stage of the competition, beating hosts Spain on the way.
This was at the height of the troubles and O’Neill was one of the largely Protestant support’s most respected players.
He has backed McClean’s decision, which was apparently made before he arrived at the club last December.
But Gillespie, who played for Newcastle between 1995 and 1998, does not believe religion should even be a factor in today’s very different world.
He said: “There’s always going to be a few idiots here and there, but the work that’s been done to cut it out has been tremendous.
“There have always been Protestants and Catholics in the squad. The Catholic players have had just as much heart in playing for Northern Ireland and the jersey.
“It’s disappointing some players feel that there’s sectarianism in the game in Northern Ireland.
“It’s disappointing when people don’t want to play for Northern Ireland because, although we’re a small nation, we’re a very proud nation. I’m obviously biased, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to pull on that shirt.”
And Gillespie took to Twitter yesterday to back up his comments, saying: “McClean used the Northern Ireland system with no intention of playing for them.
“All I’m stating is that Northern Ireland has moved on from those times so to use it as an excuse is not on. Plenty players from Derry have played for NI. Religion doesn’t come into it when picking his best team.”