James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Defending the right to say ‘no.’

Sheffield United players line up during the period of silence to mark Remembrance  weekend
Sheffield United players line up during the period of silence to mark Remembrance weekend
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All of Sheffield United’s players sported a poppy on their shirts when the club, together with Worcester City, paid its remembrance respects before their FA Cup tie at Bramall Lane last week.

But if any member of Nigel Adkins’ squad had elected not to, like West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean, then, despite pinning one to my own lapel, I would have defended their right. In the face, most probably, of some pretty fierce criticism and vile abuse.

The poppy, for those who might be unaware of its significance, was chosen by the Royal British Legion as its symbol of “remembrance and hope” in 1921 after an American academic was inspired by Lt Col John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.” It is not, the organisation insists, an indication of support for war or politics. But that’s the trouble with symbols. Rightly or wrongly, they mean different things to different people while war and politics, two hugely emotive subjects, are almost always inextricably linked. (Some members of the Women’s Co-operative movement, including many widowers, were dismissed from their jobs after producing white versions following World War One).

McClean, publishing an open letter on Wigan Athletic’s website during his spell in the North-West, highlighted this by explaining while he had “complete respect” for those who fought and died in both world wars, “the poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me.” The winger, who admittedly does not always present the most deserving case for public empathy, was born in Derry where, 43 years ago, Bloody Sunday took place. “Because of the history where I come from,” McClean argued. “I cannot wear something that represents that.”

From my own perspective, the meaning of the poppy is pretty clear. Likewise, if I see a swastika, Nazism immediately springs to mind. But, for Hindus, Buddhists and Jainists, it evokes thoughts of auspiciousness, good fortune and rebirth. Incidentally, the swastika symbol was also used, until events in Germany forced them to design a new insignia, by the 45th Infantry Division of the United States.

McClean, whether Twitter trolls agree with his beliefs or not, has the right not to wear a poppy. A right nearly 15 million people died to preserve between 1939 and 1945.

Twitter: @JamesShield1

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