He played with Trojans, Institute, his hometown club Derry City, and Sunderland before moving to Wigan Athletic in August 2013. He spent two seasons at Wigan, claiming their player of the year award in the latter, and then returned to the Premier League by joining West Bromwich Albion in June 2015.
McClean was born and brought up in Derry, County Londonderry, Northern Ireland and played for the Northern Ireland national under-21 football team, but declined a call-up to the senior squad because he wanted to play for the Republic of Ireland. In February 2012, McClean received international clearance from FIFA which made him eligible to play for the Republic of Ireland, making his debut against the Czech Republic in the same month. He has since represented the nation at UEFA Euro 2012 and UEFA Euro 2016.
McClean began his career at Institute, making one first team appearance as a substitute against Glentoran in the 2007–08 Irish Premier League season. Institute decided not to renew his contract in the summer of 2008.
From the Creggan area of Derry, he was one of the first four players to sign for the new Derry City, along with David McDaid, and the McEleney brothers — Shane and Patrick. His debut came in August 2008 when he scored in a League of Ireland Cup win. McClean made his League of Ireland debut as a substitute for Kevin McHugh at Turner's Cross on 8 September 2008. He had been described by Stephen Kenny "as an exciting prospect for the future". McClean had negotiations with Lincoln City in November 2009, but this did not result in a contract, after McClean felt homesick.
McClean joined Sunderland on 9 August 2011 for a fee of £350,000, signing a three-year contract. Upon signing McClean, manager Steve Bruce indicated that he was "one for the future", and also hinted that he would be in the reserve team until Christmas. His form in the development squad was capped by a reserve-debut goal in a 4–3 win over Tyne–Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, earning him a place on the Sunderland bench. Despite never making an appearance under Bruce, he made his debut for the first team in Martin O'Neill's first game in charge on 11 December, a 2–1 win over Blackburn Rovers and was credited for the comeback which saw his side overturn a 1–0 deficit, after coming on as a substitute for Jack Colback in the second half.
McClean made his first start for Sunderland in their 1–0 victory over Manchester City on 1 January 2012, and scored his first senior goal for the Black Cats in a 4–1 win against Wigan Athletic two days later; on 8 January, he scored and assisted Sebastian Larsson in a 2–0 win at Peterborough United in the third round of the FA Cup. McClean provided the assist for Stéphane Sessègnon's opening goal in Sunderland's 2–0 victory over Swansea City on 21 January, and got another assist in the equalising goal for Fraizer Campbell in the next round of the cup against Middlesbrough on 29 January. Ahead of the replay for that fixture, Middlesbrough manager Tony Mowbray used McClean as an example for young players to follow. McClean turned provider again in Sunderland's 3–0 victory over Norwich City, assisting Sessègnon's goal, then scored the only goal in a win over Stoke City on 4 February in snowy conditions at the Britannia Stadium. A week later, he opened the scoring in Sunderland's 1–2 home loss to Arsenal after Per Mertesacker injured himself. On 23 March, Sunderland announced that McClean had signed a new contract intended to force him to stay at the club until the summer of 2015. A day later, he helped them to a 3–1 victory over relegation-threatened Queens Park Rangers by assisting the opening goal for Nicklas Bendtner and later scoring by himself. McClean won Sunderland’s Young Player of the Year Award, at the end of the 2011–12 season.
In August 2012, McClean scored his first two goals of the 2012–13 season in the second round of the League Cup against Morecambe. He also scored in the third round as well, scoring in the 82nd minute away at Milton Keynes Dons. He scored his first Premier League goal of the season in a 3–0 home defeat of Reading on 11 December, exactly twelve months to the day that he made his Sunderland debut.
McClean signed for Championship club Wigan Athletic on a three-year contract on 8 August 2013. Three days later he made his debut in the 2013 FA Community Shield at Wembley Stadium, starting in a 2–0 loss to Manchester United.
He scored his first goal for Wigan on 26 January 2014 in the FA Cup fourth round, a winner in a 2–1 victory against Crystal Palace. He had scored on 18 December against Sheffield Wednesday, but that match was abandoned in heavy rain and his goal was struck from the records; it was the only goal of the game by the 59th minute in which it was called off.
Turning down a move to New York Red Bulls, on 22 June 2015 McClean signed for West Bromwich Albion on a three-year deal for a fee believed to be around £1.5 million. In July, on the team's tour of the United States, he turned his back on the Flag of England while the British national anthem "God Save the Queen" was played before a match against the Charleston Battery, which resulted in a verbal warning from manager Tony Pulis.
He made his competitive debut on 10 August as West Brom began the season against Manchester City at The Hawthorns. Booed by his team's own fans whenever he touched the ball, he was replaced by Claudio Yacob at half-time, as his team lost 0–3. On 17 October, after a 1–0 home win over his former team Sunderland, he taunted the visiting fans, leading to confrontations between both sets of players; he was given a warning by the FA over his conduct. He scored his first goal for the Baggies on 5 December, a 39th-minute headed equaliser in a 1–1 home draw against Tottenham Hotspur. Two weeks later, he was sent off in the first half of a 1–2 home loss to Bournemouth for a challenge on Adam Smith; teammate José Salomón Rondón was also dismissed in added time.
He scored his first goal of the 2016–17 season in the EFL Cup against Northampton. His first league goal of the season came in a 4–2 win over West Ham on 17 September 2016. He was given an improved contract extension until 2019, with the option of a further year. Tony Pulis said: "James thoroughly deserves this and has worked hard to achieve it."
McClean had represented Northern Ireland at a number of junior levels, but ultimately opted to represent the Republic of Ireland at senior level.
McClean was part of the Northern Ireland team that won the 2008 Milk Cup and scored in the opening game in a 3–1 win against the US. He has also represented Northern Ireland seven times at Under 21 level. On 26 July 2011 he was called up to the Northern Ireland senior squad for the match against the Faroe Islands on 10 August 2011. McClean decided to wait for selection by the Republic of Ireland and therefore pulled out of the Northern Ireland squad. In January 2012 he again confirmed he would not be reconsidering his decision even though the Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill had been in contact.
McClean's success in the Premier League saw increasing calls for Giovanni Trapattoni to select him for the Republic of Ireland, with Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill saying after his winning goal at Stoke: "I think he's more than capable of going to Euro 2012... Hopefully he's making such an impact he'll be watched by someone in the Ireland camp, even if it's not Trapattoni. They couldn't fail to be impressed.” McClean received international clearance to play for the Republic of Ireland on 9 February. However, he was not included in the squad for the match against the Czech Republic which was announced the next day, though he was added to the squad on 20 February after success against Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round Proper.
McClean made his international debut on 29 February 2012, coming on in the 78th minute for Aiden McGeady in a friendly against the Czech Republic at the Aviva Stadium. On 7 May 2012, Giovanni Trapattoni confirmed that McClean was part of the Irish UEFA Euro 2012 squad. He then received sectarian abuse and death threats via Twitter. Explaining his feelings on the matter, McClean was quoted saying, "You are looking around as a Catholic and seeing all the Union Jacks and listening to the fans’ songs and I just didn’t feel at home at all." On 26 May 2012, McClean made his first senior international start against Bosnia and Herzegovina in the final home friendly ahead of UEFA Euro 2012, playing on the left flank.
On 10 June 2012, the date of Ireland's first UEFA Euro 2012 match in Poland, McClean was left on the bench; the game ended in a 3–1 defeat to Croatia. Two days before Ireland's next match on 14 June 2012, Ireland manager Trapattoni hinted that McClean would not feature in that game against world champions Spain. After much public urging for Trapattoni to make use of McClean's talents to recover Ireland's progress in the European Championship, Trapattoni claimed that "His time would come in the future". However, on 14 June 2012, McClean appeared as a substitute against Spain, coming on in the 76th minute in Gdańsk.
On 7 September 2012, after being left on the bench during Ireland's 2–1 victory over Kazakhstan in a World Cup 2014 qualifier, McClean used Twitter to criticise manager Giovanni Trapattoni. The tweet, and McClean's account, were subsequently deleted and the winger was forced to apologise to teammates.
On 11 June 2014, McClean scored his first international goal in the 5–1 defeat by Portugal in the MetLife Stadium during Ireland's US tour. On 11 October McClean made his first appearance of the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Gibraltar, scoring a brace in a 7–0 win in the Aviva Stadium.
On 29 March 2016, he scored his first ever professional penalty, helping Ireland to a 2–2 draw in a friendly against Slovakia.
Since his Premier League breakthrough in 2012, McClean has been variously criticised and supported for his ongoing refusal to wear football shirts bearing the symbol of the remembrance poppy when playing games on or near Remembrance Day (11 November) or Remembrance Sunday (the nearest Sunday), leading to him being used by the BBC in 2015 as the main example for one of the "Five reasons people don't wear poppies". The special shirts, usually auctioned, are part of the annual Poppy Appeal organised by The Royal British Legion, with all Premier League club shirts displaying poppies in various forms since 2010 (and as a standardised design since 2012).
McClean's objection derives from his affinity with the people of Derry, and the role of the British Army in The Troubles; he grew up on the Creggan estate, where six of the people killed on Bloody Sunday in 1972 also came from. He has said he would wear the poppy if it was restricted to honouring only soldiers who died in the World Wars, many of whom were Irish, and he has insisted his position is one of peace, and not any kind of wider political, religious or anti-British point. The Legion itself does not believe in compelling people to wear the poppy, seeing such a stance as going against everything the poppy symbolises.
For his stance, McClean has been booed by supporters of opposition clubs as well as some of his own club’s supporters. After the first refusal, McClean also received sectarian abuse and loyalist threats, including death threats. He has received support from various players and managers who support his decision as a personal issue of conscience. The first instance occurred on 10 November 2012, with McClean wearing a plain Sunderland shirt during their match against Everton. McClean donated this plain shirt, signed, to a charity auction in aid of a Dublin-based children's charity.
On 26 July 2012, McClean was caught speeding in his Land Rover at 95 mph on the M2 motorway in County Antrim, which he was not permitted to drive on as he did not have a full licence. He was further charged for being an unaccompanied learner driver and not displaying "L" plates on his car and admitted all charges to the police. In April 2013, he was tried in absentia at Antrim Magistrates' Court, and fined £700.
In November 2015, McClean was found guilty of a traffic-related offence, and as he already had six points on his licence, was banned from driving for six months, in addition to a fine.
McClean has made a number of charitable donations to the less fortunate in society. He made a significant donation to homeless men and women at the Wells and Foyle Valley House in Derry. He donated £1,500 for a custom hand cycle bike help a child who was suffering from Spina Bifida. He made another significant donation to the Wells facility in the Bogside, for up to 24 men who have alcohol problems. He paid £1,750 for a new mobile home after hearing about a pregnant homeless woman's struggles on social media. He donated £1000 to help pay for specialist proton therapy in Florida for a four-year-old child suffering from cancer. He donated €1,200 to help pay for the funeral of a two-year-old boy who was struck by a car. In December 2016 he set up a new clothing line with proceeds going to help the homeless in Derry. He has also donated £500 to an online fund set up to support the family of a missing Derry man.As of match played 27 August 2017.
As of match played 4 June 2017.
Scores and results list the Republic of Ireland's goal tally first.
League of Ireland First Division: 2010
Milk Cup: 2008
Young Player of the Year: 2011–12
Player of the Year: 2014–15