Neil Lennon story so far: how much more can he tolerate?

by Martin Campbell

The SPL championship is going down to the wire and another exciting ‘Helicopter Sunday’ awaits. But that’s not what people are talking about.

Instead of final day match previews the front and back pages are dominated with the picture of the latest incident involving Neil Lennon. During the recent game against Hearts at Tynecastle, Lennon had just seen his side go 2-0 up and effectively seal the game. His thoughts should have been focused on closing out the match efficiently and perhaps even allowing his thoughts to drift towards Sunday’s match with Motherwell.

Instead, within seconds of scoring the second goal, Neil Lennon’s thought process was totally derailed after a Hearts fan ran down to the front of the main stand, passed through an open gate and proceeded to launch himself at the Celtic manger, landing a blow on his head in the process. The intruder was quickly overwhelmed by stewards and Edinburgh’s finest before he could inflict any more damage.

The Tynecastle incident was followed up the morning after with the mailing of a live ammunition round to Lennon at Celtic Park.

These events are just the latest acts of violence and intimidation perpetrated against the Celtic manager in what has been a season of shame for Scottish football. Lennon has also been contending with threats dating back to January this year where bullets were mailed to the former Northern Ireland international, as well as two of the club’s Northern Irish players – Niall McGinn and Paddy McCourt.

That incident was followed in March / April when a series of parcel bombs were sent to Lennon, two high-profile Celtic fans in Trish Godman MSP and Paul McBride QC and Glasgow-based Irish republican group Cairde Na h’Éireann. Luckily all four devices were either intercepted or incurred police intervention before anyone was harmed.

Strathclyde Police Det Supt John Mitchell confirmed. “We sent devices to specialists for forensic examination and, on the back of that, we now realise they were indeed viable devices. They were definitely capable of causing significant harm and injury to individuals if they had opened them”.

How did things ever get this far?

Lennon has been the subject of sectarian abuse in the past, even as far back as his playing days. The level of abuse he experienced essentially forced him to quit international football. However this latest round of abuse seems much nastier and threatening. Why it has reared its head now is unclear but perhaps it started with events that took place in October / November, and snowballed from there.

Back then Celtic were essentially in a state of defacto war with the SFA following perceived refereeing injustices in matches against Dundee Utd, Rangers and Hearts. The Dundee Utd match in particular was sensational. During that game Celtic were awarded a penalty kick by referee Dougie McDonald. But after apparent consultation with assistant referee Steven Craven, the award of a penalty was rescinded and a drop ball awarded.

It was subsequently revealed after the game that McDonald and Craven with alleged input from Referees Development Head Hugh Dallas had colluded and lied to Neil Lennon regarding the award of the penalty in the first place. Celtic were rightly furious and wanted answers and Craven resigned a few days after the match. Lennon and Celtic chief John Reid called for McDonald to follow, suit which he eventually did.

The following week Celtic wrote a letter to the SFA asking for an explanation as to why ref Willie Collum awarded Rangers a penalty in the Old Firm derby. This was most unusual and the SFA and refereeing fraternity took it as an insult. It didn’t help a couple of weeks later, when Lennon was sent to the stand against Hearts for having a spat with a fourth official. He received a massive six game touchline ban for his efforts.

It also didn’t help when Celtic striker Gary Hooper said “”We are one of the biggest teams in the world and everyone wants to beat us, all the teams. The referee wants to give a decision against us so he can say something after the game”.

We were now on the verge of a refereeing strike as the match officials’ patience had run out. They were tired of having their integrity questioned every week and fingers were pointed at Celtic and Neil Lennon as the primary offenders. Celtic’s view was that there were dark forces at work within the SFA and that they were being victimised and discriminated against.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, a few days before the referee strike, chief referee Hugh Dallas resigned after sending a derogatory email regarding the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church prior to the Papal visit to Scotland. Peter Kearney, director of the Scottish Catholic Media Office, said the e-mail was an example of “deep, wide and vicious anti-Catholic hostility” and was just the “tip of the iceberg” of anti-Catholic feeling in Scotland.

In the eyes of many Celtic fans and perhaps even several club staff members, their stance was vindicated. The SFA was outed as anti-Catholic and more than likely anti-Celtic.

The rest of Scotland, although critical of Dallas email and agreeing with his resignation, refused to believe or even contemplate the idea that the SFA in general was anti-Catholic or anti-Celtic. Opinion now became polarised between the Celtic perspective and the alternative. Quite a few writers and journalists turned on Celtic for their stance and laid the blame for the referee’s strike firmly at Celtic Park.

Celtic remained unrepentant, citing the McDonald and Dallas incidents as evidence of their case.

What we needed going into the new year was a period of calm and perspective to allow all parties to reflect on the events of the last few months. What we got was a series of Old Firm games played in quick succession. Given how explosive these games are at the best of time it wasn’t going to take much to light the blue touch paper this time round.

Enter El Hadji Diouf. Walter Smith signed the Senegalese international on loan during the winter transfer window to bolster his thread bear squad. But Diouf had previous with the Celtic fans after shamefully spitting at them while playing for Liverpool at Celtic Park a few years back. Furious Celtic fans saw the signing as an act of provocation from Rangers. Out of all the players they could have signed, they went for perhaps Celtic fans’ most hated player.

While the first three Old Firm derbies of 2011 passed off relatively peacefully and without considerable incident, familiarity breeds contempt and by the time the Scottish Cup replay fixture came along it all went wrong, as we all know. The shameful events of that night started with Lennon and Diouf exchanging words during the game. It ended with Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist engaged in an ugly confrontation, three Rangers players red carded including Diouf and hundreds of arrests in and around the stadium and city during and after the game.

First Minister Alex Salmond convened a summit to tell the Old Firm in no uncertain terms that their behaviour was totally unacceptable and would not be tolerated. Strathclyde Police, sick of dealing with the aftermath of Old Firm games, even threatened to arrest players on the pitch if it was deemed necessary.

We awaited the punishment dished out to both clubs. Neil Lennon received a four game ban while Ally McCoist got a two match ban for his efforts, although McCoist appealed and the ban was quashed. Rangers players El Hadji Diouf and Madjid Bougherra both sent off for misconduct, received no ban whatsoever and were fined what amounted to token amounts.

Neil Lennon’s lawyer Paul McBride QC couldn’t hide his disgust. “The SFA are tonight officially the laughing stock of world football and they have been shown to be not merely dysfunctional and not merely dishonest but biased because McCoist, who undoubtedly said something that provoked a reaction from Neil Lennon that caused a four-match ban for him, has received no punishment at all.”

It was around this highly charge period of time that the parcel bombs to Lennon, McBride and others were intercepted.

Flash forward to earlier this week and Rangers rout Hearts 4-0 at Ibrox after thrashing Motherwell 5-0 the week before. Interestingly, Hearts Lithuanian owner Vladimir Romanov told club manager Jim Jeffries that key players Marian Kello and Marius Zaliuskas would not be unavailable for the trip to Ibrox. No reason was given publicly.

After the thrashings Rangers dished out to Motherwell and Hearts, Lennon bemoaned the competitiveness of recent Rangers matches. The Celtic manager had expressed his desire for Rangers opponents to be “competitive” and “give Rangers a game” in the run in, but that “there had not been much evidence of that”.

This was picked up by the press as a slur against Hearts integrity and grilled Jambo’s manager Jim Jeffries regarding Lennon’s apparent remarks. Jeffries was not best pleased and explained that his team was not at full strength and the players had tried their best. Lennon claimed he had been “misinterpreted” in “irresponsible” fashion by the press.

All of which brings us back to the disgraceful events which took place at Tynecastle. It is clear that there is a sustained campaign against Neil Lennon and potentially even Celtic as a club and it appears to have a sectarian undercurrent to it. Whether the Hearts fan went for Lennon because of his apparent derogatory comments regarding the clubs level of commitment against Rangers, or whether it was motivated by sectarian hatred is not yet fully known.

Alex Salmond has said that sectarianism will be eliminated in Scottish society. One certainly shares that sentiment but it will take time, perhaps generations to achieve. Meanwhile Neil Lennon is enduring a living nightmare and every effort must be made to apprehend his persecutors.

It looks as though the Police have made a breakthrough with arrests in Ayrshire related to the parcel bombs. Lets hope that this is the first step in the beginning of the end of the intolerance that has been demonstrated in this sad season for Scottish football.

Neil Lennon might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he does not deserve to be attacked and threatened in this shameful fashion.

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