Neil Lennon has experienced a turbulent first full season in charge of Celtic. It seems barely a week has passed without him appearing in the headlines: There was his bust-up with a fourth official in November at Tynecastle which resulted in a four match suspension; there was his fight with Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist after a Scottish cup match in March, which also resulted in a four match suspension; there was the out of court settlement he reached with the Bank of Ireland in January after acompany of which he was a director defaulted on a 3.7 million Euro loan; and finally we have the attacks and threats made on Lennon’s person which has resulted in police putting him under 24 hour protection. Multiple packages have been intercepted by Royal Mail, including parcel bombs and ammunition. Most recently, on May 11, a Hearts fan attacked Lennon in his technical area.
These events have been met with almost unanimous outcry against the perpetrators. Football often excites passion in even the more apathetic Scot, and the Glaswegian derby of Rangers versus Celtic is amongst the most hotly contested and passionate derbies in the world. I know a Rangers fan who is physically sick the morning of each ‘Old Firm’ game, such is the tension leading up to them. But why is Neil Lennon being targeted in such a way? What is it about him that makes him such a hate figure?
That Neil Lennon is an abrasive figure on the pitch and touchline is not under much doubt. That there is a historic Protestant/Catholic divide behind the Old Firm games is known to even those ignorant of many footballing issues. Neil Lennon is Northern Irish, Catholic, and formerly played for Celtic. Yet Martin O’ Neill, the Northern Irish Catholic, never experienced such abuse during his five year tenure at Celtic from 2000-2005. O’Neill is a far more introspective and genial man, yet a difference in personality cannot be the sole reason.
Neil Lennon has been experiencing death threats throughout his playing career, having to pull out of an international against Cyprus in 2002 because of it. The issue of sectarianism in both Scotland and Ireland is larger than football. But it is during these sporting events that it is most visible. Lawrence McIntyre, the head of safety for Rangers FC has described this phenomenon as “a 90 minute bigot”. Yet these targeted attacks suggest it is something more sinister and organised than ignorant fans at a stadium.
What can be done? Those who point to Lennon’s fiery nature as the root of his problems are clearly misguided. Whilst many may not approve of some of his actions, they clearly do not warrant this response. Can we play Celtic games behind closed doors? Unlikely, football, as much as it pains me to say it, is a business, and the SFA can ill-afford the loss in gate receipts. The only answer is education. Both Rangers and Celtic have anti-sectarian campaigns (Follow with Pride, and Bhoys against Bigotry, as well as the cross club Sense over Sectarianism). These campaigns need to do more. It is a sorry summary of Scottish football in which an exciting season that went down to the final day will be remembered for these off-field events.