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Neil Lennon - The Bravest Man in Scotland


I would first like to reassure readers that I have not lost my mind and that the title I have chosen is in fact a quote from a recent article by Kevin McKenna. Whether Kevin has lost his mind is something I will leave you to decide for yourselves. It is certainly difficult to imagine that he could have written a more one eyed piece about the controversial, belligerent Lennon than the one which appeared in the Observer on May 25th 2014, but perhaps he’s forgotten much of the Northern Irishman’s contribution to Scottish football. If that is the case then it is only right to remind him.

It was always likely that when Lennon left Celtic after his stint as manager we would see an attempt to suggest he had been driven out. This came almost immediately from the most likely of sources, Phil MacGiollabhain and Angela Haggerty. It was to be expected since they obviously have books to sell which are based on this premise. Stoking up hatred has been their only apparent source of income for several years. If the Irish and Catholics are not in fact being widely persecuted in Scotland then I’m not quite sure what Phil and Angela will do with themselves, so it is a convenient and lucrative myth for them to peddle.

Kevin McKenna is an unlikely ally though, despite his obvious love of Celtic. He has previously written articles ridiculing MacGiollabhain’s attempts to portray the issue of ‘anti Irish racism’ in Scotland as anything other than a minor ill. He has also lampooned the Catholic Church’s spokesman, Peter Kearney, for his attempts to brand the Hokey Cokey as anti-Catholic. So what exactly prompted McKenna to write this shallow drivel on Lennon’s treatment during his time in Scotland? Your guess is as good as mine.

The article ran into problems almost immediately when it described Lennon as a “highly skilful player”. Maradona he was not. He was a dirty player, he was limited in ability, he was a snarling competitor and a combative defensive midfielder. In fact he had footballing qualities which made him naturally unpopular with opposition fans. There was little to admire in Lennon the player, if he wasn’t playing for your team. So let’s perhaps consider that as one reason he wasn’t liked by opposing fans.

McKenna immediately tells us, with absolutely no evidence, that “something other than football rivalry was being expressed” when Lennon became a highly unpopular figure on the pitch. Presumably we are just supposed to take this at face value and accept it as a fact. To make such a statement with no consideration for Lennon’s own behaviour is spectacularly blinkered. Lennon openly spat on a Rangers scarf in an Old Firm game in 2004. He was also seen to call Rangers fans “orange bastards” – a sectarian slur, which someone using it on the street or at a match would now be jailed for. He was regularly inflammatory and almost always found himself at the centre of on field skirmishes with players from many Scottish teams. I, in common with many Scottish football fans, disliked Neil Lennon as a player and it was nothing to do with his religion or where he was from.

McKenna tells us that Lennon never had any issues in his playing career in England. I have no idea if this is the case but he would hardly be unique amongst players who find themselves courting more controversy once they are thrust into the limelight of the Old Firm and Glasgow. I don’t recall Nacho Novo getting many death threats in Dundee. I’m pretty sure Fernando Ricksen didn’t have bullets sent to him by rival fans when he played in Holland. I suspect neither were told they would be killed by the IRA before they arrived in Glasgow.

We are told by McKenna that, during Old Firm games, the abuse towards Lennon, presumably from Rangers fans, was “almost unbearable”. What McKenna fails to mention is that Lennon was so universally disliked that his own father refused to attend Parkhead due to abuse from the stands from Celtic fans. Are we to believe that they were abusing him because of some anti-Irish sentiment? Lennon was also guilty of several instances of play-acting as a player, diving to win penalties and feigning a head-butt to get Juanjo of Inverness Caley sent off.

Off the field Lennon was found to have cheated on his partner with another woman while she was pregnant. He then sent a string of abusive text messages to the other woman, who he also got pregnant. Again, are we supposed to discount Lennon’s own behaviour as a reason for his widespread dislike amongst fans? Is it really more likely that fans of every club in Scotland were caught up in anti-Irish sentiment rather than a simple dislike for a confrontational, controversial, unpleasant and often contemptible public figure?

McKenna is of course right to bring up some of the treatment dished out to Lennon. The parcel bomb sent to him by two lunatics was a disgusting act, totally inexcusable and also likely sectarian in nature, but that reflects on those individuals and not Scottish society as a whole. They were correctly jailed for five years each. Assaults and death threats are also not acceptable, but neither are they unique to Lennon. In fact, one of the incidents that McKenna cites is a perfect example of why attempting to attribute the treatment of Lennon to race, nationality or religion is such a stupid thing to do in the absence of any evidence to back it up.

When Lennon was attacked by a Hearts fan, pitch side, during a game at Tynecastle, such was the clamour to attribute it to sectarianism, or the de rigueur ‘anti Irish racism’, that the charges overreached and a verdict of not proven was handed down. Had the assailant been charged with simple assault he would have been found guilty, but because it was Lennon it had to be something more sinister than a drunken idiot who disliked him.

As Celtic manager, Lennon consistently courted controversy. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the referee strike in Scottish football in 2010 when he spent a full month attacking three of the more senior referees in Scotland via the press. He was at one point up on no fewer than three simultaneous SFA charges for his behaviour, all merited and for which, despite McKenna’s claims of SFA bias against Lennon, he received minimal punishment. There was a point at which it seemed inconceivable that Lennon’s team could drop points unless a referee was responsible. He was also involved in several inflammatory gestures to Rangers fans during Old Firm games as a manager and his decision to square up to Ally McCoist after one such game summed him up perfectly. The image of Lennon’s face, contorted with rage and spitting phlegm was not a foreign one to Scottish football fans. 

Also these claims about Lennon being treated differently because of his religion or nationality are disproved by the treatment of others in similar positions. Lennon himself has played this card several times as both a player and manager. He has consistently looked to excuse his own behaviour and role in the incidents which have blighted his time in Scotland. He was backed up in this victim mentality by Martin O’Neil but curiously the former Celtic manager never had similar problems himself, despite an identical background. Anton Rogan, a Celtic fullback in the 80s, again with a similar background, also didn’t provoke the same reaction as Lennon and didn’t feel the need to quit the Northern Irish team after signing for Celtic.

Lennon has never attempted to distance himself, as a manager or player, from the Irish Republican elements which surround Celtic both in the stands and more recently in the dressing room. Lennon was pictured attending pro IRA band nights with Celtic player Anthony Stokes. He has consistently backed the Green Brigade who have been instrumental in promoting the IRA in the stands at Parkhead. He was also caught up in a land deal that went wrong with an associate who was accused of laundering money for the IRA. That Stokes, in particular, has been tolerated in the dressing room, despite frequent issues with outward support for terrorism and the IRA, shows the mind-set of Lennon.

Kevin McKenna is wrong. Neil Lennon is not the bravest man in Scotland. He is a man who either completely failed to realise the responsibilities he had when he played and managed Celtic or who didn’t care about them. He is someone who courted controversy either deliberately or through his own stupidity. He is someone who received some outrageous treatment that nobody can defend but who did nothing until very recently to alter his behaviour and discourage the few idiots who treated him that way. It could be argued that the image he portrayed in Scottish football was not conducive to his desired move south and that he himself latterly acknowledged the need to try to change it. It is very unlikely that Lennon’s behaviour in Scotland, facilitated by the club he played for and managed, would be acceptable in England. Scottish football will be a better place without him.