Victim Lennon can help quel the hatred

Neil Lennon was attacked by a supporter during a recent game

Neil Lennon was attacked by a supporter during a recent game

It was Cantona-ish in its execution… even though it was the wrong way round.

But the impact was the same – shock and dismay.

The enigmatic Frenchman shook the world of football with his ‘kung-fu’ attack on a spectator at Crystal Palace in 1995 as he left the field of play having received a red card.

He used his feet to attack a fan and was severely punished for his violent outburst.

But in Scotland on Wednesday night it was a spectator who was the agressor.

Neil Lennon was the subject of the assault by a so-called Hearts fan who managed to side-step security and get close enough to Lennon to strike him before being hauled down by two police officers positioned near the Celtic manager to prevent just such an attack.

It was the last straw for the Lurgan man who kicked out a couple of times at the prone body being held down by the two policemen. Then someone dragged Lennon away as the cops wrestled with the culprit to eventually handcuff him. They lifted him upright and led him out of the Tynecastle stadium to prepare him for court.

Lennon was shouting at the man as he was led away.

For Neil Lennon it was another extreme example of the kind of hatred he has faced up to this season.

Former Celtic player and current TV pundit Andy Walker asked the question: “Why is Neil Lennon so demonised?” That, he said, was the question everyone in Scottish football should be asking.

It’s certainly a question occupying the thoughts of Hearts fan and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond. He said Government could no longer just stand idly by.

The day after the Edinburgh attack a package arrived at Celtic Park in Glasgow addressed to Lennon. It contained a bullet. Earlier in the season, police intercepted parcel bombs addressed to Lennon.

Lennon himself takes succour from the Celtic supporters. On a website the day following the Hearts attack he stated he “does not walk alone.”

But nine years ago he did. A man who had captained the Northern Ireland team received a death threat from loyalists apparently upset about a real or imagined remark attributed to Lennon that one day he would like to play for a united Ireland team.

Lennon made the decision to walk away from international football. And who could blame him?

But watching the Lennon story unfold in August 2002 as Northern Ireland prepared to play Cyprus it was difficult not to recall this had happened before.

Anton Rogan walked alone.

Well, except that I walked with him.

No-one noticed my departure from the international football arena…but I went on my way, disgusted at the sectarian hatred being dished out to a man wearing a green and white shirt for Northern Ireland. A member of the team. On the pitch. Playing for Northern Ireland.

I’d cheered Northern Ireland on from the Spion Kop for years. I heard the Sash being sung by those around me. I come from Ballymoney so I was accustomed to hearing the Sash.

I didn’t like the sectarian songs – couldn’t get my head around the fact that fans were singing this type of bitterness behind Pat Jennings as he stood in goal… yards away from the Kop. It was uncomfortable at times but you sang along when it wasn’t sectarian.

But what I could never understand was the disgraceful attitude to Catholics in the Northern Ireland team who played for Celtic.

Anton Rogan received disgusting abuse as he played for Northern Ireland. Here was a young Catholic footballer who chose to join the likes of Martin O’Neill and Pat Jennings in the Northern Ireland team. Yet he, not O’Neill or Jennings, received dog’s abuse for daring to play for Celtic.

Anton Rogan had been a Distillery player before going to Celtic. He made his debut in 1987. Seventeen caps and five years later he made his final appearance against Lithuania.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Anton Rogan’s international career was a painful experience for him as a player hearing the chants, yells and songs – particularly the language used to decry him for daring to play for Celtic and Northern Ireland.

It may not have resulted in him leaving international football immediately. He tried to play through the foul-mouthed abuse directed at him.

But it was enough to persuade me to leave the international stage. You do not, in my book, boo and berate players in your own team. You may not always appreciate someone’s form, but sectarianism is another matter…

Neil Lennon got the same kind of treatment when playing for Northern Ireland… but then it got much, much worse. A death threat. And according to the police at the time, a death threat that had to be taken seriously.

But this season has seen a renewed campaign of hatred reaching unprecedented levels – with bombs and bullets in the post.

Celtic footballers Neal Lennon

Celtic footballers Neal Lennon

Neil Lennon has sometimes found it difficult to curb his bullish and aggressive behaviour on the sidelines. An example came a few weeks ago after his side held Rangers to a 0-0 score at Ibrox Stadium.

Having managed to shake hands with the opposing management team without incident, Lennon wasted a wonderful opportunity to stay quiet and leave the arena. Instead, he cupped his hands behind his ears and pointed himself in the direction of the Rangers fans.

Later he tried to instruct journalists not to write about this little episode… but to no avail. It had already been screened live on Sky TV. It certainly killed off a little sympathy from the neutral observers. And then there was the earlier unseemly face-to-face confrontation with Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist.

Lennon has publicly asked what it is about him that provokes such extreme reactions from opposing fans. What he did last November at Tynecastle – the very same place he was attacked on Wednesday night – could provide him with an answer.

He was witnessed as a snarling, spitting as well as an effing and blinding type of person who eventually was sent off by the referee – sent packing to the stands. Fans do not forget that sort of stuff.

Lennon regards himself as a high profile Irish Catholic who attracts unwanted attention from people in Scotland who do not like that. But that argument holds little water… given that previous Northern Irish Catholics have flourished at Celtic without attracting the attention of bigots – such as Martin O’Neill, who signed Lennon when he was manager and the aforementioned Anton Rogan who only got his troubles to seek back home in Belfast.

Neil Lennon also enraged Rangers supporters as long ago as 2004 when he was caught by TV cameras spitting on a Rangers scarf at the side of the pitch.

It may have impressed the more loutish elements of Celtic support but Lennon must realise that opposing fans remember such indiscretions for a very long time.

He later suffered an attack on the streets but those who beat him up were subsequently caught and jailed.

But there is no place in sport for fans who want to maim or kill the opposition.

Well, that’s not exactly true when you learn about events in South America where one Columbian defender, Andres Escobar was shot dead in drug capital Medellin apparently for scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup.

And this year a game was abandoned in Bolivia because a knife-wielding fan took exception to an opposition goal as flares and missiles were hurled onto the pitch.

And this season in England there was one incident when League Two side Stevenage Borough put premiership team Newcastle United out of the FA Cup. Fans invaded the pitch and one ran up and punched Stevenage defender Scott Laird – laying him out cold. Laird had gone out with the attacker’s girlfriend and he took the opportunity to let the player know how he felt.

Once when I was in Glasgow during an Old Firm game, a number of Celtic fans told me these were the games they avoided during the season because of the tensions and hatred generated.

They also recognised that football generates great excitement when fans gather in gladiatorial style to chant and sing at each other to create an atmosphere.

Without their opposing songs there would be no spectacle. They make the atmosphere by letting their hair down and behaving in a loud and sometimes vulgar manner for 90 minutes. It’s the highlight of their week to release the tensions of a bad week at work.

Then they go back to work and forget all about it until the next weekend…

Players and managers have a responsibility to make sure sectarian elements do not take control of fans who only want to enjoy the theatre of the game as it is played out in stadiums all around the country.

Hooliganism was a sickness that appears to have been cured and now the game, the Government and the football authorities will seek the help of society to make sure people who spout vile sectarianism and are prepared to kill and maim are removed from the sport enjoyed by so many.

It’s a dangerous development and we must take the steps necessary to make sure Neil Lennon can sit down at the end of the season and feel confident he can remain in the game he loves and that he will be safe from the murderous intentions of bigots.

Northern Ireland’s politicians have surely, with one notable exception, demonstrated there is a way of working together for a better future protected by a new police force that is overcoming the demons of the past.