There’s only one Neil Lennon’, the words that reverberated around Paradise on many occasions over the past two decades, they could be accompanied by the moving tribute, ‘Something Inside so strong’, especially after the many violent assaults on him on and off the field, Neil Lennon is an enigma of sorts, the wee red-headed guy from Lurgan, a former minor Gaelic player with Armagh, a teenage prodigy as a soccer player, an established footballer in the English Premier League and then a move which was his destiny, as player and manager with Celtic, there are only a few things that are certain in life and the match between Neil Lennon and Celtic was one of them.
Lennon was born in June ‘71 in the midst of street turmoil and just 6 weeks before Internment was introduced, there were daily riots in the republican Kilwilkie Estate near where Lennon grew up, like everywhere in the 6 counties Lurgan is a divided town with a population of 25,000, both Celtic and Rangers have supporters clubs in the town with strong travelling support to games in Glasgow, Neil would have grown up in that environment, he came from an ordinary working-class family and never got involved in any of the ‘extracurricular activity’ that was going on all around him.
He loved football, both soccer and GAA, at 15 word was out that a talented young prospect was playing for the local Lurgan Celtic Boys club, Lennon was signed for Glenavon who were based in the town but he only made 2 appearances for the Irish league club before being picked up by Manchester City, it was a dream move for a 16-year-old but like many a young Irish footballer with stars in their eyes heading across to England it was a difficult time at City and he only made one appearance before moving to Crewe Alexandra in 1990, there he found his feet under Dario O Grady, played over 180 games scoring 15 goals, he was now established in English football! Coincidentally Lennon was still playing Gaelic football and played in the ‘89 All Ireland Minor final as Armagh lost to Derry.
After 6 years at Crewe, he was transferred to Leicester where he struck up a relationship which would define his football career, his mentor and fellow ‘nordie’ Martin O’Neill would propel Lennon to become his main man for the next decade. In their 4 years at Leicester O’Neill and Lennon brought them back to the Premier, won 2 League cups and finished 4th in the league in their final season.
Lennon played over 170 times for Leicester scoring 6 goals having morphed into a tough-tackling holding midfielder, he also started playing for the North of Ireland International team, playing 40 times before serious controversy curtailed his time at Windsor Park. In the summer of 2000 at the start of the new Millennium events would overtake both O’Neill and Lennon and spark off the most dramatic period of their careers.
Leicester City were now a top 6 team in the Premier, they had been bought over by foreign hedge fund merchants like most English clubs, there was serious money being pumped into the club and they rebuilt the stadium to embrace the modern era, Sky were pouring billions into the EPL which attracted every mercenary in football across Europe, it was the place to be, but there was one place that held an attraction which all the money in the EPL could not compete with, 300 miles from Leicester via the A50 the attraction of Glasgow Celtic was to prove a tantalising ‘offer they couldn’t refuse’ as Marlon Brando (Don Corleone) mumbled in the Godfather, firstly Martin O’Neill left Leicester to take over at Celtic.
The Directors at Leicester couldn’t believe that O’Neill would leave a Premier club for a team in Scotland, they thought the nonsense which exists in English football re Scotland would prevail, they didn’t understand the attraction of Celtic especially to an Irishman, the size of the club, the history, 61,000 stadium, the worldwide support of the Irish and Scottish diaspora, when O’Neill tipped his glasses back on his forehead and declared, ‘my Dad told me if Celtic ever came calling I should walk to Parkhead to take up the offer’, Leicester, a relatively small club in the East Midlands, understood then they had no chance of keeping O’Neill!
Almost immediately O’Neill starting building a new team, Sutton, Myalby, Thompson, Bobo Balde, Hartson, add in a fit-again Henrik Larrson after a horrific injury, and he gave debuts to a young Liam Miller and Aiden McGeady, it was the makings of a great team but there was one player vital to O’Neill’s plans, the wee ginger midfielder he had left behind at Leicester, Neil Lennon was the final piece in the jigsaw, Leicester again proved difficult to deal with but O’Neill persisted and Lennon told Leicester he was going to Celtic, ‘it’s a dream come true’, Celtic paid almost £6m for the fiery redhead, it was worth every penny for what Lennon gave to Celtic over the last 20 years.
Celtic at the time were going through one of the worst periods in their long and illustrious history, they had only won a handful of league titles since 1974 and just one in the previous 12 sons as Rangers ruled the roost, European campaigns usually consisted of early round exits and at a club like Celtic with a massive European tradition it was difficult times, in fact in the early 90’s the club almost went to the wall, just an hour from bankruptcy before Scottish Canadian Celtic fan Fergus McCann bailed out the club to the tune of £7m and raised a further £14m in the most successful share issue in British football, he then rebuilt the new 61,000 stadium and sold 53,000 Season tickets, the highest in Britain.
He also brought in billionaire Irish financier Dermot Desmond, DD ploughed in another £4m, on and off the field the club were in good hands, in the technical area the prowling Martin O’Neill exuded the feeling of a Midas touch and then the arrival of Lennon, possibly a poor man’s Keano, but still an inspired addition, and the jigsaw was complete, the Glasgow goldfish bowl was just about to welcome a piranha and there was only room for one predator.
In September 2000 Celtic hosted champions Rangers at Parkhead in Martin O’Neill’s first ‘Old Firm’ game, Celtic fans weren’t overly confident, Rangers had dominated for over a decade, 11 titles in 12 seasons, no matter how good Celtic were, and they had some great teams over the years, Di Canio, Cadette & Van Hooijdonk, but they just couldn’t break the Rangers vice-like grip, alright we all know now the Ibrox club financed the era through cheating, financial impropriety, tax scams, all allowed them to sign the best players, Laudrup, Gazza, Butcher, De Boer etc, it was all a sham which came back to haunt them but at the time their dominance was demoralising to Celtic.
That day in September was the beginning of the end for Rangers, Celtic won 6-2 and things would never be the same again, the image of O’Neill almost leaping over the dugout celebrating personified the moment, Paradise was in heaven, over the first two decades of the new Millennium Celtic would lift 15 out of 20 titles and throw in 10 Scottish cups and a great journey to the UEFA final in Seville in ‘03, it’s been a magical time to be a Celtic fan, there are 21-year-old’s now who don’t know anything else but success and therein lies part of the problem for Lennon.
Martin O’Neill had five great years at Celtic before leaving to look after his wife who had succumbed to cancer but survived, he was followed by Gordon Strachan who made Lennon his Captain and the success continued, league titles and extended runs in the Champions League, great victories over Liverpool, Man U, Juve, Ajax, Lyon, AC Milan et al in Europe as Paradise became a fortress, Neil Lennon had become the pivotal figure in the Celtic team but it would come at a price.
The first sign of bigotry and hatred for the Lurgan man was a few years after signing for Celtic, it wasn’t in Glasgow but nearer home in Belfast, as he prepared to play in an international game he received death threats from NI fans who in reality were Linfield and Rangers supporters, Lennon who was Captain of NI immediately decided to quit and never played for them again.
A year later in ‘03 two Rangers supporting students attacked him in the West End which is the Ballsbridge of Glasgow, their time in academia didn’t cure their bigotry! That soon followed with a road rage attack on the M8, FFS, a motorway through Glasgow and some bigoted headbanger tried to ram him.
Five years later he was beaten unconscious after leaving a club, both the sectarian bigots who attacked him were later jailed. On another occasion Lennon turned the tables on would-be attackers, he was stopped at traffic lights in Partick when the occupants of another car started shouting sectarian obscenities at him, with the lights still red Lennon jumped out and battered two of the foul-mouthed scum, they brought Lennon to court but the judge threw it out, poetic justice!
Worse was to come, in the meantime, Lennon had hung up his boots and returned to Celtic as Manager, the bigots found this even harder to stomach. In March 2011 Glasgow ‘polis’ put Lennon’s house under 24 hour protection after threats to his life, FB warriors went into overdrive threatening him with disgusting sectarian vitriol, bullets were sent to his office at Parkhead and then primed explosive devices destined for Lennon and two prominent businessmen and Celtic fans were intercepted by the ‘polis’, it was beyond comprehension, and not finished yet.
In May the same year Lennon was attacked in the technical area by a Hearts fan during a match in Edinburgh, Lennon paradoxically handed out a bit of community justice and suggesting his attacker was treated leniently, it went to court but the bigoted hoodie thug was found not guilty despite 16,000 in the stadium witnessing the incident and millions on Sky, it suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong in Scottish society, an undercurrent of sectarian bigotry even worse than Belfast, and excused by the establishment and media who not surprisingly have suggested that Lennon brought a lot of the trouble on himself?
Amidst all the aggro Lennon received, he had one wonderful night in Glasgow when Celtic defeated the greatest team in world football, Barcelona, 2-1 in a night of unimaginable atmosphere and tension on the 125th anniversary of the founding of the club by Sligo’s Brother Walfrid in the Calton, as George Hamilton said in commentary, ‘there’s just nowhere like it, Celtic have come a long way’!
But the crux of the problem in Scotland is an official denial of a sectarian problem, the Irish are the largest ethnic community there but the Scottish Government refuse to recognise that fact, everyone and his dog know that when Lennon is attacked it’s because he is an Irish catholic from Armagh and proud of that and doesn’t take any prisoners if under attack, physically and literally, but the media will portray the attacks as him being that fiery redhead who gets up people’s noses, it’s a mentality which allows the singing at Ibrox of anti-Irish xenophobic diatribes like ‘the Famine is over why don’t you go home’, or the symbolic throwing of spuds onto the pitch or referring to someone as a ‘fenian bastard’, if that’s acceptable in society then it’s not difficult to understand what Lennon has faced over two decades.
If he was black or gay it would be racist or homophobic but an Irish catholic from Armagh was fair game, Lennon played in England for years and it never happened, he played for NI for years and it never happened until he signed for Celtic, and it didn’t just happen at Ibrox and Windsor, at most grounds in Scotland he came under attack as did Aiden McGeady after he declared for the Republic, it wasn’t football banter as the media would have us believe, it was pure sectarian xenophobic anti Irish bigotry and incredibly it still happens in the 21st century.
Neil Lennon is a Celtic icon, he has won 10 league titles and Scottish cups as a player and manager, he has also suffered depression, attacks both physical and verbal in almost 20 years involved with Celtic, as he approached the end game, the unfortunate thing was that some Celtic fans turned against him because he has failed to deliver the iconic 10 in a row, it’s very unfair for a man who has delivered so much for the club, but it’s just football, nothing lasts forever as Rangers found out in ‘98, Liverpool in the ‘80’s, Man U in the noughties or indeed as the Dubs will find out in the next few years, Russian communism, Hitler’s Reich, Stormont, the Roman, Habsburg, Ottoman and British empires, Stalin, Thatcher and the Donald, everything comes to an end just as the covid virus will someday!
The vultures circled over Parkhead as the final chapter in the Lennon and Celtic story concluded, suggestions that Rafa Benitez the former Real Madrid, Milan and Liverpool manager will take over from Lennon, whether the Celtic job will mean the same to Rafa as it did to Neil is debatable but if successful that won’t be a problem.
Lennon deserves respect for everything he has achieved at Celtic, it’s a special club, part of the Irish-Scottish social history of the last 150 years since famine times, the Derry overnight boat to the Broomielaw in Glasgow brought thousands of Donegal people to a new life in a different country, like most Donegal people I had Aunts, Uncles and cousins domiciled throughout greater Glasgow and Bute, the Irish diaspora created Celtic, Neil Lennon followed Willie Maley, Patsy Gallacher, Sean Fallon, Charlie Tully, big Packie, Martin O’Neill, Aiden McGeady, Dermot Desmond, all part of the Celtic story, none literally bled for the club like Lennon.
Back in ‘03 after Seville we met Neil at a Celtic dinner and golf classic in Galway, it was just after the first physical attacks on him, I said to him, ‘you’re getting a hard time in Glasgow’, his reply while maybe with a little hyperbole was classic Lennon, ‘doesn’t bother me, if they cut me in half I’ll bleed green’, that’s Neil Lennon, thanks for the memories!
Paddy McMenamin was born in Belfast with Donegal and Tyrone parents. He spent the 70’s in Long Kesh. He has been going to Paradise since the Benfica game in Nov. 1969. He lived in Donegal for 30 years but now lives in Galway. He returned to University at 50 and became a secondary school teacher of history and English.
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