Monday, 29 June 2015

The Comfort Blanket

The Comfort Blanket

The Belfast Telegraph isn’t a newspaper I read much but the article they produced to mark the departure of Neil Lennon from Celtic in May 2014 caught my eye. In it their reporter argues that the demise of Rangers stripped the SPFL of any pretence of competitiveness and for an ambitious young manager like Lennon this was too much. They stated…

Without Rangers in their faces, Celtic's existence has never seemed less urgent, less relevant. Worse, the board clearly realise they can sell marketable players like Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama without any significant impediment to their chances of stockpiling titles. Without Rangers, Celtic lost the will to grow. Lennon came to understand that. He left because to stay would have been professional surrender.’’

In other words the downsizing at Celtic was inhibiting an ambitious young manager from developing a team to challenge in Europe as well as continuing the domination of Scottish football. The article contained some truths but it was remarkable that it didn’t hint at the off field pressures Neil Lennon had to live during his 11 year involvement at Celtic Park. During the 14 years he spent in England with Manchester City, Crewe and Leicester City, he developed into a combative midfielder but led a quiet life off the pitch. All of that changed when he arrived at Celtic in 2000 to join the Martin O’Neil revolution. Lennon’s style of play has always been ‘in your face’ and his total commitment to Celtic’s cause meant he was unlikely to make many friends among the opposing support. That being said, others such as Graham Souness or even Fernando Ricksen, snarled and clattered their way through games without ever receiving the amount of abuse and vitriol which came Lennon’s way.

In stadiums around the country he was abused regularly and loudly by a vociferous minority. During Old Firm games the abuse seemed to reach a crescendo which was both astonishing and appalling in its naked hatred. Graham Spiers writing in the Herald spoke of one match at Ibrox in 2004 with remarkable honesty…

‘’It was an experience which reminded me again of how widespread and malignant bigotry at Ibrox is. From too many mouths to count, people like O’Neil and Neil Lennon the Celtic midfielder, both Catholics from Northern Ireland, were subjected to sustained sectarian abuse throughout the match. It is worth actually reciting these slogans. They ranged from ‘Fenian c*nt’ to ‘Fenian Scumbag’ to, in the case of Lennon, ‘Away and f*ck yourself Lennon ya Fenian Bawbag.’  It was a rotten, ignorant, venom filled atmosphere.’

In fairness the Rangers manager that day, Alex McLeish was also quick to call out the moronic element and is to be commended for saying…

‘You know what, I love football, I love Rangers and I love the passion of our supporters but bigotry is something I detest to my very core and I wish those Rangers supporters who indulge in it would stop embarrassing themselves and our club.’

The abuse Neil Lennon endured on the field of play would be difficult for any human being to deal with but he also lived with that pressure every day in his personal life. He lived openly in Glasgow’s west end and much of the low level, petty abuse he received was never reported in the media. He had good friends who would often chaperone him as he enjoyed a beer on the Byres Road but going out on his own was often problematic. Gordon Strachan once joked that he couldn’t put petrol in the car without some clown bad mouthing him.  Neil Lennon faced a far more serious, and in the end, more sinister level of threat. It has been well documented that he was the victim of assaults or attempted assaults on at least a dozen occasions in Scotland. It has also been well documented that he has been sent bullets and bombs in the post as well as having the road outside his home daubed with sectarian and threatening graffiti. The attitude to the persecution of Neil Lennon by the media and other organisations was appalling. Kevin McKenna wrote at the time…

‘During this time, Lennon was badly let down by every major organisation in Scotland that would normally have been expected to intervene as this extraordinary campaign of personal vilification was being played out before them. Let none be in any doubt about this: Lennon was hated for his religion and for his country of origin. Too many Scottish football writers either chose to ignore what was happening or, worse, tried to justify it by saying that, by dint of his belligerent demeanour, he brought much of it upon himself. They conveniently overlooked the fact that Lennon had an exemplary disciplinary record and never criticised opposing teams or managers. The Scottish government simply chose to look the other way while a migrant worker in Scotland was being racially abused in front of them and the Scottish Football Association refused to intervene.’

The poison which still lingers in the darker corners of Scottish society is not as toxic as it once was but Neil Lennon seemed to tick all the boxes required to become a hate figure to a significant number in our society. Here was a stroppy, combative, Irish Catholic captaining Glasgow Celtic during one of the club’s more successful eras. In a time when Scotland is going through some fundamental changes and old certainties are melting away, some it seems want to cling to outmoded prejudice like a frightened child clutching a comfort blanket.

It was noticeable that when Neil Lennon was sent an explosive device in 2011, so too were former MSP Trish Godman and the late Paul McBride QC. The significance of a politician and leading Lawyer being targeted along with Lennon was clear. They represented the rising status of an increasingly confident and well educated Catholic community in Scotland and that is hard for the brainless minority to deal with. Lennon himself spoke of the pressures he lived under with some candor and stated…

“It does wear you down in the end. Maybe it was the chaos and the madness catching up with me, but I just felt desperately tired. When I was younger I was able to have the energy and courage to get through it. When I was getting bullets through the post and all that. I had good people of intelligence in the background who were looking after me, but in the end I was exhausted emotionally. People wouldn't come out and say my treatment was sectarian. They said I brought it on myself. They hid behind that because they didn't want to admit it but it was sectarian in the stadiums.’’

Of course the actions of a tiny minority can never be construed as the true face of Scotland. As in all lands the majority of people a friendly and reasonable. What Neil Lennon endured here was the responsibility of those idiots who chose to treat another human being in such a despicable way. Theirs is the blame and theirs is the shame, not Scotland’s. We are emerging from a period in Scottish history where old certainties are no more. Ideas of what it is to be a Scot are no longer bound to politics, ethnicity or relgious persuasion. An idea of a national identity based on civic values is emerging and the old cry of ‘we are the people’ is fading as Scots of all ethnic hues rightly say, ‘hold on - we are all the people.’

The haters might not like that but they belong to yesterday and the vast majority of decent Scots of all faiths and none have no time for their irrational and outdated world view. Nelson Mandela was wise indeed when he said after his long years of imprisonment…

’As I walked out the door toward the prison gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.”

There is a lesson in that for us all.