Lennon a man more sinned against than sinning
14:15, 17 May 2011
It was an ugly way to end a match and probably an image Scottish football could have done without. One official whispering into another's ear at full-time, and the latter reacting furiously to what was said.
That April spat between Aberdeen manager Craig Brown and his former boss, the Motherwell chairman John Boyle, didn't generate too many headlines. But then there weren't as many cameras at that game as there were at the Scottish Cup tie between Celtic and Rangers a month earlier.
A photo of Celtic manager Neil Lennon snarling back at Rangers assistant Ally McCoist at the final whistle has become the defining image of that match, one which was marred by three red cards for Rangers players. It was, in many ways, par for the course, since media outlets regularly play up the heated rivalry in advance of a game only to express disgust at any unsavoury incidents that might occur afterwards.
The matches are often denigrated but given what we've witnessed between Real Madrid and Barcelona, Blackburn and Manchester United and on the fringes of League of Ireland games of late, Scotland isn't the only place where ill-discipline, intimidation of officials and violence are linked to football. Just as importantly, in a media context, four Clasicos in 18 days showed that familiarity does indeed breed contempt - especially if it's in the media's interest to help fan the flames.
What has happened to Lennon this season has been different, however. Assaults, death threats and bullets and bombs in the post are something that no one should have to reckon with. But so is the argument persistently put forward that the 39-year-old has somehow brought this on himself.
"Astonishing is one word,” Lennon said, when asked what he felt about that attitude at the weekend. “But it tells me a lot about those people who are saying these things - it tells me what their mindset is like and what their views are. It's not a slight on me - I think it's a slight on them."
The idea that he has contributed much to the hostility is ridiculous, considering that this situation has been simmering ever since Lennon moved to Scotland over a decade ago. As a Northern Irish Catholic playing for Celtic, he quickly became a target for abuse from opposition fans. The transfer also led to him being forced to retire from international football in 2002, after earning 40 caps and becoming his national side's captain. For Lennon, death threats aren't a recent phenomenon.
Some argue Lennon's on-field persona has a lot to do with the animosity towards him, yet he was only red carded a handful of times in over 300 appearances for Celtic. As a combative midfielder in the team to break up attacks, he was always likely to get on the nerves of opposition supporters - just like Barry Ferguson, Nacho Novo and Rino Gattuso did at Rangers. But the nature of the vitriol directed at Lennon is more vicious, and the bullets sent this season to two other Celtic players from Northern Ireland suggest it is more sinister.
Lennon has made some mistakes in his first season as manager and he rightly apologised for his sending off at Hearts in November. However, he also had every right to question a bizarre penalty decision in the first Old Firm match of the season that the referee didn't appear to see properly. Likewise, it was only natural that he would express an opinion when Dougie McDonald awarded Celtic a penalty against Dundee United before changing his mind. His Rangers counterpart Walter Smith made similar comments when the same thing happened to his side in the League Cup final.
When, like Lennon, Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho cast similar aspersions on the efforts of other teams against their main rivals, this is often portrayed as a masterful piece of psychology.
And as for Lennon's altercation with McCoist, it's worth pointing out that only three years ago Smith was sent to the stands after a heated touchline row with then Hibs boss Mixu Paatelainen. These things tend to happen when the pressure is on and managers are passionate about their football.
Addressing the Celtic support after their final league match, Lennon said that a lot of people in the game in Scotland needed “to have a good look at themselves in the mirror”. Those remarks were widely interpreted as a pop at the media, and if that was Lennon's main target, then it's hard to argue with him.
Back in 2004, then Celtic manager Martin O'Neill was strongly condemned by sections of the Scottish press for dragging Lennon to the Celtic end at Ibrox after they had lost a tempestuous derby game. When asked a few days later why he had led his sheepish-looking midfielder to salute the fans, O'Neill was unequivocal.
"I applauded the crowd because the support was fantastic - and because Neil Lennon was abused from start to finish, I think I had a right to show some support. He was verbally abused in a racial and sectarian manner."
It says a lot for the state of Scottish football that Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell's comments in the wake of that match are as relevant today as they were seven years ago.
"I am astonished at the reaction in some quarters of the media to events at Ibrox on Saturday,” he said. “Our manager has been on the receiving end of criticism which can only be described as hysterical.
"As he himself said, throughout the game there was an incredible amount of unspeakable abuse directed at Neil Lennon. In today's society no one should have to put up with sectarian abuse of this nature."
Lennon is an expressive character who speaks his mind and that makes for good copy for journalists out to sell papers. But especially considering he has been open about his battle with depression, he deserves better than to have to put up with questions about whether he is responsible for the abuse he has to put up with.
With Smith retiring after winning yet another title with Rangers, Scottish football has lost a brilliant servant who left on his own terms. It would be tragic if another was forced out prematurely.
You can contact Mark Rodden on twitter @MRodden
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