Celtic star pulls out of match after death threats
THE Celtic footballer Neil Lennon pulled out of a Northern Ireland international friendly match last night after receiving death threats from loyalist paramilitaries.
The Catholic midfielder, who had been due to captain the team in Belfast, was the subject of threats from the Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF).
Lennon, 31, was told by police about the threats shortly after they were made yesterday afternoon, but told the manager, Sammy McIlroy, of his decision to withdraw a couple of hours before the 8pm kick-off.
The footballer ran foul of sections of the Belfast crowd when he signed for Celtic, and was booed at a similar match in the city in February last year.
Death threats appeared on the walls of loyalist areas, including his home town of Lurgan, Co Armagh. One read: "Neil Lennon RIP." Lennon’s family also received death threats three months after his 5.8 million move to Celtic from Leicester in 2000.
The LVF, which has its strongholds in Portadown and Lurgan, was once headed by Billy Wright, who was assassinated in the top-security Maze Prison in December 1997, just months before the Good Friday agreement was forged.
Last night, in a statement, Lennon said: "After close consultation with the footballing authorities and the police service of Northern Ireland, I will not be participating in this evening’s international game.
"I am very disappointed that my desire to play for my country, on my first opportunity to captain my team, has been taken away from me."
The player made arrangements to return to Glasgow while his team-mates were taken to the match venue, Windsor Park. The game finished 0-0 and afterwards, some commentators suggested Lennon may not play for the province again. The former Northern Ireland striker Billy Hamilton, who is on the Irish Football Association’s (IFA) task force to clean up the game in Ulster, said: "Neil Lennon has always shown courage and commitment when he pulled on the Northern Ireland shirt despite what has been shouted at him in the past. He has always given 100 per cent and now I wonder if this is the final straw.
"I would not be surprised if we never saw him play for Northern Ireland again. Who could play with a death threat hanging over them?"
David Bowen, the IFA general secretary, said: " It is a decision he [Lennon] has thought about. As a result of that, he has, for family reasons, decided not to play and we respect that decision."
Mr Bowen said McIlroy and Lennon’s team-mates were "devastated" by the threats. Lennon said earlier in the week that he considered captaining the team a great honour.
The death threats were made in two telephone calls to a BBC newsroom in Belfast, but only the second one contained a codeword recognised by police as having been used to claim previous LVF atrocities.
Jim Boyce, the Football Association of Ireland’s chairman, said: "No-one knows if this is serious or a crank, but I have to respect the player’s views. This is just unbelievable. It is a terrible blight once again on society in Northern Ireland."
A spokesman for Celtic said: "We are very disappointed to learn of the circumstances of Neil’s having to withdraw."
A Strathclyde Police spokeswoman said they had not been asked by Lennon or the club to provide an escort for the star when he returned to the city.
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