The sad spectre of sectarianism in sport

THE death threat which caused Neil Lennon, the Northern Ireland footballer, to pull out of last night’s international against Cyprus is not the first time the player’s career has been affected by sectarian hatred.

The Celtic midfielder was also the subject of death threats before a Northern Ireland international in February 2001, and, subsequent to that match against Norway - in which he was substituted at half-time - further abuse was posted on a fans’ website.

Lennon is a Catholic from the mainly nationalist town of Lurgan, in County Armagh, but he played more than 30 times for Northern Ireland before being targeted by loyalist extremists among what should have been his own supporters.

It was only after joining Celtic from Leicester City at the end of 2000 that the player, now 31, was singled out for attention, because the Glasgow club is more closely associated to the Republic of Ireland than Northern Ireland.

Two months after his move to Glasgow, in the build-up to the Norway match, graffiti appeared in the province reading "Neil Lennon RIP".

Lennon played in the match after receiving the support of his manager and fellow-players as well as many messages of support from fans but, while some in the crowd at Windsor Park, Belfast, cheered his every move, the jeering was just as vocal.

Lennon left the ground soon after being substituted, but his manager, Sammy McIlroy, insisted he would be back to play for his country, and claimed he had planned to take the player off at the break. "I’ve heard worse, and there were cheers and boos," said McIlroy. "Hopefully it is just a hoax and was done after a few drinks and someone got carried away."

The incident was an embarrassment for the Irish Football Association (IFA), whose campaign slogan of "Football 1 Sectarianism 0" appeared woefully optimistic. Days later, an anonymous user of a Rangers fans’ website posted the message "Hang Neil Lennon", and although swiftly removed by the site’s administrators, it proved that, contrary to McIlroy’s suggestion, it was not just a matter of someone getting carried away.

McIlroy was at least proven correct when he suggested Lennon would turn out for his country again. After consulting his family, Lennon played the following month at home to the Czech Republic. This time, there was a victory of sorts for the IFA, as the player was applauded on to the pitch by the majority of the 10,400 crowd.

"They were a great crowd and it was a great reception," Lennon said after his team’s 1-0 defeat. "That’s the way football in Northern Ireland should be."

The IFA had previously vowed to ban anyone who shouted sectarian abuse at Lennon, and before the match had distributed cards with the slogan "give bigotry the red card".

Although others, such as the former Celtic defender Anton Rogan, have also been booed while on duty for Northern Ireland, Lennon’s profile has been consistently higher.

A well-publicised mishap on a night out in Glasgow, for instance, left him with a head wound, and his white hair makes him stand out on the field and in a crowd.

A tenacious tackler with a willingness to be involved in the thick of the action, he is the sort of player unlikely ever to be loved by fans of opposing clubs. Now, once more, he has been subjected to the hatred of fans of the country for which he has given his all since making his debut eight years ago.

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