HE WAS an aggressive midfield player in his day, but then this was his job. Neil Lennon yesterday questioned why he continues to be portrayed as a street-fighter figure six days after he was forced to leave his seat while watching the League Cup semi-final clash between Aberdeen and St Johnstone.
It is six years since he retired as a player, and even then Lennon does not believe that his playing style was overly confrontational. Some commentators have employed the ‘love to hate’ phrase when pondering the reason for the Celtic manager continuing to be targeted by opposition supporters, even on days such as last week when his own team were not even involved in the match he was watching. It has been suggested that this antipathy is a hangover from his days as a combatant midfielder. However, Lennon struggles to understand why this should be the case. And he is particularly agitated by those who claim he is the sort of person who attracts trouble.
“Because it’s me then a lot of people tend to wash it off and say: ‘He can handle it’,” he pointed out yesterday, during an emotional pre-match briefing prior to today’s Scottish Cup clash with Aberdeen. “I can handle it, but I shouldn’t have to.
“I’m sitting there at the game last week, a coin whizzes past, could’ve hit me in the eye. Am I big enough to take that? Yes, but should I take it? No.”
“I’m not putting up with people, commentators on the radio, saying ‘he can stand up for himself’,” he added. “I certainly can. Can they? They are not walking in my shoes. They are portraying me to be something that I’m not. This street fighter … Yes, I can handle myself, but I’m not a street fighter. It’s hard to undo that. I’ve tried. For over a year I’ve been staying away from flash-points and controversy.
“I wasn’t a thug on the pitch,” he continued. “Look at my disciplinary record, look at my games, I never elbowed anyone, never two-footed anyone, never cheated in a game. So this thug persona is nonsense. It makes me angry. I don’t know where it’s come from. But people believe what they want to believe and they don’t look at the facts.
“The facts are I wasn’t anywhere near that type of person on the pitch at all.”
If there is any form of relief to be taken from this latest lamentable episode in Lennon’s life in Scotland is that he is certain there was no sectarian element to the attack, which occurred while he was sitting watching the game in the Tynecastle directors’ box. The Celtic manager fleshed out the details yesterday, on the eve of a Scottish Cup fifth-round tie with Aberdeen that should have been the only thing worth talking about yesterday. Of course, it wasn’t, although with another rowdy throng of Aberdeen supporters set to fill the away section at Celtic Park this afternoon, there was at least an element of topicality as Lennon reflected on another trying few days. After yesterday’s pre-match briefing, he was due to speak to fiscal representatives who are handling an investigation into the matter.
Lennon described the incident where a coin fizzed past his ear as “alarming”, and there was, he noted, no question at whom it was aimed. “I’m sitting next to [Hearts assistant manager] Billy Brown and it certainly wasn’t aimed at him,” he said. “We were going to go at half-time but the stewards had moved us to the other seats. The drink came over after the third goal. I’ve said it’s drink-fuelled and I’m guessing it’s drink-fuelled.”
While he was careful to disassociate last weekend’s drama from the sectarian-fuelled abuse he has attracted elsewhere, he was sure about one thing. His troubles such as the death threat received prior to a Northern Ireland international match only started after he signed for Celtic. “Certainly I had no things happen to me off the field in 14 years playing in England,” he reflected. “So, again, that’s the association with being at Celtic. And there’s no question… you can’t bury your head in the sand. Over the years there’s been a huge sectarian element to what went on. I’m not saying last week was sectarian. It wasn’t. I don’t recall any sectarian abuse being aimed at me. The only thing that was aimed at me was coin and drinks.”
The condemnation has been nowhere near enough, believes Lennon. Rather than focus on the miscreants, his perceived pugnaciousness has returned to the top of the agenda.
“I have been feeling aggrieved, especially at the way I’ve been portrayed by some people and the way I think I’m treated,” he stressed. “I think there’s a total imbalance to the way I’m treated and the way other people, personalities in the game or celebrities in the game, are treated.”
It won’t, however, encourage him to walk away from Celtic Park. “It’s a lot to give up,” he said.
Peter Lawwell, speaking at Celtic Park yesterday as the club revealed their half-year accounts, was inevitably quizzed on Lennon’s future. Asked how he would feel if his manager decided to up sticks because of the abuse, the Celtic chief executive said: “That’s a very personal thing and I don’t think you could challenge that. What he’s put up with is for four years now, and it’s a very personal opinion and view so how could you challenge someone’s view on that?”
Lawwell said that Celtic have “a duty and responsibility to protect Neil” and admitted that the manager’s minder might be once again given a more permanent role. “He doesn’t follow him around everyday but he might have to now,” he added. “His life is not his own and Neil has had to put up with things that no manager in Scottish football has had to contend with.”
Lennon seemed genuinely enthused by the prospect of a visit from Aberdeen, who are the last team to score against Celtic in a domestic game, way back in November. He thanked Derek McInnes, his opposite number, for his own quick condemnation of the culprits at Tynecastle last weekend.
“I think he’s doing a terrific job and I’ve got great time for Aberdeen as a club,” said Lennon. “I don’t apportion any blame to them. The clubs, Aberdeen and Celtic, have a good relationship. This is an isolated incident as far as
Aberdeen are concerned. I actually felt the atmosphere they created last week was one of the best I’ve seen outwith Celtic and Rangers. It really spooked St Johnstone.”
The involvement of a resurgent Aberdeen means today’s lunchtime televised clash is being eagerly awaited by many. Celtic are expected to be handed a stiff test by a side they have not beaten in the Scottish Cup at home since the early Fifties. Another point of interest is the anticipated debut of new signing Leigh Griffiths, who Scott Brown – the Celtic skipper and Griffiths’ new part-time chauffeur each day from Edinburgh – confirmed has been “firing on all cylinders in training”. Lennon corroborated this. “He is itching to play,” the manager said.