They once got a special salute from him, and he has praised their undoubted contribution to making Parkhead a louder, brighter place, but today Celtic manager Neil Lennon turned his considerable ire on the Green Brigade, the so-called Ultra wing of the club’s support.
Lennon called them liberty takers, self-indulgent, unrepresentative, tarnishers of Celtic’s reputation, and perhaps the most damning indictment of all, spoilers of the atmosphere at Tuesday night’s Champions League match against AC Milan.
The massive banner comparing and contrasting Bobby Sands, the MP and IRA activist who died after a hunger strike in 1981, and Sir William Wallace, the Scottish patriot executed for treason in England in 1305, shattered Lennon the second he saw the Green Brigade hoist it inside Celtic Park.
“It knocked the stuffing out of me for about five or ten minutes,” said Lennon yesterday, his face visibly downcast as he spoke. “When I saw it, my heart sank. I think it affected the atmosphere in the stadium. I think there was a lot of head-scratching from other quarters of the stadium.”
The Green Brigade, which operates anonymously and has no named spokesperson, has issued a statement defending their actions, indicating that they were making a protest against the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act passed by the SNP Government.
Lennon wasn’t buying that: “I understand that they have maybe legitimate reasons to complain about things or make statements about things, but Tuesday night was not the time or the place. We don’t know the next time we will be in the Champions League so the game should have been a celebration rather than a political protest by one section of the support.”
World and European governing bodies Fifa and Uefa explicitly ban protests of a political nature inside stadia. Earlier this month Uefa fined Ajax Amsterdam £21,000 for an offensive banner raised by the Dutch side’s own Ultras during their home match against Celtic – it read ‘Fenian bastards.’
Celtic will almost certainly be fined by Uefa, though having already paid a fine for a previous banner, the club could now be banned from European competition or have parts of Celtic Park closed. Celtic are also under investigation by the SPFL over another political banner raised by the Green Brigade.
Lennon cannot understand why the Green Brigade went ahead with their latest banner, not least because they had assured Celtic that they would make no such political protests. “It was totally unnecessary,” said Lennon. “I think the club are quite sympathetic at times to their points of view but they assured us that there wouldn’t be any political connotations on the banners and that proved not to be the case.”
Lennon indicated his personal disappointment: “Do I personally feel let down? Yes, because I think it’s tarnished the reputation of the club. When I came in, I wanted to bring the club together again, and I think the players have done that. We have had great success in the last three or four years. I don’t think the club has been in a better position in a long, long time. In really difficult times financially, we’re really robust. That’s not easy in this day and age. We’re solid for the future.
“We can’t do any more and yet people still want to complain. I understand that they’re not happy about some parts of the bill (Act) but Tuesday night was not the time and the place to do that. They really showed a case of self-indulgence the other night. We don’t know who these people are. I think some of our staff do, but I certainly don’t.
“I did offer them the chance to come and see us and speak to us to ask what they wanted or how we could help them, but that never materialised. Yet they do things through social media or statements through their website. But nobody seems to put a name to it.”
Lennon does not regret his special salute to them with the SPL trophy 18 months ago: “That was for all their support they’d given me and for the atmosphere they brought to the ground. I don’t regret doing it at all. But they should have regrets about Tuesday night. This was the Champions League. I walked out to hear the music and take in the atmosphere which has been brilliant. But then I end up standing looking at that banner asking ‘why?’ You could feel it, sense it around the stadium. There was definitely an air of a lot of fans being subdued.
“The Green Brigade don’t represent the vast majority of the Celtic fans’ voices. We were given assurances the banners would be Celtic-related. They feel they are Celtic-related but I think the majority of people – the board and everyone else – would say ‘sorry, that’s not the case – you’ve taken liberties here.
“Celtic Park is not a place to be making political statements. There are many places you can do that. We are here for the football. The fans were there on Tuesday night for the football.”
Unfortunately for Lennon and for Celtic, a few of those fans were there for other reasons.