Owen Coyle has described the treatment meted out to Neil Lennon at Tynecastle last weekend as “disgraceful”, but he believes the prospect of further Champions League success could convince the Celtic manager to remain in Scotland.
Lennon felt compelled to leave his seat in the directors’ box early after coins and drink were thrown at him as he watched the League Cup semi-final between Aberdeen and St Johnstone.
Having also been forced to endure a gauntlet of hate on occasion, Coyle is talking from experience. However, he rates Lennon’s experience as worse than what he experienced when crossing the East Lancashire divide between Burnley and Bolton Wanderers.
“The thing that alarmed me was that this was nothing to do with Celtic or Rangers, this wasn’t a game that concerned you, it was watching the opposition,” he said. “Whoever did it is a total idiot and, while it was one incident, it was one far too many.”
“It’s got progressively worse,” the former St Johnstone manager added. “There was a spell after I left [Scotland] when it wasn’t particularly nice between Celtic and Rangers and you’re hoping that it would’ve moved on.”
Coyle is currently out of work after parting ways with Wigan Athletic earlier this season. However, back in 2010 he was very firmly in the spotlight as enemy No 1 when he swapped the managerial post at Burnley for the one at Bolton. On his first return to Turf Moor with Bolton, Coyle was forced to endure what one newspaper described as “ferocious condemnation” from the scorned home supporters. Coyle was accompanied by as many as eight security personnel around the dug-out, who remained in close proximity throughout the Carling Cup tie, which Burnley won 1-0.
Later Coyle said the abuse had not concerned him, and that football is about “heroes and villains”. However, even Coyle believes that whoever abused Lennon at Tynecastle last Saturday went far too far. Although he has only returned twice to Burnley’s ground, on both occasions while on duty with Bolton, he could not imagine being abused at a game that did not involve one of his clubs.
“I’ve got to say what happened there is nothing short of disgraceful,” he said, with reference to Lennon’s Tynecastle experience. “That’s the bottom line. If someone is out doing their job – whatever their job is – then they should be allowed to do it in the relative comfort and enjoyment of going and watching a football match.
“It sends out a horrible message because people will look and say ‘How can that possibly happen in this day and age?’ The sooner the culprits are sorted the better. By all means have your rivalry, enjoy your own club and support your team but don’t be taking it to the level of the other day, which is nothing short of scandalous.”
“I had abuse all through my career as player, coach and manager. But as much as we laugh about it, and footballers have thick skins, it doesn’t make it right. People think they can stand on terraces and abuse.
“I was back at Burnley a few times,” he added. “It sounds daft but, although you hear things before the game starts, when it kicks off you’re focused on the game. You’re not really aware of what’s going on. People tell you afterwards but I’m big enough and ugly enough to deal with whatever comes my way.
Coyle pointed out that he never needed to return to Turf Moor to run the rule over Burnley because he managed to keep Bolton up, while his old club were relegated from the Premier League. “Maybe that’s why I got the stick,” he mused.
“But I was out at games all the time and I’ve never experienced anything like what happened at Tynecastle.”
Nevertheless, Coyle, who turned down the Celtic managerial post following Gordon Strachan’s departure in 2009, senses Lennon might feel as though he still has work to do at the Parkhead club. While Coyle’s own ambitions remains firmly in England – “I love everything I am doing down the road, I’ve had a couple of approaches but they were not right for me,” he said – he believes the draw of European nights at Celtic could convince Lennon there is no better place to be, even given the abuse.
“What will keep Neil Lennon in Scotland is that he wants to improve in the Champions League,” said Coyle. “Maybe he’ll want to win the treble. With the strength Celtic have, he will have an opportunity to do that. But the only person who can answer that is Lenny.
“Just as he was as an outstanding player, Neil will want to manage at the highest level. But he’s been a terrific Glasgow Celtic player, captain and manager and maybe he feels it doesn’t get any better than Glasgow Celtic.
“When they are in full flow on a Champions League nights I don’t think it does get any better than Glasgow Celtic. The difficulty is that the Champions League nights aren’t every week…”