CELTIC manager Neil Lennon believes his club’s hardline stance against supporters involved in last Friday night’s crowd disorder at Fir Park was the inevitable consequence of what he describes as the “powder keg” atmosphere created by the Green Brigade group of fans.
Following the scenes in Motherwell where flares and smoke bombs were set off and dozens of seats vandalised in the south stand occupied by the visiting support, Celtic took firm action on Monday. Provisional suspensions were issued to 128 fans alleged to have been party to the Fir Park trouble, while 250 season ticket holders from Section 111 at Celtic Park which houses the Green Brigade are being relocated.
Lennon has expressed his dismay at the developments, having in the past commended the Green Brigade for their part in improving the matchday atmosphere at Parkhead. When his team clinched their first SPL title under his guidance in 2012, Lennon made a point of taking the trophy and holding it up towards Section 111 in gratitude.
But he is fully supportive of the measures taken by the Celtic board, insisting they had been left with no option but to act punitively.
“The club has made its stance pretty clear and there was an air of inevitability about it,” said Lennon. “There have been repeated warnings about the behaviour and the club was put in a corner and had to react. It has done so swiftly.
“It has dominated the headlines in the last few days, rightly or wrongly, rather than the performance of the team in winning 5-0 at Motherwell.
“It’s very disappointing, because they [the Green Brigade] have added something spectacular at times to the stadium in terms of atmosphere.
“But, in the last two or three years, you’ve felt a change in the atmosphere at times. It was something I’ve not experienced before in my time here. I don’t know what the right word would be – it’s been a sort of powder keg, almost, in the wrong way.
“For some of them, Celtic seem to have become a secondary element when it comes to the football. You don’t like to see that. You felt an atmosphere being generated at times which had an edge to it.
“I don’t like to see flares and I don’t like seeing smoke bombs. I don’t think they bring anything to the game and, obviously, the damage done at Fir Park is not like us.
“Will it take something as extreme as someone getting hurt to stop people bringing the flares and smoke bombs into games? I don’t know. I don’t see what purpose they serve.”
Lennon was speaking on arrival in Barcelona where Celtic will complete their Champions League campaign at the Nou Camp tonight. But even the build-up to that fixture will be clouded by today’s Uefa disciplinary hearing into the controversial banner depicting William Wallace and Bobby Sands which was held up by the Green Brigade just before kick-off at the AC Milan game two weeks ago.
It leaves Celtic facing the likelihood of a seventh fine from Uefa since 2007 for improper conduct among their supporters.
“How many times does the club have to go to Uefa?” added Lennon. “How many times does the club have to apologise on behalf of certain sections of supporters? It’s not fair on the majority we have, who are magnificent. It’s not right. It’s just this little element that seems to be spoiling that reputation at the minute.”
Lennon is hopeful the trip to Barcelona will pass without any further negative publicity involving Celtic supporters.
“I’m pretty confident that they will be fine here,” he said. “You would hope they will take it on board.
“At times, I am the spokesman for the club and I have been disappointed at some of the antics over the years.
“The Green Brigade have been symbolic in my time as manager in terms of what they bring to the stadium. It’s just in the last six to eight months there has been a rogue element in there – or whatever you want to call it.
“They set a different agenda and they influenced other people into following that agenda. It’s very disappointing, obviously, because the majority of Celtic fans go to support the club and support the team as well.”
The 128 supporters who have been suspended from home and away games will have the opportunity to plead their individual cases to the club when they are invited for interview with Celtic’s head of security Ronnie Hawthorn this week.
Lennon believes that some of them may have been caught up unwittingly in Friday night’s events.
“There are plenty of them who are probably innocent parties in all of this, so if that’s the case, I’m sure we’ll be pretty fair with them,” he said. “They’ve been given precautionary suspensions at the minute, so people will be able to put across their case.”
Celtic intend to distribute free tickets to charities and community organisations for the vacated Section 111 seats at this Saturday’s home Premiership fixture against Hibs.
Lennon is keen to ensure that the vibrancy of the matchday experience at Celtic Park does not suffer as a result of the decision to disperse the Green Brigade’s presence at the stadium.
“There’s no doubt they dominated the atmosphere and the singing, and in a positive way most of the time,” he said.
“With them not being there, I’d like to think the atmosphere will resound around the whole stadium, but that’s also down to the performance of the players as well, to make sure they get the fans up and at it.”
Before flying out to Barcelona, Celtic assistant manager Johan Mjallby shared Lennon’s views. “It is very unfortunate what happened and I don’t think it left the club with any other option but to suspend some fans,” said the former Celtic defender. “You don’t want to have mayhem, you can’t have this disruption inside sports grounds so we have to get together to support the club in the best way.
“It is a distraction I don’t like to see because I like to work with the players.
“The club has reacted in the best way.”