AN OCCASION which should have been about the race for the championship turned into a night of shame for Scottish football at Tynecastle, as Celtic manager Neil Lennon was attacked by a supporter who ran out of the main stand. Lennon, whose team won the game 3-0 to close the gap on rivals Rangers to one point, was shaken by the incident, and appeared to remonstrate with the individual as police led him up the tunnel.
There was an outbreak of fighting in the stand housing Celtic supporters shortly after that incident, with stewards and police clashing with away fans. Hearts' Dsavid Obua had been sent off in the first half, and Celtic's Kris Commons would be dismissed late in the second half - but the atmosphere in the stands was far more rancorous than that on the pitch.
Matches between the two clubs have often been tense in recent seasons, and for Celtic at least, last night was expected to be no different, given that a defeat would have spelled the end of their hopes of catching Rangers. Hearts, on the other hand, were sure of finishing third in the SPL - and getting the place in European football that goes with it - thanks to Rangers' victory on Tuesday. In terms of their league position, then, the defeat meant nothing to the home team - yet still the atmosphere, merely aggressive to begin with, became more angry the longer the game went on.
hearts manager Jim Jefferies, who has been involved in this fixture since he played for the club in the 1970s, condemned the attack on Lennon and said Hearts would launch an investigation into how the man evaded security and was able to approach the Celtic dug-out. "That's just unbelievable that somebody could ge on to the pitch,2 he said. "The stewarding will have to be looked at and the club will do that. This has been a year with lots of incidents and controversy, but I've never known it to be like this."
Jefferies also blamed the assistant referee for the dismissal of Obua, the incident which the manager believed provoked a deterioration of the atmosphere.
"I felt there was a bit of hostility (within the ground before the incident], but I've got to say the linesman did the referee no favours,"? Jefferies said. The incident in question, an apparently mild tussle between Obuia and Celtic's Charlie Mulgrew, was initially allowed to pass by without disciplinary action by referee Craig Thomson, but he then consulted his assistant referee, whose advice led him to show a red card to the Hearts midfielder.
Referring to that advice given by the assistant referee, Jefferies contiued: "He said the sending-off was for a punch, that (Obua] threw a punch. It was no way that was a punch.
"I think that contributed. The linesman has got to look at himself. That incident got everybody's back up. The Hearts supporters were incensed.
"I never had a bad feeling (before the game, but] it was a different kind of atmosphere here tonight. Something was going to boil over. The sending-off maybe contributed to that."
The explanation given for the sending-off decision, that the assistant referee had perceived Obua's actions as throwing a punch, did not impress Jefferies. He suggested that the natch official should have another look at the incident and acknowledge that he had come to the wrong decision.
?"You give the right reasons ?- you don?t take a stab at it," the Hearts boss continued. "To get sent off for that is a terrible decision. It all kicked off. The linesman should have a serious look and see he got it terribly wrong."
Celtic's Kris Commons, who scored his team's third goal after Gary Hooper had scored the first two, was sent off for running off the pitch to celebrate his strike with the away fans. By that time, however, there was little time left, and that dismissal did not further worsen the atmosphere.
Hearts later issued a statement saying they would look into all the issues arising from the Lennon incident. They will not be the only ones. First Mainister Alex Salmond and SFA chief executive Stewart Regan were also quick to condemn the incident.
Lennon has previously had a parcel bomb addressed to him this season, as have several other people connected with Celtic.