Lennon begins his battle to avoid a touchline ban of at least seven games

NEIL Lennon will try to avoid receiving a touchline ban of at least seven games at Hampden today when he contests the first two of a lengthening list of SFA disciplinary charges against him.

The Celtic manager will face a three-man Judicial Panel who will consider his alleged rule breaches relating to the League Cup final against Kilmarnock and the Old Firm fixture at Ibrox last month.

Following the 1-0 defeat to Kilmarnock at Hampden on 18 March, Lennon branded referee Willie Collum’s failure to award Celtic a penalty kick in the closing stages as “criminal”. SFA Compliance Officer Vincent Lunny cited Lennon for a breach of Rule 68, which covers post-match criticism of match officials and offered a fixed two-match penalty.

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This was immediately rejected by Lennon, who said: “I will defend my case vigorously. I don’t even think I need to be up there but Vincent and the SFA see it a different way. So I’ll be quite happy to go and defend my case. There are one or two quotes that they felt might be against the rules, whatever rule it is. I don’t know. So I asked him if he had looked at the whole interview. He said he had. There are mitigating circumstances within the context of the interview. But people only want to talk about my criticism of the decision, rather than look at the whole context of the interview.”

If the charge against Lennon is upheld, he will face a minimum three-match suspension. He could then face an additional four-match ban if found guilty of breaching Rule 203 when he was ‘sent off’ by referee Calum Murray at half-time of Celtic’s 3-2 defeat at Ibrox on 25 March.

But Celtic, whose lawyers will be in attendance at Hampden with Lennon today, are understood to be confident they can overturn the charge. They believe the subsequent accounts of the events at half-time from referee Murray and his fourth official Iain Brines conflict with each other.

Lennon is accused of “the adoption of aggressive behaviour towards a match official and the repeated use of offensive, abusing and insulting language,” the same charge which landed Falkirk manager Steven Pressley a four-match ban following the League Cup semi-final against Celtic in February.

But Lennon will maintain the stance he took in the immediate aftermath of the Old Firm game when he was highly critical of the decision to banish him from the technical area for the second half.

“My sending-off is a joke,” he said. “I spoke quite quietly and coolly to the referee in the tunnel. I didn’t swear, I didn’t point any fingers. I was speaking to the delegate after the game and their version of events in the tunnel is different to mine, but I’ve got witnesses to back mine up.

“What happened? I told him [Murray] I wasn’t happy with his first-half performance. Their version will come out in reports, I’m sure. I’m getting it second hand, so I’m not going to make it public at the minute. Needless to say, I’m not happy about it.”

A third complaint against Lennon, for potential breach of Rule 69 which prohibits managers discussing referees in advance of fixtures, will not be heard today. In an interview, Lennon had expressed his wish to “maybe have a decent refereeing performance” in the match against St Johnstone at Celtic Park on 1 April. It is understood Lunny will review a response from Lennon before deciding whether to pursue that charge.

Lunny will also wait until today’s hearing is concluded before turning his attention to two further possible breaches of disciplinary rules by Lennon. The Celtic manager ran on to the pitch at Hampden at the end of last Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final defeat against Hearts to confront referee Euan Norris. Later that evening, he then used his Twitter account to suggest Norris’ award of the match-winning penalty against Celtic was “personal”.

If Lennon receives a touchline ban today, he could be absent from the dug-out on the final day of the SPL season when Celtic will be presented with the trophy following their home match against Hearts. Under SFA rules, managers serving touchline bans are not allowed in the dressing-rooms, tunnel area or technical area for the period from one hour before kick-off until 15 minutes after the final whistle.

Lennon already has a suspended fine of £5000 from last season to his name as he faces today’s hearing. It was imposed for his criticism of referee Craig Thomson following a match against Hearts at Tynecastle in November 2010 and suspended until June this year on the basis he did not commit any repeat offences.

Last season, Lennon picked up an initial six-match ban for “excessive misconduct” during that same fixture against Hearts, later reduced to four games on appeal. He received a further four-match ban for his part in the fracas with then Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist at the conclusion of the controversial Old Firm Scottish Cup tie at Celtic Park in March 2011.

But Lennon was only absent from the technical area for five games after Celtic won their argument with the SFA that the two suspensions should run concurrently rather than consecutively.