‘Hang Neil Lennon’. Seeing images of that spray-painted on a wall close to the ground of rivals Hearts was the final straw for the Hibernian manager who says the sentiment is reminiscent of the ideology of extremist Ku Klux Klan.
The 47-year-old did not mince his words yesterday when he addressed the thorny subject of racial, cultural and religious intolerance and called on Scottish society and Scottish football to tackle the problem.
Felled by a coin in the hostile environment of Wednesday night’s Edinburgh derby at Tynecastle, it is the latest in a long list of issues concerning the Northern Irishman, who has been subjected to death threats, had bullets posted to him and been assaulted during his time at Celtic and now at Hibs.
Unequivocal in his belief that he is abused because he is Catholic and Irish, he said he is fed up with the matter being brushed under the carpet and tackled the matter head on.
“You get to a certain point in your life, I’m 47 now. I don’t know if the incident [with the coin] was sectarian-motivated or not on Wednesday or just pure badness from a rival supporter. But the graffiti, to me, reeks of sectarianism. Hang him. I hear that song at some grounds which sometimes referred to me. It’s something the Ku Klux Klan did to black people in the 60s and it might tell you a bit about the mentality of people who sing those songs or write that graffiti on the wall.”
The offensive song referred to includes the line ‘Hang Neil Lennon, Hang Him High’ and while the white-hooded Klan terrorists targeted black people, they also assaulted and murdered Catholics, especially immigrants.
“Can stewards not stand in and tell people to stop, that they’ll be evicted, that we don’t want songs like that here? I think most right-minded people don’t want to hear that. Unfortunately for me I’m associated with that – but not by my own choice.”
Despite the toxic taunts and vandalism, Lennon, whose side play host to St Johnstone this afternoon, does not live in fear but he is disgusted and angered that such views are still held, let alone expressed, and appalled that football is used as a vehicle by some to drive forward the intolerance.
“In terms of my safety I have no qualms over that. You would think after 18 years it would stop but it hasn’t. I don’t always moan or complain about it but it is a time now to get the elephant out of the room and really call it what it is.
“I’m talking about my own individual circumstances. I find it very distasteful still. You see all these political adverts about being one Scotland, one democracy. It’s certainly not when it comes to me.
“I think the graffiti is more serious. The motivation behind that is what? It’s racism. We call it sectarianism here but for me it’s racism.
“It ceases to shock you. It has been on-going now for too long. There is the ‘Hang Neil Lennon’ written on a wall – what’s that all about? Is it meant to be funny? It infuriates me, it really infuriates me.
“I’m a football manager. I’m not a politician, I’m not a criminal, I don’t break the law. I don’t go around looking for trouble. I live my life quietly away from football. I love what I do and I’ve tried to make the game better here, with varying degrees of success. But I have been successful and some people don’t like that. I get that. But it shouldn’t make them violent or aggressive. What does it say about Scotland in 2018 about some attitudes towards Catholics and, in particular, Irish Catholics?”
While he said all decent football fans and humans should be calling out the culprits, humiliating them and banning them from stadia, he said that would only happen if everyone stopped trying to excuse abhorrent anti-social behaviour by painting him as the villain. The coin was thrown at him after he had celebrated a stoppage time ‘goal’ for Hearts being chalked off due to offside. Some high-profile managers, ex-players and former Scottish Police Federation chairman Les Gray have accused Lennon of provoking or antagonising rival fans but he said that was a ridiculous assertion.
“You can’t tell me that [I get attacked or abused] because I’m an aggressive person, I’m not. I am competitive, I’ll stand up for myself, I won’t bow down to people who think they are above me. That’s just my way. People don’t like it because they are not used to it.
“But the only person responsible for all of this is the guy who threw the coin. Not me. Not me. I could do a lot of things to people, and sometimes I want to, in fact I think at times I’m quite restrained. Not in some people’s eyes because they are blinkered, they are intolerant.
“Les Gray was on TV [on Thursday] night, totally embarrassing, absolutely embarrassing. Totally missing the point. He said I could have caused a riot, that’s way, way off. I was embarrassed for him. To me it was a worry that someone in that sort of position could come out and talk nonsense and, to be fair, the other people on the panel shut him down very quickly.”
But Lennon lamented the fact that it was an example “of what some people think or are led to believe or want to believe”.
“The graffiti was there before the game... Do I bring that on myself as the Hibs manager, is there any reason why people would write that? For me, it’s racism, you call it sectarianism here but I call it racism. If a black person is abused, you’re abusing the colour of their skin, their culture and heritage and I get that more or less every week. I get called Fenian, pauper, beggar – those types of words. You have to sit on your hands sometimes and take it but what it tells me about the people who are saying it is they have this outdated sense of entitlement or superiority complex and because I have the gall to stand up for myself, then I bring it all on myself.”