Sport Soccer

Sunday 24 September 2017

Rising above great divide

In his career as player and manager, Celtic boss Neil Lennon has had to overcome adversity at every turn

G erry Lennon saw the bonfire as he passed through a small enclave near Banbridge. He was driving home to the market town of Lurgan but the effigy on top of the pallets had attracted his attention. Kitted out in a full Celtic strip, was his son, Neil. Ready for burning. "Imagine how it feels to see your boy up there. It was terrible, terrible."

Gerry is a cheerful-looking man in his 60s. Small and square, with a gap-toothed smile, he has the build of a former boxer, without an ounce of the bellicosity. Throughout his life, he avoided being caught up in sectarian tensions. A Catholic farm boy from the banks of Lough Neagh, he worked in Lurgan's linen factories as a young man, and raised four children to live quietly, respect difference and keep out of trouble.

On this day, the effigy had a particularly malignant symbolism, though it is by no means the most frightening thing to befall Gerry and Ursula Lennon since their son Neil signed for Celtic in December 2000.

His international football career for Northern Ireland ended in 2002 when an anonymous caller warned he would be killed if he played in a friendly against Cyprus. A year earlier, in a friendly against Norway, a section of the Northern Ireland support booed and jeered every time Lennon took the ball. He was replaced at half-time, and smuggled through the back streets of East Belfast in an unmarked police car.

The same chorus of abuse rained on the midfielder at every away game he played for Celtic -- though on these occasions the vitriol came from opposing fans.

Yet Lennon's treatment by certain elements of the crowd has confirmed the existence of what the composer James MacMillan called "Scotland's Shame". Sectarianism, the existence of which was for so long denied, became a topic of public debate during The Lennon Years at Celtic.

He was taunted in scrawled, misspelt graffiti: 'Lennon RIP.' 'You are a dead man'. 'Fenian bastard'. Strangers in the pub, or in the street, repeated the insults. Mock hangings were staged on the internet. He was chased, head-butted, spat upon, had bottles thrown at him, his car kicked, his girlfriends called obscene names. One young woman was physically attacked. An attempt was made to run him off the motorway while he drove his young daughter and her friend to Glasgow Airport. He was confronted as he pushed his baby son in a pram.

The abuse began the moment he arrived at Celtic Park from Leicester City, a barely recognisable, mischievous boy with a spiky peroxide haircut that Martin O'Neill complained attracted too much attention. It continued until he said goodbye in the summer of 2007, after seven years in the midfield, the last two as captain.

By then, a hardness had set into his features and defiance, not mischief, was written across his face. His skin was coarsened by the Scottish weather, his head shaved into a ginger scrub. The bright blue eyes were still lively, but hooded. By then he had spoken publicly of the insidious depression that crushes his spirit for months at a time. The illness began before he arrived in Glasgow but his treatment in Scotland cannot have helped.

As a child, he played for Lurgan Celtic Boys' Club and, like everyone else in his family and community, supported the Glasgow team. When, as a schoolboy, he was told a Celtic scout had expressed an interest in him (it came to nothing), he spent the day turning cartwheels, daring to dream. It took almost another two decades for that dream to become reality, and only after he took a pay cut to leave the Premier League.

The sectarian abuse directed at Lennon is an embodiment of collective pain. A survey in 2001 found half of all Scottish Catholics questioned believed they were discriminated against in employment. They were also more likely to be poor and live in bad housing. In 2003, another survey, this one conducted by Glasgow City Council, found that two-thirds disagreed with the statement 'Sectarianism is a thing of the past'. And in yet another poll, for BBC Radio Five Live, 13 per cent of people in Scotland said they had experienced sectarian abuse. Catholics were four times more likely to have been attacked than Protestants.

* * * * *

Threads of culture, history and religion tie Neil Francis Lennon to the club. He was born in 1971, the year internment was introduced to Northern Ireland. He grew up on streets patrolled by British soldiers.

Does this background make him 'Celtic to the core'? Might the phrase itself be problematic? Is every player who performs sterling service 'Celtic to the core', or just those who grew up in the shadow of the gun? When Lennon says he believes Celtic allowed Rangers to intimidate them for too long, he is talking purely about football. Nothing more, and nothing less. And he showed this as a player, as a captain and, now, as manager.

"We turned the tables on Rangers and I think that gave Celtic fans a lot of satisfaction. When Martin came, he brought pride back to the club that hadn't been there for a long, long time." Some fans see this as a metaphor for the intimidation of their community. It can be hard to unravel the football from the history.

There's a "bit of a void" when you stop playing, he says, and he likes to be busy. "Your gut tells you when your time is up at a club," he says. He didn't want to be a sad old guy hanging around the dressing room, so he took himself off to Nottingham Forest for a season. Then, following a brief stint at Wycombe Wanderers, he returned to Celtic as part of the coaching staff. "I am overwhelmed at being offered this chance to return to Celtic," he said of his appointment in April 2008. Then came the chance to mould a team in his image as manager, and for sure it's been a learning curve, but a hugely impressive performance by his side in the New Year Old Firm derby left no one in any doubt as to his capabilities.

"A place where, everyone knows, my heart lies. I grew up on tales of the Lisbon Lions, they were mythical people to me. Then at Celtic I got to meet them. I was living the dream. But it was also a very intense period because of the personality I'd become. I became a sort of symbol because of my background. I'm a Nationalist and a Catholic, but I've never rubbed it in people's faces. Then suddenly I'm tarred with this tag, a kind of IRA-pumpin' footballer. But I wouldn't have played for Northern Ireland if that was the case."

A visit to Lurgan confirms the Lennon neutrality. The Lennon home is a shrine to family and nothing else. Graduation photographs have pride of place, along with portraits of the grandchildren. Neil's caps are in the display cabinet with the china, but there is no political or religious paraphernalia. These are quietly aspirational Christians, as proud of their teacher daughters as they are of their superstar footballing son.

The breezeblock community centre where Neil first kicked a ball sits a few yards down the road. Daubed with sectarian slogans, at first it seems to confirm the stereotype. But the teenage Lennon's choices, in life and football, were ecumenical. If he is a symbol of anything, it ought to be reconciliation through sport. After Lurgan Celtic, he and his friend Gerry Taggart played for Hillsborough Boys in the Lisburn League.

"The team was predominantly Protestant," Lennon remembers. "We were a wee bit nervy. But they welcomed us with open arms -- we crossed the divide very early." He has lived all his adult life outside Northern Ireland. Until he came to Celtic, he had almost forgotten that sectarianism existed. His identity was formed more by football than religion.

At 12, he received a letter from Jock Wallace, then manager of Rangers, inviting him to Ibrox and confirming the club's interest in his future. He visited the stadium with some other talented children, and was impressed by its marble halls. Though a trial never transpired, he would have considered seriously any offer from Wallace. Why did a boy who turned cartwheels at the thought of signing for his beloved Celtic even consider Rangers? The sound and fury that has grown up around Lennon has obscured the most defining aspect of his personality -- his determination to succeed as a professional sportsman. Playing was what mattered. He is driven by a fierce and self-punishing desire to win.

Ursula remembers him coming home from grammar school and immediately opening his homework on the living-room floor. He was a good student, but his real motivation in finishing his work quickly was stealing time to kick a ball. "I was in the schoolyard at 8.0am to play football with my friends before the bell. After school, in the evening, I played until there was no light left to play by," he wrote in 2006. He turned out for two different boys clubs on a Saturday morning and afternoon, then played Gaelic football on Sunday. "It was a passion, but I didn't know then to call it a passion. I just loved it and I happened to be good at it. I practised and practised until I got a contract."

But throughout his teens and early 20s, Lennon endured disappointment, rejection and the worst kind of physical trauma. Sometimes he would phone his father in the early hours of the morning just to speak to somebody who believed in him.

* * * * *

Lennon was just 16 went he left Northern Ireland for his first club, Motherwell. He earned £28.50 a week, paid by the government under the Youth Training Scheme. He stayed in digs run by a succession of old ladies, rising early to clean the boots of the first team and tidy the dressing room.

His Irishness singled him out for ridicule and bullying. The boys trained with the men at Motherwell, running up hills in Strathclyde Park, before returning to the dressing rooms for more chores. The regime was unsuited to a teenager's developing skeleton and he would pay a terrible price in the future. Next came Manchester City, where he cleaned toilets as well as boots -- but also received more appropriate coaching. He was soon playing for the reserves, debuted with the first team at 16 and won a year's professional contract.

Just as suddenly, though, it was all over. Lennon was one of only two boys dropped at the end of the 12 months. It is difficult to explain the humiliation a 17-year-old must feel in those circumstances. "The walls fall in," he says. "You have to come out of the manager's office and face your peers, boys you've been playing with. It's really hard."

His father told him he would rise again. "I have every sort of faith in you," said Gerry. He instinctively understood what his son had suffered. Lennon senior was forced to retire at 38, because of a disabling disease. "My father is a proud guy, as was his father," says Lennon. "It's a family trait. In sport, if you lose your pride, you might as well give up. When I went through periods of doubt, my dad would build me up."

Crewe Alexandra, an English Third Division team, rescued him. "All I could think was: 'This is such a comedown'." Though he excelled at Crewe, a team with a reputation for nurturing young talent, he was about to face an even greater test of his character: doctors discovered that he had been playing football with a broken back. A bone in his spine had fractured and, without radical treatment, his career would be finished. The injury is not uncommon in apprentice footballers who work too hard, too young. Lennon was 19.

An orthopaedic surgeon in Northern Ireland who had treated wounded soldiers during the Troubles operated on him. Ian Adair grafted a piece of bone from Lennon's hip to the damaged vertebra, securing it with wires. There was a risk he might not walk properly again.

"The skin of my lower back was being held together by 16 metal staples and there was still a trickle of blood oozing from the scar which was about a foot long and followed the line of my lower spine. There was bruising everywhere and another scar on my hip where the piece of bone was extracted. I wondered how I was ever going to play football again."

Remarkably, he did -- after more than a year of rehabilitation -- thanks to the patience and support of Crewe's manager, Dario Gradi. He spent hours each day in the gym, going through his repetitions. Incrementally, his strength returned.

"It was frustrating and hard. I was at the bottom end of the football spectrum on £120 a week and I was out for a year. I just had to tell myself I'd get through this." It is the only time during our conversation that he loses his composure. Lennon fills up now remembering his return to Crewe's modest pitch. It's a side of football fans often forget. "People see you playing for Celtic and see all the money you've earned, but they don't see what you've been through to get there."

Did the self-discipline that helped him recover also contribute to his depression? The disease can afflict perfectionists and high achievers who are particularly hard on themselves. It is also associated with personal trauma and stress. Psychiatrists who counsel depressed patients often ask them if they would be as hard on a friend in the same position. Depressives inflict cruelty on themselves they would never dream of dishing out to others.

Surviving mental illness, major surgery and professional humiliation has gifted him a certain resilience. Football at the highest level can be capricious. The flimsiest of partitions separate triumph from dejection. Celtic came close to taking the UEFA Cup in Seville, only to see it snatched away. They lost the league title at Motherwell in 2005: "The lowest point in my Celtic career," says Lennon. But it's the triumphs that ring in his head: whitewashing Rangers in the 2003/'04 season and collecting the double as captain.

He was also central to the best team to play in the hoops since 1967. "The team Martin put together was of a kind that only comes along every 20 or 30 years. Every one of them was a big personality, with great mental strength. Every one was a winner who refused to be beaten in any circumstances."

When Tony Mowbray's troubled tenure of the club came to an end in March 2010, Lennon was a natural choice to take over as interim manager, appointing his former team-mate Johan Mjallby as his assistant. Two weeks later the club hit a new nadir, losing the Scottish Cup semi-final 2-0 to First Division side Ross County. Nobody felt the pain more acutely than Lennon, who described himself as "beyond anger", but he responded to the setback in typical style, winning the last eight league games of the season, including a 2-1 Old Firm victory.

Last Sunday's victory keeps them top in the league, and today in Berwick he sends his side out in the Cup. To follow captaining a double winning team with managing one would grant him legendary status.

The experience of Celtic has been more intense than Lennon imagined. "People forget you are a human being," he says. But that's the courage of Neil Lennon -- Celtic to the core, football to the core.

Berwick Rangers v Celtic,

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