Sunday 22 September 2019

In defence of Neil Lennon: Lightning Rod For Sectarian Nonsense And Unspeakable Anger Since 2000

Lennon secretly craves a quieter life. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Lennon secretly craves a quieter life. Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Jonathan Liew

Around 10pm on the night of August 12, a 54-year-old man called Sean Cowan clicked on to the Facebook page of a well-known Rangers fan page, and typed these words: "Somebody give me a weapon and I will shoot this little terrorist c*** in the head with impunity. I'm serious. I would. I can get one, not a problem. Police Scotland are probably all over it now though. I have previous for firearms."

What Cowan lacked in judgement, discretion and good taste, he certainly offered in foresight.

Last Tuesday afternoon, Cowan pleaded guilty to one offence under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, for which he will be sentenced next month.

That night, Hibs triumphed 1-0 against Hearts in the Edinburgh derby to move them up to fifth in the Scottish Premiership table.

And so ended just another day in the life of Neil Lennon - or to give him his full title, Neil Lennon: Lightning Rod For Sectarian Nonsense And Unspeakable Anger Since 2000.

Plenty of people have tried to analyse why exactly it is the Hibs manager seems to inspire such inveterate, flaming hatred wherever he walks.

Some say it's his extravagant touchline antics, some his Northern Irish Catholic roots, some the shifting sociology and demographics of post-war Scotland. Some just burble things incomprehensibly.

To me, it's something more prosaic: he's there. Lennon refuses to shrink in the face of combat, or dissolve in the background in order to avoid criticism.

In a sense, he is someone who recognises football for what it is: filthy, tribal, foul-mouthed and utterly glorious for those exact reasons.

It's about joy; it's about despair; it's about rubbing it your opponents' faces.

And yet the violence he attracts is the natural by-product of what happens when we confuse the blood and guts of sport with the blood and guts of actual blood and guts.

All of which occasionally invites the accusation that, on some level, Lennon (right) "doesn't help himself".

As in: not to condone people sending him bullets in the post, but he doesn't help himself, does he? Or: obviously there's no excuse for making a deadly explosive device and delivering it to his place of work in the hope that he'll open it and be blown to bits. But by gosh, he doesn't help himself, does he?

Apart from creating an egregious moral equivalence between Lennon's assailants and a guy whose only rap is a driving ban for speeding on the A9, it's an argument that obscures far more than it illuminates.

To stand your ground or walk away? It's a philosophical conundrum as much as anything else, and you can make persuasive arguments on both sides.

But imagine enduring what Lennon has endured over the years: the death threats, the beatings, the bullets, the abuse.

A well-documented struggle with depression. And not sporadically, but pretty much whenever he leaves his house, for almost two decades.

To have retained not only his basic humanity, but his good humour and essential thirst for the game, suggests that this is the sort of character of which football needs more, not fewer.

The other effect is to overshadow the skill of a manager who is really far better than many give him credit for: pragmatic, tactically shrewd and a good enough defensive organiser to mastermind a victory over Barcelona with just 16 per cent possession.

Yet even as his Hibs side triumphed on Tuesday night, the reviews for a sparkling team performance were already hitting the social media wires.

"A hope you die in your sleep," wrote one Twitter user.

"Would pay serious good money to see Neil Lennon getting a drill to the heed," wrote another.

You wonder whether, in his more reflective moments, Lennon secretly craves a quieter life.

Perhaps it's why he tried not being there for a while. He walked out on Celtic after four exhausting years and went to manage Bolton Wanderers, taking on a financial wreck and leaving shortly before they were relegated to League One.

But the quiet life never really suited Lennon. Anyone could see that.

This is a man who needs the fire in his lungs.

And so he ended up on the Firth of Forth, and if he moved there expecting a quiet life, you suspect he would have been pretty disappointed.

Promoted as champions in his first season. One of the most attractive, improved teams in the division.

A club with its pride restored. A manager with his reputation enhanced.

Sometimes, Neil Lennon really doesn't help himself, does he? (© Independent News Service)

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