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Political Football: Neil Lennon

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 05 October 2007

Simon Kuper selects Celtic's Neil Lennon, who received death threats when chosen to lead Northern Ireland's national side, to join his Political Football First XI.

It happened in August 2002. Just before Neil Lennon could captain Northern Ireland for the first time, somebody phoned the BBC and threatened to kill him. The midfielder, who had had death threats before, withdrew from the match. He never played for his country again.

It was one of the last episodes in the Troubles, the Protestant-Catholic conflict that tore apart Northern Ireland for over 30 years. Lennon was punished for being a Catholic who played for a Catholic-identified club, Celtic of Glasgow, and had reportedly said he would like to play for a united Irish team, while almost all Northern Ireland's supporters were Protestants.

"It was pretty crushing," recalls Michael Boyd, head of community relations at the Irish Football Association, and one of the few in Northern Ireland who dared confront sectarianism. "That was probably the lowest point of our Football for All campaign. But it acted as a catalyst for change."

Neil Lennon had played for Northern Ireland for seven years without incident - until he signed for Celtic.

Five years on, the Neil Lennon affair appears to belong to a different age. Not only does the sectarian Protestant Ian Paisley now rule Northern Ireland together with the sectarian Catholic Martin McGuinness. In football, too, Northern Ireland's fans have cleaned up their act to the degree that last year they won the Brussels International Supporters Award as Europe's best fans.

At last an ugly story has a happy end, and it's partly thanks to Lennon. As a reward he becomes the fifth member of Channel 4 News's Political Football XI.

The Lennon affair began in March 2001. He had played for Northern Ireland for seven years without incident - Catholics have always featured in the team, if not on the stands - until he signed for Celtic. The place where Glaswegian football arouses most emotions is possibly Northern Ireland. The local Catholics tend to support Celtic, and the Protestants Rangers.

Neil Lennon (credit: Reuters)

  Neil Lennon

15 years ago, I took the ferry from Northern Ireland to Scotland with some local Celtic fans to watch the Old Firm game between the two clubs. Though the people I travelled with treated me well, I have never seen such hate around a sports match anywhere. It was fans like these who sent death threats to the Catholic Maurice Johnston when he joined Rangers in 1989. As a joke at the time went: "What's the difference between Salman Rushdie and Maurice Johnston?" Answer: "Maurice Johnston's really in trouble."

When Lennon joined Celtic, some Northern Irish Protestants were unforgiving. To them, wearing the green-and-white hoops was a greater crime than being Catholic. During Northern Ireland vs. Norway in Belfast's Windsor Park in March 2001, Lennon was abused by a section of his own crowd. They sang traditional anti-Catholic songs, and chanted, "We've Got a Provo on Our Team".

At half-time Boyd entered the stands to see who was singing: about 50 to 100 people in the Kop, and a sprinkling of others, he says. "The thing that really annoyed me," he adds, "was that they probably saw themselves as loyal Northern Ireland supporters."

Email us your Political Football suggestions

Over the coming months Simon Kuper will be nominating his Political Football First XI - 11 footballers whose lives have acquired a dimension outside the sport they play.

But we want to know who you would include. It doesn't have to be an entire team (although that would be fascinating) - just a player for whom life has meant more than a mansion in Belgravia and a fleet of 4x4s.

Email your suggestions to Channel 4 News by clicking here.

Most Northern Irish fans shared Boyd's anger. The region was then already moving towards political peace, and the supporters were determined to eradicate sectarianism from football.

Stewart McAfee, one of the fans' leaders, puts it this way: "If you want to show your politics, the ballot-box isn't a bad place to do it. If you want to show your religion, the church is a good place to go. But if you just want to see 11 fellows from this part of the world giving 110 per cent on the football field, Windsor Park is the place to be."

So the match after the booing, Northern Ireland's fans cheered Lennon every time he touched the ball, and many stayed behind afterwards to chant, "There's only one Neil Lennon." Whenever anyone began singing sectarian rubbish, other fans would drown it out with their new theme tune: "We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland." It worked until next year's death threat.

But Lennon continued to watch Northern Ireland on TV, and early this year he told Boyd he'd noticed the fans were now inspirational. I was in Belfast in August to see Northern Ireland vs. Liechtenstein, hardly a classic, but the fans awed me too. They sang almost all match, applauded even crosses that went behind the goal - the nice thing about supporting Northern Ireland is that you have low standards - and afterwards clapped off the surprised Liechtensteiners.

There is so little sectarianism at games now that Graham Walker, professor of politics at Queen's University, Belfast, and coeditor of the new book It's Rangers for Me (Fort Publishing, £11.99), says Rangers could learn from Northern Ireland.

'It's a shame (the death threat) ended Neil's international career. He was a great player.'
Michael Boyd, Irish Football Association

Lennon, who left Celtic this summer, after sealing the league-and-cup double in his last match, and who now captains Nottingham Forest, has left a legacy. He may be the last British professional to suffer such persecution. There certainly shouldn't be any more in Glasgow: since Johnston broke the dam, Rangers have signed countless Catholics, mostly from continental Europe.

Remembering the episode, Boyd says: "It's a shame it ended Neil's international career. He was a great player."

In compensation, Lennon enters our political XI in midfield alongside our previous picks Diego Maradona and Walter Tull, and in front of the defenders Paul Breitner and Franz Beckenbauer. Next month, we pick our first forward.

Simon Kuper writes for the Financial Times.

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