Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

The Bhoy in Brazil: A profile of Lurgan's Neil Lennon

Neil Lennon

From supporting Celtic FC as a schoolboy to playing for and then leading the club to glory, Lurgan's Neil Lennon has a level-headed approach that has helped tackle critics and impress in his latest role as a BBC World Cup pundit, writes Steven Beacom.

Neil Lennon never played at a World Cup. That dream passed him by. Pity. It would have been wonderful to watch him and the other larger-than-life characters in the Northern Ireland team that he was part of enjoy the greatest show on earth.

And, believe me, they would have enjoyed it. Best footballers on the planet? "Bring them on. We'll sort them out."

Shrinking violets they were most certainly not. There was Lenny, as Neil is universally known in the game, Steve Lomas, Iain Dowie, Tommy Wright, Barry Hunter, Michael Hughes, Gerry Taggart, Steve Morrow and Keith Gillespie who could play hard on the pitch ... and off it.

I remember getting on the wrong side of some of the above after a Northern Ireland defeat against Germany in the Borussia Dortmund stadium.

It was over something and nothing. Stupid really and having been ushered into a hotel room, it got hot and heavy.

Footballers with an axe to grind can be impossible to argue with. We were going around in circles, getting nowhere which funny enough was pretty much how Northern Ireland had played against the Germans a few hours earlier.

Neil Lennon was the voice of reason. He had sat back, tuning in to the pointless and ever increasing passionate debate before speaking up and bringing everyone back to their senses with a reasoned assessment of the situation, which thankfully everyone bought into line.

It was an insight into Lennon, always his own man, never afraid to swim against the tide.

It also showed that when the Lurgan man talks, people listen. That was back in 1999.

Fifteen years on, millions more people are listening to and taking notice of Neil Lennon than there were in that Dortmund hotel room.

Lenny never played at a World Cup, but that hasn't stopped him starring in the current one, taking place in Brazil.

Turning 43 on Wednesday, the Co Armagh native has become the star turn of BBC's big budget punditry team.

French legend Thierry Henry may have won the World Cup, Dutch great Clarence Seedorf may have won everything else and former England heroes Alan Shearer (who once kicked the former Northern Ireland skipper in the head during a club game) and Rio Ferdinand have featured in numerous big tournaments, but none is matching Lennon in the Beeb's Rio studio.

He has excelled with his straight talking. How pleasing is it to hear an expert say a match is rubbish – when it actually is – rather than trying to sugar-coat it because they don't want you to turn over?

Lennon – an articulate, thoughtful and well-rounded character – has also been compelling when airing his tactical theories and talking about the strengths and weaknesses of the various teams.

His ginger hair and fair skin may not do him any favours in the South American sun and he has that Ulsterman abroad look about him. But he's smoking hot when dishing out his opinions, which in his position is all that matters.

RTE have booked him for the latter part of the tournament. If the BBC had any wit they would be trying everything to keep him on their team.

While revelling in his role as a pundit, Lennon is determined to return to management after surprisingly leaving Celtic at the end of last season, having guided the Hoops to a third successive Scottish Premiership title.

Owners and chairmen watching him on the box will have been mightily impressed. Expect the job offers to start rolling in.

The key factor for Lennon will be to make the right choice.

As a sports-loving kid he always had a ball at his feet, be it on football or GAA pitches – he was good enough in the latter field to be selected for the Armagh minor team.

As a teenager he played for Glenavon in the Irish League, joining Manchester City as a trainee in 1987.

It was at Crewe Alexandra though that he began making an impression in the football world as a tigerish midfielder who could get the ball, and give it to a team-mate with the minimum of fuss.

He made his international debut in 1994 as a Crewe player and would go on to play 40 times for Northern Ireland up until 2002.

In 1996 Lennon moved to Leicester City where he teamed up with compatriot and Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup skipper Martin O'Neill. It was to prove a fruitful relationship with Lennon a key figure in Leicester's success story under O'Neill, which included two League Cup triumphs.

Lennon followed O'Neill to Celtic in June 2000, bringing the Lurgan man countless medals, but endless worries and troubles too.

In his first game for Northern Ireland after his transfer to Celtic he was booed by a small section of home fans at Windsor Park, then came a death threat which led to him retiring from the international scene.

It was also while Lennon was playing for Celtic that he revealed he suffered from depression.

He ended up playing, captaining and then managing the club he supported as a boy, taking over the reins in 2010. But, while living the dream and savouring many great days as boss, such as famously beating Barcelona in the Champions League at Celtic Park, there were also nightmare periods when he was attacked in his car, knocked out on the street, had bullets sent to him in the post, was the victim of a letter bomb campaign, faced more death threats and was assaulted by a Hearts fan during a game.

Last month Lennon decided he had taken the Bhoys as far as he go.

No doubt he also thought he had taken about as much as he could in the goldfish bowl that is Glasgow when you are connected to the Old Firm in any way – be it Rangers or Celtic.

Lennon will be back working as a boss soon enough, possibly even in the Premier League, and while he is waiting he'll continue to entertain us with his expert views on television.

While not strutting his stuff alongside players such as Lionel Messi, Robin van Persie and Neymar in Brazil, Neil Lennon is still having a great World Cup.

A life so far ...

Born: Lurgan, Co Armagh, June 25, 1971

Education: St Michael's Grammar School, Lurgan

Career: his playing career started with Glenavon FC in the Milk Cup (1987), trainee at Manchester City FC (1987), Crewe Alexandra FC (from 1990), won first Northern Ireland cap (1994), joined Leicester City FC (1996), Celtic FC (2000), Nottingham Forest FC, (2007), Wycombe Wanderers FC (2008) before going into coaching

Coaching career: having been capped for Northern Ireland 40 times, Lennon became first team coach of Celtic FC in April 2008, appointed full-time manager in 2010, quit post in May 2014

He says: "There were doubts of 'Can I do the job' and the supporters were asking that as well. I had an eight-game period where we won all the league games but lost the semi-finals. I knew I certainly didn't have the experience but I believed I had the nous, I knew the Scottish game, I knew the players well and thankfully the board, Mr Desmond gave me the opportunity and really stuck with me."

They say: "Celtic's loss could be punditry's gain – the Northern Irishman speaks with particularly assured authority when it comes to tactics." – Guardian Sports

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